24 June 2016

Fat 101 for Nurses and Health Professionals

I went to see the nurse to get my blood pressure checked and to book a cholesterol test and I ended up with one of the worst clinical encounters I've had for a very long time. A doctorate in queer fat activism, a publishing track record and nearly thirty years of experience in collectively critiquing fat hatred is a pretty good foundation for getting your blood pressure checked whilst fat, one of the most basic medical interventions around, but it does not protect you entirely from feeling as though the rug has been pulled out from under you when a nurse pulls some fatphobic moves. I ended up with old memories of self-loathing, feeling destabilised and confused, and this from a clinic that says it is passionate about supporting people's health and wellbeing in its mission statement. I worry about the people who don't have my experience and credentials.

I have no intention of ever booking an appointment with that nurse again, but I have some pointers from this experience that may be of use to other medical practitioners.

How nurses and other health practitioners can support people of all sizes to have optimum health

Don't

Keep a set of weighing scales in the middle of the room like a monument to BMI. It makes it look as though this is the most important tool of measurement for you and reveals how little you know about body weight and health.

Smirk when a fat person declines to be weighed. Declining is a brave act of self-advocacy in the face of monumental pressure to capitulate to a system that does not have fat people's best health interests at heart.

Judge. Fat people can tell you are doing it, we have had a lot of experience of this.

Be surprised when you ask a fat patient about their life and they reveal themselves not to be the saddest sack of the universe, especially if you find out that they have more going for themselves than you do.

Gloat about your own thin privilege.

Get stressed or blame the patient when you struggle to find a pulse or do a basic check because you are not comfortable touching a fat person.

Treat patients as repositories of data for your poorly designed computerised records systems of questionable security.

Use any fat-sized medical equipment that has the name of a weight loss drug plastered all over it, especially if that drug has been implicated in the sudden deaths of fat people. Buy a large-sized blood pressure cuff, don't use one that is basically a giant advert for Reductil. How can your patients ever trust that you are not in the service of those brands?

"Take control," patronise patients with empty promises that "it will come together" to excuse your inability to listen to a person and support them with their needs that they have plainly stated.

Sneakily schedule blood tests for all the so-called fat diseases, which the patient has had before and for which there is no evidence that these diseases are a problem for them. Don't think your patient won't notice what you have done and know that you have been judging them the whole time. Don't be surprised when this patient does not go along with your great fatphobic plan. You may be tempted to stereotype fat patients like this as wilfully non-compliant and self-sabotaging. Don't do that.

Treat people as automatic fodder for the medical industrial complex. Maybe a medical solution is not appropriate.

Touch someone weirdly. Don't rest your hand on mine as you tell me about your ex-wife who was also a psychotherapist.

Do

Remember that bodies come in all shapes and sizes and that this is human.

Listen to the patient. If they say their problem is stress, or anything else, do not assume that their problem is that they are morbidly obese(sic).

Listen extra hard if you have only just met that patient. Get to know them as a person.

If time is tight or the computer system determines what happens in the clinic, acknowledge that you are working within limitations.

Understand that being weighed is not a neutral act. Don't proffer it. Try and have some compassion and understanding for what scales might mean for a fat patient, even if your own experiences of being weighed are nothing to write home about.

Collaborate. Treat fat patients as people who are invested in their own healthcare, especially if they make an appointment out of the blue to get their blood pressure checked. This is proof that they care about their bodies.

Get consent. Share data with your patients without them having to drag it out of you.

Try and laugh when your patient makes a joke about being a zombie when you are unable to find their pulse because you are uncomfortable with handling a fat body. They are being generous and are trying to help you.

How to recover from a bad interaction with a medic

Remember it's more likely to be them and their system that is the problem than your fat body.

Talk to someone you can trust with your feelings, don't be alone with it. Perhaps resist posting on social media even if you feel alienated and upset, you may find that people's responses there are far from soothing.

Write down what happened, get it out of your head.

Make another plan for looking after your health.

Send the clinic some feedback if you feel up to it.

Make some tea.

Breathe.

100 Fat Activists #14: Fat Feminist Activist Working Meeting

Image from the proceedings of the
First Feminist Fat Activists' Working Meeting
Edited, thanks to Karen Stimson's invaluable comments and clarifications.

During 18-20 April 1980 the First Fat Feminist Activist Working Meeting took place in New Haven, Connecticut. This was the first ever fat feminist conference.

It attracted 17 participants. A number of fat feminists lived fairly locally including Karen Stimson, Judith Stein and Aldebaran. Some had set themselves up as the New Haven Fat Liberation Front. There was fat community forming in the Boston area. Others came to visit, including Judy Freespirit. There were workshops, talks and fat women's cultural entertainment in the evening.

The event piggybacked on a women's health conference that was also taking place concurrently. The following day there was a keynote panel about fat feminism with the title F.A.T. (Fat Activists Together). It was another first, the first time a feminist gathering had placed fat politics at its centre. From this gathering F.A.T. (Fat Activists Together) became the first national US coalition of fat feminist activists. Their work helped to establish a constituency for fat feminism and was pivotal in getting Shadow on a Tightrope published.

Stimson made audio recordings of the conference and another woman, active in feminist radio, recorded the keynote panel. Stimson used the recordings to make a radio documentary called Nothing to Lose, which was broadcast locally. Material from the proceedings was collated and disseminated. In the comments below Stimson says that the recordings and the papers formed part of an evidence base to persuade the collective who produced the women's health book Our Bodies, Ourselves to include fat feminism. I have seen copies of this work in various archives. I have a digital copy of it but I can't remember where it came from!

The Largesse online archive is invaluable here, Stimson's archival gifts to fat feminist activism are visionary. She offers a full personal account of the gathering and uploaded Stein's recordings as digital audio files. There are also sound files of the evening's entertainment. I defy you to listen without feeling delighted and moved.

Largesse is no longer live, but you can still listen to and download the talks via the WayBack Machine. Remixers, here is where you come in: these talks need to be sampled, set to a deep bass and danced to by fat feminists everywhere.

WayBack Machine: From the Largesse Archives: Voices of Fat Liberation MP3 Audio Files

WayBack Machine: Fat Feminist Herstory, 1969-1993: A Personal Memoir by Karen W. Stimson

New Haven Fat Liberation Front 1978

Fat activism goes to the opera

On Wednesday I spent about five hours in a too small seat watching a pair of fat people command a very large stage. I've been to the opera before but not often, I'm not a buff. I like different kinds of music and performance, including, sometimes, that which is ostentatious, epic and expensive.

Tristan and Isolde is an opera by Richard Wagner. There are many things to be said about the problematic genre of grand opera, and the problematic composer Wagner in particular. There are probably many things to be said about the problematic opera Tristan and Isolde, I know the reviews for this production were not that gushing either. Other people can say those things, I don't have the knowledge or the articulacy to say them here. This is not a blog about opera.

But it is a blog about fat and this is what I do want to say: if you can pick your way through the things that are problematic, it is fantastic to see romantic, heroic, dramatic fat leads singing their faces off in front of several hundred mostly thin people who have paid a lot of money to witness this extraordinary sight.

It would be nice if the seats were accessible, and if opera singers weren't pressured to lose weight. I am aware that fat opera singers are also a comic stereotype. But whilst many fat activists lobby for non-stigmatising media representation of fat people, and rightly so, there is a genre of opera and singer that takes for granted fat people's compelling presence on a stage. I wouldn't exactly call it mainstream entertainment, but it is entrenched in the establishment. It's right there.

In this production of Tristan and Isolde, Heidi Melton and Stuart Skelton were dressed in giant armour and farthingale respectively, they were really big. Tall hair too. Melton flanked by Karen Cargill as Brangäne, also fat. It's possible none of these performers would want to see themselves as I saw them, you're probably not allowed to say the unsayable, and I notice that reviews are coy in their descriptions of the singers. But what I saw was fat people taking up space and deservedly so. I love fat people who are no shrinking violets. The opera, the music, the scenery, the orchestra, the whole extravaganza was one thing, but to me the fat was far out. There should be fat activist opera groups if they don't already exist.

About ten years ago I went to see one of the Grand Sumo Tournaments in Tokyo. I had similar feelings, only this was a different kind of fat physicality and athleticism, enshrined in national pride. Massively fat wrestlers throwing each other into the air. The most expensive seats are at the very front, where you might find a Rikishi crashing down upon you.

Fat is so weird, hated and also adored. How can it be so?

Meanwhile...


15 June 2016

100 Fat Activists #13: Fat Liberator Publications

One of the central arguments of my book is that activism does not have to be all about the large-scale actions or the grand gestures. Most fat activism takes place in small ways, a conversation perhaps, or a tiny act. Fat Liberator Publications is a fantastic example of a small-scale intervention that had widespread effects.

Established towards the end of the 1970s in the US by Aldebaran, it mostly consisted of a packet of fat feminist activist articles and papers copied and sent out for a small fee. The packet was advertised in lesbian and feminist journals of the time. Several participants in my research mentioned sending off for these papers by post. At a time when it was quite difficult to find fat feminist information, and when publishers had no interest in the subject, these packets were life-changing. So, for example, Liat recollects:
"I was living in [Michigan] in a group house, and there was a woman there [...] and we were living in this house together and she pulled out this bunch–, and it was I remember they, I think I still have it actually, it was all different colours, stapled, and she was like: 'I think you might be interested in this,' I read it and I was like, SNAP, I mean it was just like a massive connection, light-bulbs going off, you know, and there I was. And I was, like, no turning back."
This packet of papers took on a new life in 1983 when it formed the backbone of Shadow on a Tightrope: Writings by Women on Fat Oppression, an anthology that remains foundational to fat feminism.

The book had a similar effect on readers but it was able to travel further than the packet of papers. One of the most amazing findings in my research was when one participant recalled finding a copy of Shadow on a Tightrope in a Bradford charity shop probably around 20 years after it was published. It's mind-blowing how a modest act – posting out copies of articles – can travel so far in time and space.

I don't have a good photograph of any of the Fat Liberator documents. I was so excited when I found them in the archive that my hands were shaking as I took a snap! What is especially thrilling to me are the t-shirt designs featuring a raised fat fist and a group of fat dykes: Stop Fat Oppression - Support Fat Dykes. Now there's a slogan to get behind.

You can find a set of Fat Liberator Publications at the Mayer Collection in the University of Connecticut's archives. The GLBT Historical Center in San Francisco also has documents relating to Fat Liberator amongst Judy Freespirit's papers. See my post Archiving Fat Activism for more.

Schoenfielder, L. and Wieser, B. (1983) Shadow On A Tightrope: Writings By Women on Fat Oppression, San Francisco: Aunt Lute, Glasgow: Rotunda.

10 June 2016

No fatphobia, no hate and commodifying anti-oppression

I was on the bus through Shoreditch* yesterday and this fly-poster caught my eye. It's for Afro Punk, which is hosting a festival in London. This is the first time I've heard of this organisation.

It gave me feelings!

Firstly the tag-line "soon come" made me long for a time of no hatefulness and reflect on how far away that seems.

Secondly, I was amazed to see "No fatphobia" included with other forms of hate. I always look for it but I'm used to seeing it left out. My dream from early on in my fat activist life has been for the hatred of fat people to be widely understood as a decimating force, as something that kills and ruins people. My fat politics are rooted in intersectional feminism and queer values. For most of my life as a fat activist, fat politics have been regarded as a joke, an attempt to bandwagon-jump; people I've reached out to in similar liberation struggles have turned away and invested instead in obesity discourse. So it is fantastic to see an organisation that has emerged from a US Black punk movement recognising fat in a matrix of hate targets. Thank you Afro Punk for that vision of inclusion. When I saw "No fatphobia" I felt a lot less alone, I felt hopeful and reminded of my solidarity with all people pushed to the margins and fighting for personhood. I felt the warmth of unity and the resolve to keep fighting for it.

Thirdly, I had feelings that are harder to unpick. No hate is reproduced on Afro Punk merch, including t-shirts and sweatshirts. The t-shirts come in 3xl but no bigger. Does that mean that "no fatphobia" is being reproduced on something that excludes fat people?

The contradictions of politics and commerce do not escape me. Afro Punk in London is a festival where you need a ticket to get in. It's being advertised in a part of town that is a gentrified area of social cleansing. No hate is being mobilised to market things. Is No hate a brand? Are these political sensibilities being commodified? Other anti-oppression politics have been commodified over the years, but this could be a first for fat activism. I don't understand the long-term implications of branding political feelings like these. Making anti-oppression politics hip is certainly a strategy, but what happens when it is no longer fashionable?

I would really like one of those t-shirts though...

*One of London's hipster zones.

08 June 2016

100 Fat Activists #12: whoever i am, i'm a fat womon

I find it thrilling to see film and video of fat activism from the early years. I've read plenty about this work, but seeing the people involved reinforces that this is real, it really happened, I'm not making it up. Why I have a persistent fear of having made any of this up is perhaps testament to the gaslighting of obesity epidemic discourse: fat people are worthless, the idea that we might have cultures, histories, even community or identity is beyond belief.

Sharon Lia Robinson is a poet who has long been a part of fat activism. In this video she reads her poem whoever i am, i'm a fat womon. This poem includes the line that became the title of the ground-breaking fat feminist anthology Shadow on a Tightrope. It comes from her chapbook, published in 1978, fat womon/renaissance, written under the pen-name of Sharon Bas Hannah. Here is the full text.




whoever i am, i'm a fat womon was written in 1976, and the main part of this film, framed by more recent edits, was recorded by Lynne Conroy in 1979 at a rehearsal for the Radcliffe College Women's Theatre Festival, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The poem itself is lovely, but what strikes me when I watch this video is knowing how young and radical fat politics were at the time, and that they were embedded within feminism. That's changed a lot since then. I'm also moved by the use of poetry to explore fat feminist embodiment and experience. Making culture is a means of surviving and thriving, as my research and my own practice has shown over the years.

But what I like most is that this video is not a fat woman on a news report or a TV talkshow, it's not somebody debating their right to exist. The video shows a fat feminist reading her poetry on her own terms.

You can find out more about Sharon through her website.

03 June 2016

Watching an anti-obesity NGO crash and burn

It's been a tough old couple of weeks here at Timebomb Towers but my gloom has been lifted by schadenfreude-tastic reports of bickering and in-fighting at one of the UK's leading anti-obesity NGOs. In general I don't take much pleasure from seeing people in conflict, but I make an exception for fat-hating eugenicists.

The row has arisen because the boss of an anti-obesity charity decided to endorse some dietary advice against the wishes of his colleagues. Now, one set of anti-obesity dietary solutions is as pointless as another, as far as I can see. If dietary advice made fat people go away we would have gone by now. But advice is what these people live for. They see themselves as the answer to the problem of people like me. But they don't consult people like me, they treat us as though we are stupid children. Fat people are so absent from these organisations that we are barely seen to exist at all apart from as an abstracted blob or numbers on a chart. It is inconsequential to them that anti-obesity NGOs speak for us, it's beyond imagining that people like me might want to have a stake in our own lives. As far as this lot is concerned, what they say goes.

Let me twist the knife some more. These are self-important, entitled, ludicrous people riding the gravy train. They are puffed up by weight loss industry patronage with all the trappings of corporate PowerPoints, jargon, high-powered meetings, lunches, keynote speeches and branded promotional knick-knacks. Somebody could make a mint satirising them, they are so ripe for it. Their work is worse than useless, they reproduce stigma at an alarming rate, they have to because this is what delivers funding to their door and rationalises their existence.

It is astonishing to me that anyone gives them the time of day, they truly have no idea of what it is like to be fat or what might support fat people to live good lives. But they are treated like experts of the universe by toadying journalists and policymakers who behave as if they are in the presence of the Great Oz himself.

Anyway, crash and burn, hate-mongering shits. Fight each other until the last one standing is in my crosshairs. Let this be the beginning of the end. I'll toast marshmallows on the blaze and dance on the ashes.

16 May 2016

The new obesogenic, now with added high heels

I saw this image a couple of weeks ago and spluttered.


It's in the Olympic Park, which is not really a park, more a collection of sites being prepared for corporations and social cleansing with some mega sports complexes and token greenery sprinkled inbetween. I live close to this place but it's really inaccessible unless you ride a bike. I know three people who have been killed whilst riding their bikes in my part of town so I no longer ride a bike. Plus, I have no reason to visit this zone of dead culture, and names like Cheering Lane (for real) give me the creeps.

The image is on a billboard in a new area of the not-park where a load of office towers are being built. I spluttered because, like so many things connected to the Olympics and its sticky residue, bad shit is being presented as progressive, bright, shiny, desirable and good for you. To me, this image looks like the latest iteration of obesogenic environments.

In 2013, geographers Rachel Colls and Bethan Evans published a critical take on the concept of obesogenic, which had spread like wildfire towards the end of the first decade of fat panic aka the global obesity epidemicTM. Within this rhetoric, obesogenic environments are those which make people fat and where there is little opportunity for physical activity. They believe that fat people are fat because we don't move our bodies. One of the ways in which planners and policy-makers hope to reduce the number of fat people in the world is by creating spaces that demand physical activity of its inhabitants. This is regarded by anti-obesity proponents as a soft way of engendering public health because people don't even notice it is happening.

Except they do. Especially if they are pushing pushchairs, are on wheels, have mobility impairments, and so on. The bridge leading into the Olympic Park from Stratford has a giant set of steps and two escalators that are frequently broken. There are two lifts that are hidden round the back of a grim passageway. The planners may well have wanted people to take the steps but the reality is that if you can't take them, or don't want to (refusal is not on the cards) the options are very limited. Now, I may be wrong here, but in my version of a Brave New World, dystopian though it may be, at least there is access for all, but this version can't even come up with a level surface. It is retrograde, controlling and non-consensual. It's not that I don't want to live in a place where I can walk in nature and feel connected to my body. What I don't want is the assumption that enforced exercise is the answer to my problems.

Back to the image, how to deconstruct it? Here's some stream of consciousness: I feel sorry for this poor woman who is being made to climb steps all day in high heels. Are her feet bleeding, do you think? Is she sweating? Will she be able to catch up with the men in her department, especially the inevitably white male dominated upper management structure? The steps run out, which makes it look as though she's about to hit the glass ceiling there. I wonder where workers who use wheelchairs will get into the building, round the back? Maybe workers will find a loophole of some kind, perhaps they still have unions and will campaign for proper access, even though I know that's wishful thinking. What's so great about being agile and mobile anyway? But at least she is lovely and slim, I imagine she has to be, fat people aren't welcome in the kinds of places where she works. "The more active we are, the healthier we are," unless you have chronic fatigue, problems with compulsive exercising or are simply human and need a rest sometimes. Who is this "We" they're talking about? How much did this ad campaign cost?

The kicker is a masterpiece of copy writing: "Just imagine leaving work healthier than when you arrived". Just imagine! Work does not make you healthy, it is what sucks the life out of you, especially the kind of work that is going to take place in this location. Work is a system of exploitation and the sale of labour. This is not healthy. In fact, if this is what passes for healthy, we are all truly fucked.

Splutter! Splutter! Splutter!

Colls, R. and Evans, B. (2013) 'Making space for fat bodies? A critical account of 'the obesogenic environment'', Progress in Human Geography, 1(21).

100 Fat Activists #11: Fat Power

Llewellyn Louderback has already made a couple of appearances in this series, first as the author of More People Should be FAT, which then led to the formation of NAAFA.

In 1970 he published Fat Power through Hawthorne Books. Ann Louderback provided research support and it is to her that the book is dedicated. Putting the book out into the world was a difficult experience, Louderback pulled out of the publicity circus for it because media makers wanted to make fun of him (sound familiar?) and later he withdrew from fat politics altogether. The book was not the hit that he hoped for, a big contrast to the effusive praise that More People Should be FAT attracted.

Fat Power book is of its time. The name resonates through Black Power and Gay Power and, even though Louderback described himself to me as a hack writer, he understood that fat had important overlaps with other political movements and struggles. The book treats fat people as a minority that is subjected to oppression, though is at times anti-feminist and politically naive. Yet much of what he writes remains current because fat activism still needs to develop richer theories and approaches, and because fat hatred is still a thing.

A year after Fat Power appeared, Marvin Grosswirth published Fat Pride, again riffing off the spirit of the times, through Black Pride and Gay Pride. By 1974, Abraham I. Friedman MD had jumped on the bandwagon with Fat Can Be Beautiful, a title that hedges its bets if ever there was one and a book that is, frankly, weak. The cycle of grassroots innovation and appropriation by professionals that I write about in my book was taking place even back then.

Fat activism is a social movement formed by feminism and greatly concerned with women's experience. It's vexing that whilst the early fat feminists were mimeographing pamphlets, it was these three guys who had access to book publishing. It would take over ten years before Shadow on a Tightrope: Writings by Women on Fat Oppression made an appearance, even Marcia Millman's Such A Pretty Face: Being Fat in America didn't roll out until 1980.

Nevertheless, as with Stigma, the early fat feminists are generous with their appraisal of Fat Power; though obscure it remained influential and is an important contribution to the development of the movement. Try and get your hands on a copy if you can, it's still worth a look.

Friedman, A. I. (1974) Fat Can Be Beautiful: Stop Dieting, Start Living, Berkeley, CA: Berekeley Publishing Corporation.

Grosswirth, M. (1971) Fat Pride: A Survival Handbook, New York: Jarrow Press Inc.

Louderback, L. (1967) 'More People Should Be FAT', Saturday Evening Post, 4 November, 10-12.

Louderback, L. (1970) Fat Power, New York: Hawthorn Books.

Millman, M. (1980) Such A Pretty Face: Being Fat in America, Toronto: Norton.

Schoenfielder, L. and Wieser, B. (1983) Shadow On A Tightrope: Writings By Women on Fat Oppression, San Francisco: Aunt Lute.

09 May 2016

Fat Activism, Class and The Left

When I talk about class I mean the stratification of human beings based on money, background, work, access to power and certain types of cultural knowledge. This stratification favours some at the cost of others. Fat and class go together because many fat people are also of low socio-economic status. But this information is usually used to rationalise a cure for fatness, not as a call for political action, or to understand the interrelationships between fat and class, perhaps as a source of identity, pride, or even as a resource for self-knowledge.

On 4 May 2016 I delivered a talk at Housmans book shop in London. Housmans is one of London's few remaining radical booksellers and I took the opportunity to talk about fat, class and how I feel the Left has failed to get on-board with fat activism. When I refer to the Left, I mean a large number of political groups and ideas that are based on ending class inequality. I hoped that by saying this at Housmans, I might encourage more Left-leaning people to think about fat activism as a viable form of politics

I have written up my notes so that they are more readable. This is my first attempt to write something coherent about fat activism and class, but it is still tentative. Class seems to get left behind in intersectional analyses of fat and fat activism, even though it is so central. I speculate as to why this is later, but for now I would like to say that I would love to see class given the weight it deserves.

In my family fat, class and shame were intertwined. My parents dis-identified with being working class, even though their backgrounds are undeniably so, and this manifested through a disdain for fatness, which was seen as a signifier of poverty, a throwback. Class awakening came late for me, but I grew up with my mum and dad's values and experiences and gradually I pieced things together to understood who I am and where I come from. I began to be interested in fat and class after looking at how the left was stereotyping fat people in 2011. I wrote about this in these posts:

Representing fat and class

Demonstrating as the Fat Bloc
How the Left failed fat
Riots in the UK and convenient scapegoats
Fatphobia in the visual language of the Left
Anti-obesity campaigns: fatphobia in the radical left
Fat, austerity, class and benefit sanctions

Fatphobia in the Left is driven by stereotyping

As I came to explore fat and class, I was struck by the amount of stereotyping that went on in the Left in the UK.

Old stereotypes are still invoked. Fat capitalists, fat cats, fat as a signifier of the greedy, lazy, selfish, corrupt bourgeoisie and ruling classes. It's a stereotype that links fat people with overconsumption and oafishness and which contradicts evidence that fat people tend to be of lower socioeconomic status. Martin Rowson's Observer cartoons draw heavily on this stereotype, with added disgustingness, and are seen as perfectly acceptable.

But most of the stereotyping of fat people in the Left is considered more progressive, as caring even! It is popular to think of fat people as pathological, as disordered, as diseased, addicted. Fat means eating disordered. This reflects an obsession with energy balance (fat is a product of too many calories and too little activity, a contested model) as the only means of understanding fat people. This stereotype depicts fat people as pitiful, which is not a progressive stance but an oppressive one, as many disability activists have shown.

In the Left, fat is produced by the overconsumption of the wrong food, the wrong activity. This stereotype plays out through discussions of food deserts, the worry that people are unable to feed themselves, through food justice proponents using fatphobia to leverage themselves. Here, fat is a product of bad food choices, it is fast food, McDonalds. Cue Jamie Oliver and a legion of food snobs to sort us all out! Environmental activists also uses fatphobia and healthism to legitimise themselves in a similar way, for example through cycling campaigns, and other forms of active living.

Fat people are tragic and helpless, but also their own worst enemies. We are wilfully non-compliant (especially parents, especially children) when interventions are made into our alleged overconsumption and inactivity. It is always we who fail, not the intervention. The stereotyping of working class fat people like this in class-based television shockumentaries, for example,  is also a denial of our resourcefulness, intelligence and personhood. It is pitying, dehumanising and often racist and sexist. Depicting people as fat and stupid is part of the demonisation of the working class.

This stereotype is further refined by positioning fat people as a symbol of Western overconsumption. It is not colonialism but fat people who are responsible for exploiting the developing world. This stereotype is used in conjunction with racist 'starving African' imagery, depicting fat and thin as opposites, as enemies. Whilst it is important to critique globalisation, it is wrong to leverage this by abjecting and reinscribing stereotypes onto people's bodies.

Newer stereotypes that have emerged through Austerity, for example the truism that fat people are killing the NHS. Elaine Graham-Leigh's work on his subject is invaluable.

Here's a condensed example of some of this stereotyping rhetoric from an article in The Guardian last year. It's by George Monbiot, darling of the Left, environmental activist, educated at Stowe and Oxford, whose dress size is likely a perfect 10. Amazingly, he has managed to synthesise all of the stereotyping, hand-wringing and pity that I have mentioned above. He even criticises fat-shaming whilst reproducing it in this tour de force of kindly oppression.

Reformulating the problem as a class issue

Long term, safe weight loss is unattainable for most people. Some of us think that even if it were, we would not choose it because we see value in fatness. Nevertheless, current enlightened thinking in the Left, as elsewhere, is that fat people are a social problem that needs to be cured, or "tackled" by making us all normatively-sized, and therefore healthy. This is a middle class appropriation of scientific rationalism. But other considerations emerge when the problem of fat people is reformulated as a class issue.

It reveals that working class fat people are very vulnerable to fatphobia. We are a group of people who are less likely to have access to information, time, resources that will enable us to navigate, for example, adequate healthcare. We are vulnerable to employment discrimination. We tend not to have the sense of entitlement or confidence required to create a smooth path through life for ourselves. When we fall, we are less likely to have safety nets.

Working class people are especially vulnerable to being eaten up by the predatory weight loss industry. This is made up of highly capitalist companies that create dependent customers who blame themselves when the product inevitably fails. It is working class women who are fodder for this industry, and it is this group who are dying or suffering as a result of popular Very Low Calorie Diets advertised on TV in the New Year and during swimsuit season. We are pulled in by ideas of respectability, personal responsibility, good citizenship, class mobility.

Fat people are excluded from policymaking and decision-making about "tackling" fat, working class fat people especially so. This work happens through mystified and exclusive knowledge and spaces. Our lived experience of our own bodies, our own expertise as scholars and activists, is not regarded as a vital resource. This exclusion is built on class. Policy-makers are more likely to be upper and middle class beneficiaries of funding, influence and status. They are the same strata of people pushing neoliberalism. They may be people with financial interests in weight loss, eg advisors/shareholders in Big Pharma or diet multinationals. They represent an industry that is currently benefitting from lucrative public-private partnerships with public services. They also represent a class of people who see themselves as philanthropists whereas fat working class people are a group in need of paternalistic intervention.

Working class fat people are also scapegoats within this curebie/tackling rhetoric. Food taxes generate revenue for the exchequer, but disproportionately affect working class people. Dame Carol Black is proposing benefits sanctions if fat people refuse treatment and this is likely to create new underclass populations of non-compliant fat people to blame, and who probably blame themselves too.

Fat activism in the Left

It is my experience that fat activism is not considered real politics by the Left, and that this reflects how fat is seen elsewhere: a personal choice, something people should change about themselves, not a political issue. Many fat activists themselves who carry a perfect (false and usually unattainable) standard of what constitutes activism. In a similar vein, queer politics and the feminism of fat activism not regarded as real political action either.

This avoidance of fat has led to a muddled and weak relationship to it. There are no widespread critiques as far as I know of class and fat, or the predatory weight loss industry. There is little support for fat people facing discrimination in the workplace, to my mind it is a scandal that this is not a focus of trade union activism. The Guardian, the UK's national newspaper of the Left, remains a major proponent of anti-obesity policy, and this is reflected in their vile fatphobic commenters.

Class in fat activism

But fat activism has not managed to generate much in the way of a class analysis of fat either.

Some of the most prominent fat activists are also people of means, people with private incomes, people who identify as upper middle and upper class, and whose worldviews are normalised even if they don't reflect the experience of being fat for the majority of people. This might be one reason why fat and class is not discussed much. I am not proposing that there should be a politics of purity around class, where some people are positioned as more legitimate than others because of their spotless class backgrounds. But I do suspect that community leaders who have trust funds have not acquired their status purely on merit, and it would be good for this to be more open so that others feel less like failures if they lack class-based access to power.

Meanwhile, the US is the dominant voice in fat activism and the movement reflects national concerns which may be less engaged with class than, say, the UK, where people have suffered through several thousand years of being told to know our places. My understanding of intersectional analyses of fat activism in the US is that it seems to refer to people of colour and to queer people, class is generally left out despite early fat feminist activists coming from socialist backgrounds.

In my book I argue that fat activism is becoming gentrified and that some of the ways in which this takes place are through professionalisation and assimilation. Professionalisation is the process by which community-generated knowledge becomes the domain of professionals, educational institutions and other gate-keepers. This is one way in which working class fat people are excluded from participating. The focus on assimilation – becoming like the dominant culture – also means that there is an emphasis on good citizenship, normativity, respectability, which also keeps out those of us who will never be good, normal, respectable folk.

Dreaming of something better

Before I die I would love to see richer work around fat, activism and class, and for the silence to be broken about privilege, trust funds and what this means for the movement. It would be wonderful to see different kinds of class-conscious activism develop, incorporating anti-colonial analyses when thinking about fat and global power. It is my belief that class must be included in intersectional analyses of fat and fat activism.

I would like people in the Left to understand that the current moral panic around fat is an attack on marginalised people and that it requires a political solution. But mainly I would like to see all of the fat stereotypes I have listed above die out, and for a proper engagement with fat people. Many of us too are of the Left.

04 May 2016

100 Fat Activists #10: Mama Cass Elliot

Cass Elliot was a singer, a scenester and an icon of 1960s sunshine pop. She was a Jewish woman, born Ellen Naomi Cohen. She was also fat in a time and place, not to mention industry, where this was a no-no. For all the rhetoric of the Summer of Love, Elliot suffered from fatphobic discrimination throughout her career, and in her personal life.

She responded to this in a variety of ways: by performing songs that celebrated individuality and difference, through crash dieting and substance abuse. She died in London in 1974 at 32, but had collapsed three months before then, and endured a string of humiliations in the meantime.



A post-mortem examination found that she had died of a heart attack. One can speculate that her substance abuse and crash dieting played a part in this. Predictably her death was reported as a result of her being fat, a way that diet industry mortality is obscured which still continues.

During the post-mortem, no food was found in her windpipe. Yet Elliot became the subject of a vicious fatphobic urban myth – that she had choked to death on a ham sandwich. This myth persists and is usually delivered with a smirk. Mike Myers, wanker extraordinaire, jokes about it in his Austin Powers film inbetween fat-suiting up.

The lie that she died in this way emerged during initial speculation after her body was found. Police told reporters that a half-eaten sandwich was in her room and may have been the cause of her death. This speculation is built on the stereotyping of fat people as voracious and reckless eaters. Elliot was subjected to fatphobic abuse even in death, decades after her passing. We are the butt of jokes when we die tragically young.

Elliot's life and death are significant to fat activists. Living in Los Angeles in the late 1960s, it is possible that she knew of the activities of early fat feminists in that city.



In August 1974, a month after Elliot's death, a group of fat feminists memorialised Elliot at a Women's Equality Day celebration, which took place in a local park and where the Fat Underground had a booth. Sara Fishman recalls:

The Women's Equality Day celebration included an open microphone and stage. When our turn came, members of the Fat Underground, members of the Fat Women's Problem-Solving Group, and some of our friends moved onto the stage. We carried candles and wore black arm bands, in a symbolic funeral procession. Lynn spoke. She began by describing the inspiration Cass Elliot had represented to us, as a fat woman who had refused to hide her beauty. She ended by accusing the medical establishment of murdering Cass, and (because they promote weight loss despite its known dangers) of committing genocide against fat women.

For the next few weeks, we were local heroines. The Los Angeles feminist news paper Sister devoted a full page in its next issue to Fat Liberation, with a photo of our Women's Equality Day demonstration on the cover. Publicly, at least, local radical feminists began to acknowledge fat women's oppression as a problem they would have to take seriously.

Sharon Bas Hannah, writing in Sister in September 1974, said:

Certainly fat people don't benefit from being insulted. Once someone tried to make fun of me on the street by calling out, "Hey, Mama Cass!" The social order functions by keeping certain elements in their place, the people divided and factionalized, so that those who are in power remain there. New scapegoats are always being harnessed. […] One of the earliest reports about her death said that she choked on a ham sandwich. That's not how she died though: Naomi Cohen choked on the culture, on the stale empty air and worthless standards of our conditioning.

Mabel-Lois' eulogy remains a pivotal moment for fat activists. In 2006 Amy Lamé produced a show about her own relationship to Elliot's music and memory. Allyson Mitchell mentioned to me a while back that there would be a performance of the event in Toronto in 2010, a historical re-enactment of it, but I have not been able to find documentation of that.

However, during the research for my book Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement, I discovered a tantalising piece of information, which is that the protest was filmed and that the Getty Research Institute may have some video of this event. This may be false information, there is a Fat Underground video, which I have seen, but it does not include events from the protest. Perhaps fat activists in Los Angeles could chase this up.



Bas Hannah, S. (1974) 'Naomi Cohen Choked on the Culture', Sister, September, 1.

Fishman, S. G. B. (1998) 'Life In The Fat Underground', [online], available: http://www.radiancemagazine.com/issues/1998/winter_98/fat_underground.html

27 April 2016

100 Fat Activists #9: The Fat Underground's Position Papers

The Fat Underground was a fat feminist group that came out of the lesbian feminist and radical therapy scenes of Los Angeles in the late 1960s. They are foundational to fat activism, and I write about them extensively in my book.

Largesse was a project that ran for over a decade and which hosted an online archive of early fat feminist writings. It is no longer live, but you can navigate fragments of it through the Wayback Machine by searching for http://www.eskimo.com/~largesse/.

One of the collections that Largesse curated was a set of Position Papers published by the Fat Underground in 1974. These are titled: Job Discrimination, Eating, Health of Fat Women: The Real Problem, Psychiatry and Sexism.

A Position Paper is an essay, short ones in this case, that clarify and communicate a basic premise. Position Papers are not so common these days, though NAAFA has a set of them that you can download from their website, including an interesting one on Activism. I wonder if NAAFA were directly inspired to create these documents through earlier encounters with the Fat Underground.

I think the idea of a Position Paper implies that things are set in stone. One of the problems with them is that things change, or there may be a great many grey areas, or people may disagree, and a paper might need to be revised or discarded.

Nevertheless, the Fat Underground's Position Papers make great reading if you can get your hands on them. Anti-sexism is at the heart of their analysis, and remains the bedrock of feminist work on bodies, looks and fat to this day. The entire content of that position paper reads as follows:
The Fat Underground sees sexism as a tool of oppression which is particularly injurious to fat people. The essence of sexism is that people may not be individuals. Sexism prescribes that people be assigned roles according to their sex rather than by their interests, talents, abilities or preferences. It further dictates what our bodies must look like, with varying standards for each sex, disenfranchising those who do not fit into the mold. Fat people are prime targets in this sexist society because society's current concept of the ideal body is very thin. Our "defiance" of the national mania for thinness is seen as willful rebellion, and as such is a punishable "crime." Our bodies are arbitrarily designated "not sexy" and we are denied our very sexuality. And since this is a sexist society, those denied their sex have no place - we are discriminated against socially, we experience discrimination in jobs, medical care, clothing, etc., and at the root of this is sexism – the body counts for all.

The Fat Underground repudiates all forms of sexism and announces to all that we are taking back our human rights.

What is more unusual is the strength of the Fat Underground's analysis of health as a political issue and the intersectional connections they draw with other marginalised groups.
Being fat and being healthy are not antithetical. Fat people are subject to the same diseases which victimize other biological minorities. Blacks, Native Americans, Puerto Ricans and Chicanos also suffer in far higher percentages than the majority population from diabetes, high blood pressure, heart attacks, atherosclerosis and mental "disorders" like depression and extreme passivity. We are all subject in varying degrees to the same social, moral and political oppressions. We are also subject to educational, vocational, economic and legal persecutions. Fat people die of the social disease of oppression, not the medical "disease" called obesity.

The Position Paper on Job Discrimination describes how employers use a presumed lack of insurance to deny work to fat people. This insurance excuse continues to this day, in other fields too. Only this week was I not allowed to participate in a leisure activity by an organisation because it claimed it did not have the insurance to cater for people who weigh over 18 stone, which is probably me though it's hard to tell because I don't weigh myself. Rather than get better insurance, or train their staff to work with fat people, I don't get to go white water rafting with my pals. Oh, and this is an organisation that boasts about its accessible sessions!

The Fat Underground's Position Paper on Food also remains timely and should be required reading for all food justice advocates. Check out this electrifying statement:
The Fat Underground opposes this phony asceticism. We call for an attitude toward food and eating that is honest, indulgent and compassionate.

Given its roots in Radical Therapy, it makes sense that there would be a Position Paper on Psychiatry, which develops ideas laid out in the sister paper about fat women and health.
Psychiatrists, with their theories about "over-eating" have ignored the findings of nutritionists that most fat people don't eat any more than most thin people. Their persecution turns some of us into secret compulsive eaters who "need their help".

The Fat Underground add:
Psychiatrists paste the dignity of science onto every-day prejudice. Unless they commit themselves to be advocates of the oppressed and alienated, psychiatrists are very dangerous indeed.


Fat Activism Book Update

I don't know if you've noticed, I've been very quiet about it (joke! joke!) but in January I published a book about fat activism and I have some reflections to share about its first few months out in the world.

Basically, the response has been very positive. I've had a handful of reviews that have all been good enough even when they've been a bit odd, and media encounters that haven't left me wanting to crawl into a hole, as was my experience with my last book about fat.

I have not had a single scrap of hate mail. There may well have been comments on things, but I don't read 'em so I wouldn't know. I'm amazed by the lack of hate and I don't know why I've avoided it, I've even been on Radio 4! Perhaps it's waiting to be unleashed. The Guardian, which frequently trades on anti-obesity sentiment and whose commenters are deeply fatphobic as a result, has not touched the book, perhaps that's why I've been spared.

What I have noticed is that people are open to talking about the book. When I published Fat & Proud in 1998 I was treated like a crank. But this time around it has been different, it is possible now for conversations to take place, despite a war on obesity that has been raging for over 15 years and looks set to continue. Even my dentist wants to talk to me about it. This makes me think that the quiet work of speaking, holding conversations, disagreeing with the dominant viewpoint is having a profound effect. Public health policy around fat remains completely out of touch with this feeling, but perhaps it is inevitable that that too must change. I imagine hell will have to freeze over before weight loss stakeholders relinquish their power, so I suspect there will be a slew of crappy fat activist co-options before too long, or other weird and unhelpful hybrids. The picture isn't completely rosy but I am moved by how much has changed.

The most unsettling thing has been the amount of laughter directed at me. Some of this is because I am funny, but some is not about me being funny. In radical and scholarly spaces I sense a deep need for people to be able to laugh at the fat person, ie me. At one gathering, a pair of thin radical queers laughed loudly through my talk, even though I had stopped making jokes. They hadn't noticed that other people were no longer laughing. At another, a speaker referred to an event that I produced as very jolly, even though I had also spoken about how painful that work had been, they couldn't acknowledge that struggle. I think that fat activism is ludicrous in many ways, that's part of what makes it queer and valuable to me, but meanwhile the funny fat lady stereotype seems to be maintaining its grip on people. In a similar way, I'm still pretty shocked at how many people still find difficulty even saying the word fat. You know this already but fatphobia is deep.

By far the best responses have been from readers. I've been getting to know dance communities in London for a year or so and am really happy that they are supporting my work. It is a lie that fat and normatively sized people have nothing to say to each other or are natural enemies, London's radical dance community are engaging with fat politics and I couldn't be happier.

Other readers have shared photographs of them treasuring the book, being excited about it, being delighted to see it in a shop amongst other political books, not shoved away in the health section. One reader propped the book up in a place that has notoriously fatphobic exhibits and shared a photo of that on social media, as though the ideas in the book has invaded a space where it shouldn't belong. I really love moments like that. Other people, those I wouldn’t expect to be interested, have written to me and told their online networks about the work, saying how important it has been for them. To me this is wonderful and helps put the years of work and worry I have poured into this project into perspective.

I will continue to present talks and discussions about the book over the rest of the year. I post updates on the events page, so please feel free to bookmark it and come to things if you can. Meanwhile, Backdoor Broadcasting recorded a panel discussion that took place this week at Birkbeck University, Fat Activism is Dangerous. You can listen to it for free or download it for later.


08 April 2016

100 Fat Activists #8: Radical Therapy

This eighth post of the series marks the end of the period when the earliest foundations for fat activism as I understand it in my book were put in place.

Radical Therapy was an offshoot of the anti-psychiatry movement as it manifested in the 1960s. This movement had many concerns and approaches, and histories that stretched back to the earlier part of the 20th century. By 1967 theorists and activists were arguing that psychiatry was a suspect science and that mental health services were oppressive. Radical Therapy was a practical critique of the mental health system, which was seen as perpetuating oppression and inequality and acting in the interests of a corrupt dominant culture. Radical Therapy sought to reformulate mental distress as an understandable response to living in oppressive societies. Social justice and social change were understood a means of addressing and healing mental pain. This analysis proposed that people's mental health problems were political and not organic, inevitable, or produced by the individual.

Anti-psychiatry has been heavily criticised but it remains a useful means of understanding the uses of mental health services to profit from, discipline and punish marginalised people. There's still a reluctance in the therapy world to think of therapy as a political act saturated with power. See the excellent documentary And This time its Personal Psychocompulsion & Workfare, for example, a response to the introduction of therapy in British Job Centres to harass people unable to work. Its insistence on acknowledging the diversity of cognitive experience resonates too with the more recent Mad Pride movement which again overlaps with disability politics.

Despite the strength of its critique, in an article published in State and Mind in 1977, Aldebaran disclosed that Radical Therapy, like mainstream therapy, remained hostile to fat people, and that fat liberation was regarded as a dangerous luxury. Writing to the fictional composite Dr Hurvitz, she says, presciently:
"You said, 'Fat liberation may be fine for you, but I have a client in therapy who has to lose 50 pounds or she'll die of diabetes.' You also said the real issue in fat liberation ought to be the 'right to be fat,' and that I should put more emphasis on 'Fat is Beautiful.' I've tried to figure out why those comments make me feel so queasy. Certainly we must come to love ourselves and assert our right, as fat people, to be. But what I come up with is that you want a nice liberal discussion about freedom and beauty, while you and I both know that the most urgent issue is death – the pain and death of fat people. You see fat as suicide, I see weight loss as murder – genocide, to be precise – the systematic murder of a biological minority by organised medicine, acting on behalf of the law- and custom-makers of this society. We differ only in our opinion of what causes fat people's early deaths."
Nevertheless, Los Angeles Radical Feminist Therapy Collective was where Aldebaran presented her preliminary findings about why people might be fat. It was through this work that an early social model of fat was developed: the idea that the real problem is not the fat person, but the society that hates us. In 1973, she published a piece in Sister explaining the theoretical connections between Radical Therapy and fat liberation and announcing the formation of a group to explore this. Feminist Radical Therapy is what helped incubate Aldebaran's ideas and provide the spark that later became fat feminism through community knowledge-sharing, consciousness-raising and understanding social contexts in which problems are located.

Daily aggressions, self-blame and self-hatred continue to contribute to fat people's mental distress. We know as activists that challenging oppression improves fat people's lives. But there is little impetus at the moment to generate the empirical evidence demanded by mental health services to include activism as part of a no-risk, cost-effective repertoire of treatment and support. Fat people's mental health needs remain underserved in a context where normalisation through (profitable) weight loss remains the ultimate therapeutic goal. And of course this is rarely seen as a political issue.

Aldebaran (1973) 'we are not our enemies', Sister, December, 6.

Aldebaran (1977) 'Fat Liberation - A Luxury? An Open Letter to Radical (and Other) Therapists', State and Mind, 6, 34-38.

06 April 2016

Activism, engineering, satire in Tim Hunkin's subversive universe

Me giggling whilst being brainwashed
by one of Tim Hunkin's machines. It tickles!

Tim Hunkin is an artist who makes subversive and humourous arcade machines, automata, ride simulators and all kinds of brilliant stuff. I had the pleasure of visiting his Under the Pier Show in Southwold at the weekend, and not for the first time. If you are ever in the vicinity of his work, make sure you have a supply of 20ps to pop in the slot, you won't regret it. If you have several hours to kill, I sincerely advise you to spend them knocking around his extensive website.

I've been wanting to mention Hunkin on the blog for a while because of three of his pieces: The Doctor, QuickFit and Instant Weightloss. They gently puncture medical pomposity, quackery and the bullshit of weight loss with amazing style and joy.

The Doctor is one of the older machines, made in 1987. You stand in front of the wooden doctor, hold a stethoscope to your chest and he slowly writes you an illegible prescription. The Doctor is old school, to say the least, and oh so recognisable to anyone who has ever had an awkward or horrible encounter in a clinic. I really love the way that Hunkin presents clinical encounters as bewildering and not particularly helpful. Regardless of your ailment, you get the same conveyer-belt style prescription as everyone else. Just like real life!

QuickFit is a ride built from an old toning table. Remember them? A fad that lay at the intersections of weight loss, femininity, beauty and pseudo-exercise. You lie on the table, it moves your body around whilst you watch a strange animated exercise video based on Jane Fonda's iconic workout. Hunkin and his collaborators brilliantly skewer prancing weight loss guru-dom through lo-fi animation and bare-faced cheek. You don't even have to lift a finger.

Instant Weightloss is a stunning piece of work and one of my favourite Hunkin machines of all. You put 40p into the machine and a little suction pipe drops a single piece of popcorn onto a little pedestal. A heat gun then pops the single piece of corn right in front of your eyes, and then delivers it to you via a chute. As this is happening, a mirror bends and gives the optical illusion of making you appear thinner. As with all the machines, the explanatory text is really witty, Hunkin's parody of diet company product claims ("precision-engineed weight-free nutrients") is so spot on.

There are many other machines, Hunkin's website tells you where to find them. I think it's great that the supposedly enlightened and scientific worlds of weight loss and medicalisation are presented here as part of a broader landscape of subjects worthy of satire. Some of his other works are just silly but most have a political edge to them, poking fun at self-importance, scientific arrogance and stupidity. They are activist machines as well as beautiful oddball pieces of art.

05 April 2016

Fat activism by the algorithms


I kind of agree with this, but probably not in the way that these algorithms have been generated. I love wrongness, there's certainly a lot of bullshit flying around at times, and is it dangerous? Yes it is.

30 March 2016

100 Fat Activists #7: NAAFA

NAAFA, the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, started out on the East Coast of the USA around New York and New Jersey in 1969 as the National Association to Aid Fat Americans.

I can't remember when I first heard about NAAFA, it must have been some time in the 1980s and, like most people back then, I was amazed that an actual organisation of fat people could exist. It is still an amazing thought, evidence that fat is a social and political identity, that fat people have agency, community, ambition. That NAAFA has been in existence for so long also suggests that fat people have histories and cultures too. These remain radical ideas in a present day context where fat people are usually rendered as passive and pathetically grateful recipients of medical magnanimity.

The group has been through many incarnations, there is a newsletter that has been running for many years, on and off, and the annual conventions have been important meeting places for decades. NAAFA has also spawned a number of spin-offs, I'll say more about them in later posts. NAAFA is frequently positioned as the only way that people do fat activism, particularly by researchers and media-makers who have little other contact with the movement. This is a problem because it obscures the many ways in which fat activism manifests and presents the movement as relatively conservative and as a product of middle America. Despite having a constitution, NAAFA has struggled throughout its existence with problems to do with leadership, membership, direction and resources. It is an important organisation, but not one that necessarily reflects the interests of fat activists; and how could it? We are a very varied bunch.

NAAFA was established primarily by William Fabrey supported by Llewellyn Louderback. John Trapani and Eileen Lefebure helped Fabrey write a constitution and a number of people came together on 13 June 1969 to endorse it. I have found it hard to work out who was there, some names are incomplete or obscure on the documents I have been able to dig up, but Joyce Fabrey and Ann Louderback were present, as were a pair possibly called Susan and William Blowers, and two people called, maybe, Gilberto Guandillo and Mary Ellen something. No doubt there are people – Bill, are you reading this? – who can fill in the details and I will edit this post later.

Given the significance of the organisation the obscurity of these details is alarming, don't you think? During my trawl of fat activist archives when I was researching my book, I found little relating to NAAFA, which is extraordinary and worrying. I was hoping for large repositories of newsletters, convention materials, news clippings, internally-produced histories and publications, perhaps oral histories. But I did not find them. Do they exist? If so, where can they be found? If not, this means that important details and histories may well be lost. This would be a tragedy.

For fat people's histories to exist, we have to treasure them, produce them, maintain them. This involves understanding our lives as being important enough to remember and understand, a hard thing for people who experience a lot of social hatred and denigration. As I see it, a vital part of the work of fat activism is about collecting histories and developing intergenerational conversations. People don't live forever and when they are gone, so too are their memories and insights for the most part. Unless we preserve these important scraps of information for ourselves and for others, I truly believe that we are lost and have little to orientate ourselves towards. I also think we are selling out the fat people who will inevitably come after us, who will certainly have questions about the past.

If anyone wants to take on the work, I have to say that a really expansive, critical and well-researched account of NAAFA is something that I would love to read. Imagine a giant oral history! Meanwhile, there are some historical documents online that are worth a look. The NAAFA website has a small archive of more recent newsletters. The Big as Texas gathering in 2001 produced an excellent transcript of Bill Fabrey's recollections of the early days of NAAFA, and there are a couple of videos, which also offer some clues about this remarkable organisation.

60 Minutes Overtime Staff (1978 and 2012) '60 Minutes Rewind: Fat Pride: Obese Women Rally in the '70s', [online], available: http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-504803_162-57348478-10391709/fat-pride-obese-women-rally-in-the-70s/

Fabrey, W. J. (2001) 'Thirty-three Years of Size Acceptance in Perspective - How Has it Affected the Lives of Real People?', [online], available: http://members.tripod.com/~bigastexas/2001event/keynote2001.html



23 March 2016

100 Fat Activists #6: Civil Rights

The 1960s Civil Rights movement in the US is what provided a solid political grounding for fat activism, a fact that has been forgotten by many fat activists today and which is particularly troubling given the problems that some areas of fat activism have with racism.

In previous posts in this series, I have referred to Steve Post's Fat-In, Llewellyn Louderback's journalism and Erving Goffman's influential work on stigma. The collective work of black people organising and resisting oppression is absent from much of this work, or perhaps taken for granted, but it is hard to imagine any of these interventions taking place without the framing that the Civil Rights movement brought to issues of social justice. Aldebaran's books offer some hints of this, and perhaps she had other works that she did not donate to the archive, but again, the acknowledgement is tacit.

The Civil Rights movement prompted the politicisation of fat people. When I interviewed Judy Freespirit in 2010, she told me that her fat feminism had emerged as a result of her involvement with the Civil Rights movement in the United States. As a student in California, she had supported a demonstration against racist housing policy organised by CORE (the Congress of Racial Equality, established as a non-violent Civil Rights organisation in Chicago). Whilst picketing the college's administration, who were responsible for the policy, Freespirit and her fellow protesters were jeered by passers-by. She noticed that the insults were to do with her being fat. She said: "I was picketing and it had nothing to do with fat, it had to do with the administration being wrong in their discrimination, and people would try to get me by making fat jokes." Freespirit went on to add: "So all of a sudden I realised: 'They are so angry about my being fat, why are they so angry? I'm too heavy and big for them.' You know. I mean. But it's like: 'Ah, this is the way we can get her, because this is the thing that nobody's gonna disagree is not ok.'"

Civil Rights offered an analysis of the misuse of power and of potential means of securing justice. In her excellent book about antidiscrimination law and fat rights, Anna Kirkland writes that the 1964 Civil Rights Act in the US is pivotal because it proposes that justice involves addressing systemic discrimination. This is a crucial point, and was later taken up by the early fat feminists who argued that fat is not a case of personal health failings, it is a political issue. They presented fat hatred as a social, political problem that needs political solutions and systemic change, much like the Social Model of Disability, which came later on. Of course this approach has been appropriated and corrupted now through obesity epidemic rhetoric which insists that fat people ourselves are the social problem, a discourse which reproduces hate and discrimination. But the emphasis on rights and non-violence brought to activism through the Civil Rights movement – itself rooted in peace activism – cannot be underestimated and remains at the heart of fat activism today, even though it is obscured and has branched off into debateable rights discourses, such as the right to buy pretty clothes (though perhaps not the rights of developing world sweatshop workers).

Civil Rights and later Black Power also propose a refusal of abjection. Reclaiming beauty, instigating pride, developing cultural aesthetics built on an idea of protesting oppressive norms, well, you can see where I'm going with this. I will make the bold claim that even the most mainstream fat activism today owes acknowledgement to the ground-breaking work that came out of Civil Rights. Indeed, there are many more things that could be said about this, too much for a single blog post.

Having Civil Rights as a fundament of the movement does overlook some of the other forms of activism that I think are as valuable as the methods that emerged during the 1960s. In my book I write about ambiguous fat activism, and micro fat activism, strategies that are queerer and weirder than the political process forms of activism that are generally associated with Civil Rights in the US. I also wonder if the centrality of Civil Rights means that activists struggle against a perfect standard of activism, or rigid ideas about what activism can be. The US-centric nature of this era of Civil Rights also eclipses other Civil Rights struggles that might be of equal value to the movement. British fat activists might look towards the Irish Civil Rights movement, for example, which resisted English occupation and colonialism.

What is most perplexing and upsetting is the absence of fat activism and Civil Rights in the archive. There is no picture to accompany this post because this material is currently invisible to me. Apart from Judy Freespirit's testimony, where is the evidence? I can't accept that she was the only person thinking about these connections. Cathy Cade's photographs of Bay Area lesbian community may offer some material to chew over, she was also a Civil Rights activist who documented fat activism. But where are the black fat activists from those early days? How did the early activism by people of colour become so marginalised in fat activism as it is known today? How can those missing stories and links be found and re-forged?

Cade, C. (1987) A Lesbian Photo Album: The Lives of Seven Lesbian Feminists, Oakland, CA: Waterwoman Books.

Kirkland, A. (2008) Fat Rights: Dilemmas of Difference and Personhood, New York: New York University Press.

16 March 2016

100 Fat Activists #5: Stigma

I'm pretty sure that Erving Goffman was not a fat activist. It's been a while since I picked up a copy of Stigma, and I'm not sure if the book even specifically mentions fat people. Did he ever meet any fat activists? If so I haven't been able to find any documentation, though I love to imagine it. But I'm including this work here because it was a foundational text for early fat activists, and worth a read for anyone interested in the movement.

Goffman is one of the big names of sociology and, yes, he is another dead white guy, so there are a few strikes against him already. But Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity, first published in 1963 towards the middle of his career, is surprisingly readable and relatable in a field often noted for its impenetrability.

In this book Goffman explores what it is like to be a stigmatised person. He identifies different kinds of stigma based on character traits, physical difference and group identity. He writes about how stigmatised people manage their stigma, for example through compensation, passing, or through hypervigilance. To Goffman, stigma is a means of social control; by creating a group of shameful outcasts, societies use stigma to keep people in line. He writes about people, he talks to people and reflects their experiences, although he theorises his work, it is built on the people's lived experiences and that's partly why the book is so accessible.

It's not hard to see how fat activists looking for theory and evidence to support their experiences would find this book very powerful. Judy Freespirit mentioned Goffman as an influence on the Fat Underground when I interviewed her in 2010, and there are a great many Fat Studies texts that refer to Stigma. The book is also one of those texts that bridges fat and disability, Goffman writes about impairment quite a bit in Stigma, and it is easy to see that there are many overlaps.

There is an emphasis on reducing stigma in quite a bit of the more progressive scholarly literature on fat and health but I think that this sometimes misses the point by making stigma too much of an individual experience, possibly confusing it with shame. The literature on fat activism is quite patchy as well, and scholars often argue that stigma is the primary concern of the movement. Stigma is important, but there is more to fat activism than that, as I explain and sometimes, unfortunately, the movement has a hand in reproducing stigma.

Stigma remains relevant today as a way of understanding the scapegoating of fat people, or anyone really, as a social mechanism that keeps power in place. No wonder the normals (Goffman's term, a beauty!) get so upset when stigmatised people refuse the mark they have been handed. Stigma is a book of its time (it pre-dates punk, for example, which has been a useful touchstone for me in transforming stigma), its more scholarly than activist though there is a concern with the unfairness of stigma, but one of its enduring effects for me is that powerful though stigmatising may be, it is not inevitable. There's an unrealness about stigma, even though it is often deeply felt, that means that there are possibilities for relinquishing it and of taking back power. This is a point that I try to make in my own book, Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement.

09 March 2016

100 Fat Activists #4: More people should be FAT

Llewellyn Louderback was a jobbing writer from New York who published an article in the Saturday Evening Post in November 1967, four months after Steve Post's Central Park Fat-In. He may have written the piece earlier, magazine lead-in times can be quite lengthy. I don't know if Louderback went to the Fat-In, I think at that time he may have been more straight-laced than Post, but he was certainly impressed by it. It strikes me that 1967 was when fat activism had a moment of convergence with civil rights, pranksterdom and popular journalism. That late 60s feeling that anything could happen.

In his article, Louderback calls for many of the rights and recognitions that remain preoccupations of fat activists today. He talks about fatphobia, discrimination, thin privilege and draws on his personal experience of being fat and stopping dieting. Like many current activists he cites medical evidence to make his case, and is concerned about the representation of fat people in fashion media. It's amazing how far back these preoccupations go, and interesting that he is a guy writing this when so much of the discourse has been developed by women.

The piece is dated: he refers to his wife but doesn't name her (she was called Ann); he reproduces the now well-debunked myth that Americans are more likely to protest racism than fatphobia; he invokes the Nazis and quotes a somewhat colonial doctor who says that if fat people want to feel alright then they should go to a society "where obesity is worshiped".

Some of what More people should be FAT proposes remains contentious. The idea that fat people are fat because we eat junk food, for example. What fat people eat, the idea of fat people being ignorant about food, the causes of fat, the celebration of junk, and also counter-claims that deny these things are still being hashed out, and vulnerable to appropriation by anti-obesity policymakers.

Louderback makes some curious claims too: that fat hatred is rooted in US puritanism (recent Fat Studies scholars have also argued a case about religiosity and fatphobia), that the American Civil Liberties Union should get on the case (did that ever happen?) and that fat hate represents "the growing power of the group over the individual" (what were his politics at that time, I wonder?).

This article was published 48 years ago though was massively influential, as I explain in my book. It went on to spawn many things but was a relatively short and humble piece of journalism tucked away in a magazine. Louderback was a man who had had enough and couldn't take it any more.

By the way, I've no idea why FAT is capitalised, but I like it.

Louderback, L. (1967) 'More People Should Be FAT', Saturday Evening Post, 4 November, 10-12.