07 June 2017

100 Fat Activists #32: Political Shifts in the 1990s

A classic spread from the second Pretty Big catalogue
198?/199? That's Audrey with the trombone
I've written here that 1989 was a big year for fat activism in the UK, with The London Fat Women's Group gaining a lot of visibility and their successful conference. I've heard it said that the values of one decade don't really kick in until much later. Although the 1980s is often associated, in the West at least, with the spread of neoliberalism through Thatcher and Reagan, fat feminism of that period was pretty radical and reflected lesbian feminist ethics, community and culture. It wasn't until the 1990s that that spirit of early fat feminism was pushed aside in fat activism and the movement took a turn towards conservatism.

This turn was, intentional or not, an attempt to appeal to an idea of what mainstream women wanted and needed. Feminism was seen as alienating, so some of the more prominent proponents and interventions at the time distanced themselves from it even as they benefitted directly from the earlier work of fat lesbians.

This went as far as erasure. For example Sue Dyson quoted the fat dykes statement directly in her book. This was a series of statements developed at the Fat Women's Conference, and which may have had roots in earlier fat feminist community activism (I saw a version of it in Judy Freespirit's archives). Yes Dyson never mentions this, the words 'fat dyke' have been removed.

There was also a shift in language at this time. Fat was seen as too abrasive, so euphemisms like 'size,' 'large,' 'big' and so on became commonplace. In my view this pandered to people's fears about fat and marginalised those of us who use the word freely to describe ourselves.

Shelly Bovey's work rightly attacked what sometimes came across as banality in cheerleading fat activism but my feeling is that she ended up universalising her own pain in being fat and foreclosed a possibility of finding power and strength in fatness. She produced a series of books that gradually eroded a message of fat feminist liberation: first shifting her language to a more euphemistic set of terms and then publishing a weight loss book with the feminist publisher who had published my own Fat & Proud. I have found the latter enlightening regarding the labour involved in maintaining weight loss, but I still regard it as a sad conclusion to a trilogy that was so promising when it began. Her books seem to exemplify the petering out of the earlier ideas and energy which, perhaps, could not be sustained by everybody.

Another shift occurred through the rise of consumerism and the emergence of charismatic leadership, which was less collective in its approach to community-building. Pretty Big magazine is a good example of this shift. It was produced independently by Audrey Winkler, a really dynamic community-minded ex-magistrate and entrepreneur from the Yorkshire Dales. She'd been involved with the knitwear industry for a while and was interested in selling large-sized clothes. Captivating and persuasive, with pink hair, she found that her shop was developing a community and so she started publishing the magazine. Oh yes, and it was through this magazine that I found myself in a hotel in Troon one day, having made it to the final of the Pretty Big modelling competition! Ack, what happened to those pictures?!

Pretty Big Aims & Intentions

Pretty Big
...acts as a club for all women who are size 16+
...promotes a positive self-image for all bigger women
...believes being big is not a sin and should not be a handicap
...speaks out on behalf of bigger women everywhere
...concentrates on healthy living
...shows "dieting" the door
...includes profiles of successful big women
...seeks out information on large sizes fashion and who is making them
...conducts shopping surveys and tells you who stocks larger sizes
...presents the PRETTY BIG SHOPS AWARD to shops nominated by readers for outstanding service to bigger women
...acts as a forum where you can air your views, share your thoughts, or ask for help and advice
...responds sympathetically to your problems

Pretty Big was pretty great and reflected the energy and tenacity of its owner, but it was a world away from the earlier fat feminisms and activisms that had laid the groundwork for such an endeavour. What continues to sit uneasily with me is the reinvention that took place in fat activism, one which rather arrogantly assumed that little of value had come before, that the movement's founders could never have been fat feminist lesbians, and that each new intervention was an improvement on the last. There was a troubling amnesia in place which obscured the radical work that had happened previously. This remains a problem today.

Bovey, S. (1989) Being Fat is Not a Sin, London: Pandora

Bovey, S. (1994) The Forbidden Body: why being fat is not a sin, London: Pandora.

Bovey, S. (2001) What Have You Got to Lose? The Great Weight Debate and How to Diet Successfully, London: The Women's Press.

Dyson, S. (1991) A weight off your mind: how to stop worrying about your body size, London: Sheldon Press.

100 Fat Activists #31: Let It All Hang Out

In recent weeks Virgie Tovar reminded me of Let It All Hang Out, a fat dyke gathering which took place in San Francisco in 1989, 1990 and 1991.

I'm wondering if these parties sprang from the Robust and Rowdy potluck dances that took place in Oakland around 1987 or so, perhaps commenters can clarify. Anyway, Robust and Rowdy, Let It All Hang Out, what excellent sentiments! I understand that LIAHO was part of the annual Pride parade at that time but it also reminds me of the spirit of the Fat-In.

I'm including here a fantastic flyer that I found in Judy Freespirit's archive, and an exuberant photo from Sinister Wisdom #49. LIAHO certainly looked like the place to be!

100 Fat Activists #30: Fat Poets

Two collections of poetry stand out for me as classic fat feminist texts of the 1980s. These are The Fat Black Woman's Poems by Grace Nichols and The Fat Woman Measures Up by CM Donald. The former appeared in 1884 and had a good number of reprints, the latter in 1986. I wonder if both books went on to influence a collective of US fat poets who produced an anthology in 2009, referenced below.

My preference of the two volumes has tended to be towards CM Donald's work. The pieces are angry, vulnerable, piss-taking, spiky, and I like that a lot. I identify with the speaker where they are written in the first person. I understand that this is likely because she is a white dyke like me.

When I first read The Fat Black Woman's Poems I was put off by an earlier cover to that pictured here, and what to me then looked like a cutesy rendering of fat black embodiment. One stanza, often quoted when people referenced the collection, reinforced this view of black women's fatness:

Fat is a darling
A dumpling
A squeeze
Fat is cuddles
Up a baby's sleeve

Contrast this with CM Donald's work:
    To those women
Who find me cuddly
Who like fat women
And want to hug them all;

I am not your mother
Your baby or your shelter
And I am not your blasted teddy bear

The fat black woman of Grace Nichols' poems is powerful, irreverent and sassy and I couldn't see through the strong black woman stereotype to enjoy the poetry at that time. I felt that the figure of a fat black woman who is larger than life let everyone off the hook about fatphobia, racism and sexism. I wondered if this was about the poets' respective standpoints in relation to fat, were they fat? Did this affect what they wrote? I still don't know.

But revisiting them both now, my feelings have changed. I still adore CM Donald's work and often wonder what happened to her. I have grown to appreciate The Fat Black Woman's Poems for the richness of their imagery, their sexuality, their rendering of fat black women who are so often made invisible in fat activism. Perhaps back in the day they were reduced to a stereotype because many white readers like me could not understand the world that the poet was describing. When I return to them now, I see that they are subtle pieces and that politics, death, survival, rebirth, nature and resistance are also very present. They are the work of a wonderful poet.

Barron, K., Kaplan, A. S., Makris, C., Owen, L. J. and Zellman, F. (2009) Fat Poets Speak: Voices of The Fat Poets Society, Nashville TN: Pearlsong Press.

Donald, C. M. (1986) The fat woman measures up, Charlottetown, P.E.I: Ragweed.

Nichols, G. (1984) The Fat Black Woman's Poems, London: Virago.

100 Fat Activists #29: Susan Stinson's Scrapbooks

During the research period for my book I was lucky to spend time with the author Susan Stinson, who showed me some of her scrapbooks. As I write and reflect now, I keep coming back to the essential activist acts of keeping, remembering, generating and sharing personal archives. I demonstrate in my research that fat activism is often an activism of conversation, talking and sharing stories about activist ephemera is a very powerful act.

Here are two images from her scrapbooks, one referencing a Fat Dykes Extravaganza, which sounds really fab, where Susan read; the other a song by Helen Weber called 'Put That Diet Cola Down'.

susanstinson.net

06 June 2017

100 Fat Activists #28: Stein and Lawrence

There are posts elsewhere on this blog that feature Judith Stein and Meridith Lawrence, key figures in the development of fat feminist activism. I just want to reiterate and include them here because they deserve a lot more attention from those interested in fat activist cultures and histories.

Fat lesbian feminists share archive recordings

100 Fat Activists #19: Stein and Freespirit

100 Fat Activists #20: The Fatluck

100 Fat Activists #27: We Dance

We Dance poster from Deb Burgard's personal archive
Long-standing readers of this blog will know that I love to dance and that in recent years I have been finding my feet as a dancer. My work could not have been possible without the fat dancers who came before me. I am especially indebted to Deb Burgard, who started We Dance in the Bay Area in 1983.

Deb Burgard, nothing short of a powerhouse in fat activism, a founding presence in Health At Every Size, had been studying West African dance in Cambridge Massachusetts. In the early 1980s there were the beginnings of fat-friendly fitness proponents and classes, including Rozella Canty Letsome, who was also teaching around then, and the fat swim. The time was ripe for some moving and shaking.

Deb started We Dance, a fat feminist community dance class that ran for six years. She'd been inspired by the African-American women she'd been dancing with, where being fat was not a hindrance to dancing well or expressively. We Dance was not a weight loss space. Deb told me that the class became a meeting of different communities: lesbian, fat, local and middle class Oakland women.

Burgard went on to co-author Great Shape: The First Fitness Guide for Large Women with Pat Lyons. This was the book of the class, with We Dance regulars appearing in the photos and illustrations. Warm, welcoming, full of thoughtful advice and encouragement, intersectional and accessible, the book remains the gold standard for fat fitness resources. My favourite image continues to be "Carol Squires dazzles her We Dance friends" on page 34, an extraordinary picture of a fat woman gleefully doing the splits. How I longed to know these people and dance along with them! (Ok, full disclosure, eventually I did).


Lyons, P. and Burgard, D. (1990) Great Shape: The First Fitness Guide for Large Women, Authors Guild Backinprint.com ed., Palo Alto, CA: Bull Publishing Company.

05 June 2017

100 Fat Activists #26: Elana Dykewomon

Elana Dykewomon's fat feminism is some of my favourite fat activism of the early movement. It is rooted in her life as a poet, writer and editor. She is a cultural worker, meaning that her creative life is a political act, a reflection of her community, perhaps a gift of service. Her writing explores intersections of class, race, disability and lesbian sensibility. Like other powerful early fat feminists she is Jewish, and that is a significant part of the frame.

There are a couple of pieces that I think are particularly important for those who are interested in fat feminist activism, queer fat feminism and the fat activism that emerged from radical lesbian feminism.

I came across Dykewomon's essay 'Traveling Fat' in Christian McEwen and Sue O'Sullivan's anthology Out The Other Side, published in 1988. It had already been published in Shadow on a Tightrope but it would be a few years until I got to read that book. I didn't expect to read about fat in a lesbian anthology, the fact that it was there was really exciting. Until then, the only accounts I'd read that tried to make sense of fat women's bodies were pathologising psychoanalytically-informed texts, not at all helpful. Traveling Fat charts Dykewomon's encounters with feminism and fat and they are frequently painful. Although the world she was writing about was nothing like my own at the time (the idea of a national lesbian infrastructure seemed utopian beyond belief to me) her struggles with legitimacy and visibility in feminist community were all too relatable. The t-shirts still don't fit me and bodies like mine or bigger. The essay remains a rich snapshot of an era.

Dykewomon published 'the real fat womon poems' in Sinister Wisdom #33 in 1987, around the time that she became editor of the journal. During her seven years of service she ensured that fat became part of the fabric of lesbian feminist politics and culture. It is really gratifying to see fat there in the journal, in bios, in small ads as well as in poems and articles. 'the real fat womon poems' cover eleven epic sections and takes in intersectionality, imperialism, consumerism as well as quiet moments of realisation, irreverence and longing. It's a monumental piece of work that offers something new on each reading.

Fat is present throughout Dykewomon's writing, often as a fact of life, a part of community. It's a very un-flashy approach to fat cultural activism but this tactic makes fat available, it can be talked about, explored. Dykewomon's writing gives me confidence to think about fat as I live and see it around me.

References

Interview: Elana Dykewomon

Dykewomon, E. (1983) 'Travelling Fat' in Schoenfielder, L. and Wieser, B., eds., Shadow on a Tightrope: Writings by Women on Fat Oppression, Iowa City: Aunt Lute, 144-154.
Dykewomon, E. (1988) 'Traveling Fat' in McEwen, C. and O'Sullivan, S., eds., Out the Other Side: Contemporary Lesbian Writing, London: Virago, 21-29.
Dykewomon, E. (1987) 'the real fat womon poems', Sinister Wisdom, 33, 85-93.

You can download archived copies of Sinister Wisdom at: http://sinisterwisdom.org/archive