05 October 2015

Fat books and homemade badges

I can't find my copy of Macho Sluts by Pat, now Patrick, Califia but I often wear the badge that was cling-filmed to the cover when I bought it. It's pretty speckled with age now, it might have been through the washing machine a couple of times, but I am very attached to it. Queer books and badges are good companions, in my opinion.

Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement is being published in January and this is not an accident. January is the time of the year when weight loss companies capitalise on people's internalised fatphobia. I wanted to put something in the world that encourages people to think differently about fat during that dismal month.

However, it's likely that people might want copies of the book to give or receive as presents during the holiday season (or to read as a means of avoiding the holiday season!). So pre-orders will be available in December. As an incentive to pre-order Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement, you get a very limited edition badge lovingly made by two pairs of fat hands around the kitchen table.

Want one? Details coming soon.

28 September 2015

Feeling the Fear with Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement

I have the typeset files for my book on my computer. They're uncorrected, so I'm going through them, looking for typos and bits of text that need polishing. There's more every time I look. It's been about seven years since I embarked on this project, so by now I am word-blind. I move a comma here, swap a word there, really, does it make any difference? I can't believe I use the word "trump" so many times, god I'm so flatulent, better fix that. There's nothing like having your own verbal tics rubbed in your face to bring you down to earth.

I've been published all over the place but Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement will be my third solo-authored book. The other two were hardly easy to do, but what I'm noticing with this one is that it is difficult to write a book and this is why most people don't do it. It's difficult because writing is difficult, getting a publisher is usually difficult (though I've been lucky), producing the blimmin' thing is difficult and being in the public eye is difficult. People treat you as though you can just pop out a book at will; well, maybe that worked for Barbara Cartland but it's not my experience. They don't see the labour or the risk.

Third time around I feel a lot more sensitive to the risk. Maybe it's because Twitter exists. I get more hate mail now than I ever used to get when things were more analogue. It's so easy for someone to hate you and well-documented how women, queers, fat people and people on the margins get a lot more trolled than the cis white guy population. I'm girding myself for that. Having any kind of progressive opinion about fat puts you in a firing line, no matter how comparatively anodyne. The agents of obesity discourse want you to shut up because your voice threatens their power.

But the risk is also in speaking to people whose opinions I care about. Have I created something that fat activists will find useful? Is this work of any value? I hope that it is, that's been the guiding principle for the project. I've shared the work where I can over the years, and invited a lot of feedback. But I will only really know the book's value when people start to read it and talk about it and contribute their own thoughts to the thing.

So this is a scary time for me. Will my work have been wasted? A couple of readers have gone through the uncorrected proofs and, so far, the response has been positive. There are more to come. I'm on tenterhooks though, and probably will remain so for some time.

Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement is going to be published in the UK by HammerOn Press in January 2016.

21 September 2015

Indexing Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement

I've been a hermit for most of the year and that's because I've been building my psychotherapy practice, developing a dance piece called SWAGGA and writing a book called Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement.

The book is based on my PhD thesis, but it's been largely rewritten, made accessible and some of the ideas have been developed. It's been three years since I graduated and I've had time to reflect on things. Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement is going to be published in the UK by HammerOn Press in January 2016, and right now I am finishing up the editorial work before it goes into production.

One of these jobs involves building an index. One of my biggest regrets about my first book, Fat & Proud: The Politics of Size, is that it didn't have an index. This meant that the content of that book is buried in its pages, you have to read the whole thing to find information, you can't just look up the bits that interest you in the back, or get a feel for the book by skimming the index. The only reason it didn't have an index is because the publishers of that book wanted to charge me £150 to include one but I was on the dole at the time and didn't have it. So no index. It's amazing what comes down to money.

HammerOn is a small press built on DIY ethics. This means that if I want an index, I am going to have to do some work on it myself and learn how to construct one. You can probably get an algorithm to have a stab at it, but the best ones are those done by the people who know the text very well. At the moment that's me, though soon other people will be able to join in. So I've been trawling the text, which is about 70,000 words, looking for key words, key concepts, key people and things that I think should go in an index.

As I look for stuff for the index I can't help thinking about the hundreds of books that I consulted for my PhD. I think about the countless times I looked for 'fat activism' in an index, or even just 'fat' and was disappointed. Some of this disappointment prompted me to develop ideas in the process of writing the thesis and the book: how come it was rare to find an entry for fat activism in books about fat people? How come fat activism, when it was mentioned, usually meant something quite limited? Why would there be entries for body image, weight loss, dieting, but not fat?

Doing the ground work for building an index is both boring and exciting. Trawling the text takes time and focus, it's hard work, but the pleasure is in thinking about what this index might look like. Here are some potential entries: Archives, Emotions, Grassroots, Killjoy, London Fat Women's Group, Mama Cass, Power, A Queer and Trans Fat Activist Timeline, Radical Lesbian Feminism, Research Justice, Spud Guns, Standpoint, Venus of Willendorf, White Supremacy. How might my understanding of fat have been different if I'd come across an index like this when I was researching fat activism? I feel some grief that nothing like this was out there, and now some hope that it's going to exist. Maybe other fat activism indices will exist in the future too.

31 August 2015

SWAGGA film trailer and screening

SWAGGA is a dance that I danced and might dance again. It is also a group of people who enabled that dance to happen. Katarzyna Perlak is one of those people. She has been documenting SWAGGA's process through development and performance with her camera since the early days.

The material that Katarzyna has generated is forming the basis of a film, also called SWAGGA. There will be a screening of this film in London in a couple of weeks, details below. Please come.

Here is the trailer, feast your eyes!

SWAGGA - trailer. from Katarzyna Perlak on Vimeo.

Dancing for an audience is an intense experience. When I am performing I don't have much of an idea of how I look, I can't dance and be in the audience at the same time. I come from a culture where fat people are supposed to disown our bodies, this creates a lot of dissociation and so coming back into my own body is a regular thing for me. I feel very lucky to be able to see myself through Katarzyna's lens. Her images are reassuring, encouraging, exciting. Do I really look like that? Apparently so.

SWAGGA, a film by Katarzyna Perlak
Made by Project O, which is Alexandrina Hemsley and Jamila Johnson-Small, featuring Kay Hyatt and Charlotte Cooper dancing to the music of Verity Susman and Trash Kit. Alright!

Artsadmin event page: SWAGGA screening
16 September 2015, 7.30pm
Toynbee Studios, 28 Commercial Street, London E1 6AB
£3 including a drink

Fat and dancing and life and everything
SWAGGA has begun
SWAGGA: fat dancing, bodies, watching and shame
SWAGGA is unassimilated fatness
SWAGGA opening night happened!
The New Empowering School
SWAGGA: Slowly Without Angst Giant Goddess Attack
SWAGGA: Whatta Ride! Come and see us!
SWAGGA week is here at last
I danced in a show called SWAGGA

30 July 2015

Fat, Austerity, Class and Benefit Sanctions

I've been looking for an excuse to write about Elaine Graham-Leigh's book, A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and this week's headlines about the government's plans to force fat people claiming benefits to "get treatment" have done the trick. The book is very good, by the way, you should get a copy. Full disclosure: I'm in it a bit.

Plans to create various sanctions against fat people and our activities, presumed or real, have emerged as a product of the obe$ity epidemicTM aka fat panic and appear to be a convergence with other moral panics including those relating to the future of the NHS, the planet and what a body is supposed to be or do. The remedy is generally couched in pseudo-friendly coercion: taxing certain kinds of food; making fat people pay more for things such as plane seats; gatekeeping services like fertility treatment, for example.

Now Professor Dame Carol Black is writing a report for the Department of Health about the viability of threatening to take away people's benefits if they don't comply with some kind of unspecified treatment which is likely to involve weight loss. She is unhelpfully conflating fat with addiction as an anti-social and treatable condition. It's offered in friendlier language than that, of course. In newspaper reports, Prime Minister David Cameron talks about people being "unwilling to accept help". As for being "unwilling," well that assumes that the "help" will actually help but quite what the help looks like is anyone's guess. Perhaps this will be another opportunity to syphon public money into private weight loss corporations. You know, those places where they don't reveal their long-term success rates and sign you up for a lifetime's membership of yo-yo-ing and self-hatred. Maybe some of the team making these benefits sanction proposals are shareholders or on the payroll.

These proposals are a load of rubbish, they are nothing to do with encouraging well-being and everything to do with using Austerity to bully and scapegoat vulnerable people whilst the Tories continue to destroy the welfare state and transform health into a subcategory of productivity, efficiency and flexible/disposable/powerless workers just as it is with those pernicious workplace weight loss drives too. It masks the fact that fat people, especially those of us who are working class, face a lot of discrimination in trying to find work (and it helps the agents of Austerity that fat people will generally blame themselves for this instead of trying to change the system).

This brings me to A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change, in which Graham-Leigh shows how working class people, especially fat people, are being blamed for climate change within a politics of Austerity. She argues that by focussing on classist and fatphobic stereotypes of working class people, consumption and a rhetoric of personal responsibility, attention is drawn away from the real causes of climate change, which are to do with policy, politics, capitalism and neoliberalism and which can only be resolved through system change. You could easily substitute climate change with "killing the NHS" or "destroying the economy" and you would end up with the same explanation for Prime Minister David Cameron's latest pile of crap.

The left has gone along with this, it has failed to challenge its own fatphobia and classism, and seems to treat fat and health as something removed from politics. The Guardian, the country's biggest left-leaning media group, is at the heart of this failure. Where it should be interrogating the political use of fat people needing benefits as scapegoats, it reproduces our abjection as a motherlode of headless fatties, shoddy reporting on fat, and a mass of concern-trolling whenever a fat journalist dares to offer an opinion about the most benign of things.

I have relied on benefits at various times in my life and would not have survived without them. In my twenties I was unemployed for a long period and would qualify today as one of the people Cameron is referring to in this proposed policy. The support that helped me to find my way in life (low cost and relatively accessible higher education, housing benefit for students and young people, high quality training) is no longer available. If I was in that same situation now I would be in real trouble. My heart goes out to those who have been or will be caught up in this new nightmare. It has taken me a day to be able to write about these proposals because I find them so appalling, so wrong.

Elaine Graham-Leigh (2015) A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change, London: Zero Books.

21 June 2015

I danced in a show called SWAGGA

Before the show
This run is over and I realised on Saturday that I must have performed SWAGGA in its various incarnations to several hundred people by now. I'm in a state of overwhelm about this. I know that I have been part of something big but it will be a while until I have time to reflect on it properly and to understand what it is that happened. For now, these are my thoughts:

Doing a run of dance shows is exhausting. Every night I would go to bed feeling happy and satisfied, I'd wake in the small hours with some kind of mental niggle about something and then in the morning I'd feel the dread again which built until the second I got onstage. God knows how performers in long-term shows manage, the performance is omnipresent, I was unable to shut it out of my mind as I went about my business in the daytime. I spent most of the week feeling sick with nerves.

My body held up ok. We did long warm-ups each day, I worked on loosening my stiff knees, talking through the fear of performing, settling my mind, singing along to silly music. The show starts with a lot of noise and bad attitude and it wasn't hard to get into that state of mind! By the end of the run I had aches and was covered in bruises, my voice became hoarse. Even though we were dancing for shorter periods that we dance in rehearsals, the adrenaline and pressure of performing was knackering. I felt as though I'd been through a storm.

Each performance had a different feel to it depending on the audience, how I felt about the technical aspects of what I was doing, the presence or not of Trash Kit, whether or not I recognised people in the crowd. We sold out a couple of the shows and the others were almost full. There was so much sweat and intensity as I found my way through the score each time. But what they all had in common was that the response was extremely positive. It will take a long time to forget the applause. Here are some of the things that people said online:
  • the best thing I've seen in a long, long time.
  • SWAGGA is staggering stuff.
  • still replaying it
  • astonishing
  • music just so perfect.
  • a beautiful dancing reassessment. Something got done. Thank you
  • very moving, u crafted a mesmerising thing together
  • It's not like anything I've seen on stage before; funny, moving, sexy, scary and really, really watchable. I mean you can't take your eyes off them.
  • SWAGGA is just the most angry, beautiful, smart, funny, scary, joyful, thing I have seen in a long long time. If I was some kind of theatre producer I would give Kay, Charlotte & Project O my annual budget and cancel everything else.
  • I've just been to see the most inspiring show of recent times.
  • fierce and powerful and sexy and entertaining
  • It was so, so wonderful
  • Wow, once again moved, tearful, grinning.
  • What a storm of emotions and raw power.
  • detailed, exciting, uncompromising work woooo. Feeling love for SWAGGA
  • I can't remember the last time I loved a piece of theatre as much as I loved SWAGGA tonight. Perfection
  • absolutely fantastic!
  • Anyone and everyone who's wanted to dance should catch SWAGGA. Empowering and invigorating and I could just go on and on.
  • a must-see show. Congrats to all concerned, enduring images that stay with me & a band to break your heart.
  • Oh no. #SWAGGA is sold out tonight. Should have booked quicker :(
Many people said that the show moved them to tears. On the last night a woman stood crying by me, all she could say was "thank you!" Others stood to applaud us. It is almost too much for me to take in. It's fabulous to think that this means something to people.

Thinking about what audiences see when they see people like me or Kay, Alex or Jamila dancing on a stage is something that we talked about quite a bit in the rehearsal period. Would we be seen, really seen? That was part of the intention for doing SWAGGA, to be seen for who we are. Would people be able to see us? I feel culturally hyper-visible as an agent of deathfat and also queer and invisible. There is so much bullshit in the way of people being able to see people like me. It is very risky to put yourself in someone's line of fire.

After the show
The answer is that some people were able to see us and some people were not. It was a relief not to have to deal with the usual crap in instances where I was visible to people. I feel like a valuable person and now I know what it is like to be treated as one. I want more of it and I think that everybody should be treated in this way. But others were not able to see us. In one case a man did not have the language to talk about us, so it was all a bit clumsy; in another, a critic's view was ruined by his homophobia.

Being misrecognised, especially by someone who has access to a large readership, is a violent experience and one that can make a person feel painfully vulnerable. But these are not the people I dance for. There's a line in a song we sing: It's not for you. It's complicated because the dance has different functions at different times for the people making SWAGGA. I'm responsible to other people who are building their careers and repertoires on my movement, I love them and want to do a really good job of it. But in my heart I am not dancing for the papers or emissaries from the land of respectability. I'm still not sure why I perform, perhaps I will never know, but this week I was able to connect with people watching me and recognise acknowledgment and excitement in their eyes. I felt that we were able to encourage each other to imagine something different for ourselves, to be less alone in these stinking times.

None of us know where this will go.

Thanks to everyone who came and supported SWAGGA. Giant love to Project O aka Alexandrina Hemsley and Jamila Johnson-Small, Trash Kit, Verity Susman, Katarzyna Perlak, Jo Palmer, Maeve Bolger and Lorna Campbell.

SWAGGA is supported by Arts Council Grants for The Arts, The Junction, The Yard Theatre, Siobhan Davies Dance, State of Emergency, Artsadmin and Dance Research Studio.


Fat and dancing and life and everything
SWAGGA has begun
SWAGGA: fat dancing, bodies, watching and shame
SWAGGA is unassimilated fatness
SWAGGA opening night happened!
The New Empowering School
SWAGGA: Slowly Without Angst Giant Goddess Attack
SWAGGA: Whatta Ride! Come and see us!
SWAGGA week is here at last

15 June 2015

SWAGGA week is here at last

16-20 June 2015, 9pm
Plus! 17 June, 10-10.30pm: Naughty SWAGGA: a post-show Q+A of truth and lies
The Yard Theatre, London
Buy tickets

I have butterflies in my belly today and it's been hard to get off to sleep recently because my mind is full of dancing and things I need to remember. Tonight I will go over to The Yard Theatre for the technical rehearsal and tomorrow we'll have a dress rehearsal and opening night for our week's residency. This is what the work we've done so far has been building up to.

The show has changed since the previews and sharing sessions. We've been doing some publicity for it and the question always comes up: what is it about? This is an impossible question to answer. I used to think I knew, but it's different for everyone involved and its meanings shift in each performance. There isn't a meaning, it's loaded with meaning. I'm coming to understand how dance is something that people interpret, it creates a feeling, it's co-created with whoever's watching. The short answer is that SWAGGA is about us and about what it's like to claim space on a stage and be looked at. Sort of. But there are layers of emotion and experience in there that can't really be said, hence we dance it and invite people to have a look and see what they make of it. Perhaps it's a provocation, as my love described it last night.

Here are some of places where we've talked about SWAGGA:

Out in South London

Hackney Gazette Yard Theatre’s SWAGGA hopes to prove any age, shape or size can pull off a dance show

The Most Cake TMC interview the team behind SWAGGA, a dance piece for anyone who’s been "pushed aside, spoken over, ignored, mis-recognised and snubbed"

London Dance SWAGGA - disrupting conventions in dance aesthetics


Dotun Adebayo at 1:45-ish.

Friend of Marilyn Episode 140, available via iTunes

The Voice Project O: The dance industry is racist too

Exeunt SWAGGA: Dance, Dissent, Diversity

I feel embarrassed to admit that the reason I have butterflies is because I've pushed aside the idea that we have been working towards performances. I've been all about the work and the process as being SWAGGA, and it is, but – guess what? – there's also showtime. It's a bit strange thinking of myself as a performer. I think of them as people who are always On, who are gagging to get on a stage at any time, who live to perform, who need the validation of an audience. That is not me, though I'm a bit of a show-off sometimes. So I've been thinking about why I perform and what I hope this run will bring. Mostly I want to have fun, but it's also about sharing things with people, letting them into our SWAGGA world, hoping that this is something people can build on.

This week I was reading a 20 year old interview with Mick Jagger. The man is repulsive, let me get that clear from the start. But he said something that resonated about performance and humiliation. This has been my experience of performing on many occasions. It risks humiliation and it is humiliating. If you are fat, your life is full of humiliations too, it's part of the everyday. Dancing on a stage in a body like mine, and maybe in other bodies too, usually has some layer of shame and humiliation about it and moving in spite of all that, or with it, is part of the work of dance. Anyway, Mick Jagger said that it feels great to make a fool of yourself in front of people, even if it's a small group. As long as no one's throwing rotten tomatoes at you, you're onto something. You have to keep going, learn to ride the humiliation and enjoy the surprise in people's faces. It feels great! Fancy that!

Ok, so now it begins again.


Fat and dancing and life and everything
SWAGGA has begun
SWAGGA: fat dancing, bodies, watching and shame
SWAGGA is unassimilated fatness
SWAGGA opening night happened!
The New Empowering School
SWAGGA: Slowly Without Angst Giant Goddess Attack
SWAGGA: Whatta Ride! Come and see us!

02 June 2015

Body, fat, memory and the massage table

I'm lying on a table on my front with my face poking through a hole. There's some plingy-plongy music that I drift in and out of. I feel warm and secure. Sabrina is pressing an area in my upper back that makes me feel a) like a moth being pinned to a board and b) as though she is releasing every ounce of tension in my body through that one point. She does the same with a point on my arse. In a moment she will appear to put her fingers inside the bottom of my skull and I will think "Ah, being decapitated is not so bad after all, it's a bit weird but it actually feels really nice." She will rest her hand on my breastbone and somehow I will have remembered my sense of courage and strength. When I feel unsure I will come back to the memory of that touch.

At times I flash on my mum and dad and wonder if they ever had a massage. I think about people who haven't experienced touch, maybe for a long time, and what it might be like for them to be lying where I am. I think about the layers of embarrassment, fear, shame, class identity and lack of entitlement, lack of access that stops people from getting mostly naked and allowing a stranger to touch them. I reflect on how getting massages has been one of the ways in which I have been able to make sense of and make room for my own body. I think of my friend Deb.

I can't remember the number of times I've climbed on the table. It's different every time. I used to get scrubbed down by a burly woman at Ironmonger Row. I've been scoured with chocolate-smelling goo at the spa at Hershey, and prodded around in the kinds of places where ladies lunch and hairy legs like mine are a rarity indeed. A man in Budapest blasted me underwater with a high-pressure hose. I don't discriminate, I like the variety.

I remember having a massage at Therme Vals, the most beautiful bathhouse I've ever visited. It was over ten years ago. A muscular guy in shorts and vest gave me a going over with hard bristly brushes. It was all I could afford! He had no truck with clothing of any kind and he insisted in a brusque way of doing my front and back. I got the giggles as he brushed my belly and wobbled me around the table. I was so naked and the scene so strange.

For a while I worked at the kind of places that offered workplace massage. A woman would come round with a chair and do you by your desk for ten minutes. It didn't make up for capitalism and the exploitation of labour and it was hard to relax with my boss nearby. At another office a woman set up in the sub-basement. I'd go and see her every few weeks. The ambiance down there was like Eraserhead. I often think about the working conditions of people who do body-work, how they put their bodies on the line too. It's hard work and there's often a big gap between the worker and the punter. I suspect it is hard to unionise. It's work that takes place in these edge spaces and, surprise surprise, it is a kind of work dominated by women.

These most recent series of massages have been part of the dancing I've been doing lately and they also feel connected to therapy. I feel more conscious that they are a means of putting me in touch with my body, noticing things. I've been explicit about this with Sabrina, the practitioner, and she has responded with a wide repertoire of touch, working with my body in a really great and respectful manner.

I go though different states when I'm being worked on. I'm aware of fat, muscle, bone, tightness, warmth, my body becoming extremely relaxed. Sometimes I feel as though I am meat or a corpse, but not in an alarming way, more like an acceptance of my physical self. I often want to say: "Wow! That feels fantastic! Thank you!" but I'm deep in the moment, allowing myself to experience it. Sometimes the touch feels as though it is pushing my limits of tolerance but this is always immediately soothed. It makes me feel brave. I lie there appreciating what I have, enjoying my embodiment, feeling resilient. When I'm on the table I feel as though I am bringing the history of my body with me. I'm glad I can be there at all.

29 May 2015

SWAGGA: Whatta Ride! Come and see us!

We're coming to the last couple of weeks of rehearsals for SWAGGA before our week's run at The Yard. Come and see us!

What a ride it's been so far. Here are some highlights:

The biggest thing that has changed over this development period is that we are working to music that has been specially made for the piece. The composer Verity Susman, also of Electrelane, has created a score for us and the band Trash Kit will be performing live onstage with us during the show. I'm saying this in a matter-of-fact style, but the reality is that we are dancing to our favourite musicians, to music they have made with us in mind, with people who are very important to us as artists and community. It is thrilling beyond belief to be working in this dynamic, mixed, interdisciplinary way. Just the other week we were practising with Trash Kit at Chisenhale Dance Space, improvising movement whilst they freestyled around us. The interplay felt incredible. I am so excited for audiences to witness this.

Trash Kit get ready

Last Saturday we previewed SWAGGA in at Watch Out, a festival of dangerous new performance at Cambridge Junction. We are dangerous! We performed at an odd time in the afternoon but managed to attract a lovely audience. The space was really good to dance in. It's funny, when I'm dancing I am aware of the audience and they certainly feed the piece and give it energy, but it's also a very internal feeling. I am closing in on feelings and thoughts that drive the movement, I'm very focused, in a kind of flow of body and mind. I no longer worry about my body not being able to do things because I know it can. I'm aware of being seen, and also in quite a private state. It's hard to tell what it feels like, it's enjoyable and also work, effort. Whilst I was in this flow state in Cambridge, I was aware of a sequence dancing with Kay through millions of tiny dust motes lit up by the side lights. It was as though we were dancing in a giant, golden sno-globe.

Verity nabs the best seat to watch our dress rehearsal

A few weeks ago we did a run for a group of people in order to solicit some feedback from them. It's useful to listen to the things that people say when you are deeply embroiled in something because you can get a bit snowblind. One person turned up to the sharing, he knew nothing about the piece, his dance practise was different to ours. He said some things that stung and I don't think he realised this, he was just saying what he thought. The sting was the first time in the project that I felt diminished as a dancer and it caused some past insecurities to surface for a while: I'm too fat, I'm too old, I can't move, who am I kidding that I could do this? Re-entering the work put those voices in their place but what I have been left with is the astonishing realisation that in over a year of making SWAGGA this is the first time I have encountered views such as that man held. I thought dancing would entail fighting people that didn't want someone like me to be dancing but my experience has been the opposite. I'm sure this is because of the communities of dance that I have started to be a part of, their values and aesthetics. But what I have found is a hunger and eagerness for people with bodies like mine to be part of things, and a lot of support along the way. It is extremely humbling.

Studio view from Arts Admin

One of the ways in which I have been encountering different forms of dance and community has been through The New Empowering School, a series of workshops allied to SWAGGA. Every week about twelve of us meet and have a go at something under the stewardship of a performance practitioner. So far, Florence Peake, Matthias Sperling and Vicki Igbokwe have taken us on a journey of release work, collective movement and club dancing. Charlie Lee George has been blogging about her experiences over at Fishing for Dragons.

We are about halfway through the School and it has indeed been an empowering thing. We have been working in a beautiful studio at Arts Admin. It's actually a space where the choreographer who introduced me to dance in the 1980s works with his company. We work amongst their belongings: a baby seat, biscuits, boxes of clothes, equipment. It feels as though I've moved from being in the audience to seeing what goes on behind the curtain. I can't believe I now know what a studio is like, what a dance class is like, how it feels to enter a dance space feeling limited and being able to contribute and take things from it regardless. I've had a life thinking that these things are not for the likes of me. I am starting to think about how my life as a dancer will develop beyond SWAGGA, which is a great gift that Alexandrina Hemsley and Jamila Johnson-Small of Project O, the initiators of all this, have given me, and one that I hope to pass on in my own way.


Fat and dancing and life and everything
SWAGGA has begun
SWAGGA: fat dancing, bodies, watching and shame
SWAGGA is unassimilated fatness
SWAGGA opening night happened!
The New Empowering School
SWAGGA: Slowly Without Angst Giant Goddess Attack

14 May 2015

Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement

I'm extremely happy to announce that I have a new book coming out in January 2016.

It's called Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement.

The book is based on my PhD research, expanded and made accessible for a broad readership. I hope you'll want to read it

Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement will be published by HammerOn, a fantastic small press specialising in books for and by feminists, queers, nerds and weirdos.

More here: http://hammeronpress.net/shop/coming-soon/

24 April 2015

SWAGGA: Slowly Without Angst Giant Goddess Attack

It's been about a year since I started dancing with Project O. I am now well-acquainted with five dance studios, a rehearsal basement and a couple of stages. I feel as though I have infiltrated spaces that were previously excluded to me. I have come to know Jamila Johnson-Small and Alexandrina Hemsley, which has brought me nothing but pleasure. I'm getting an idea of how people work in dance and performance (yes, it's not easy). I am meeting other dancers and makers, witnessing and participating in different kinds of work. I am being paid to rehearse, dance and perform for this period and there is a small budget for other things relating to my life as a dancer, like physio. Not surprisingly, my relationship with my body has changed quite a bit over the past months.

Dancing with Project O has been a major life experience for me as a fat person invested in decolonising my body and developing a radical embodied practice/activism based on the liberation of all people. I now see my body as a resource I can trust and through which I can express myself. I have learned to move with a little more depth, strength, imagination. I enjoy the way I am able to move, I'm not afraid of being puffed out, of sweating, of getting tired, I see this as part of my aesthetic. I am more curious about shame when it arises and less fearful of it. I have been given wonderful opportunities and encouraged to experience my body as it is and not within a framework where gracefulness, prettiness, a kind of dancerly expertise must play out in order for my movement to be legitimate. The work of rehearsing is hard and also a joy. I feel both at peace with my body and ready to rock it. I'm very powerful, our choreographers have said this from the start and now I see it too. No wonder dance schools and spaces try to keep people like me out, they really can't handle it.

Because my introduction to dance has been grounded in black feminist class-conscious cripped queerness I am more convinced than ever that fat politics cannot be separate from all forms of anti-oppressive work. That this has been experienced through our bodies and lives colliding and not as abstraction or theory is really thrilling. There is so much potential for richness to come out of these crossover spaces. I'm really aware of this in a week where a black woman has become the focal point for the rage of a fat activist community largely represented by white people, whilst her equally if not more fatphobic white colleagues have managed to slip by, including a powerful media maker who is well-known for her fat hatred.

I am still a fat dancer and fat will likely always be a part of how I perform and am in the world. Unless I get very ill I don't see myself getting thinner any time soon and, if I did, I would have a formerly fat middle-aged body, I would not be reborn as any kind of youthful thin ideal. But the dancer part has become more prominent, I am now interested in what it is to be a dancer, what I can bring to dance with my body and experience. It's still about fat but it's not all just about fat.

Come and see SWAGGA

Saturday 23 May 2015
Watch Out Festival
Cambridge Junction, Clifton Way, Cambridge, CB1 7GX

Tuesday 16 - Saturday 20 June 2015
Now 15
The Yard Theatre, Queen’s Yard, Hackney Wick, London E9 5EN


Fat and dancing and life and everything
SWAGGA has begun
SWAGGA: fat dancing, bodies, watching and shame
SWAGGA is unassimilated fatness
SWAGGA opening night happened!
The New Empowering School

Photo: Guido Mencari

21 April 2015

A famous headless fatty

This is an image that is often used in news media to accompany stories of fat abjection. A famous headless fatty.

I find the person in this picture compelling. Who are they? They look as though they are just going about their business and yet this image recurs over and over again in the news. A small moment in time repeated seemingly forever to remind readers and viewers how disgusting it is to be like them. How might they feel about their image being sold in this way time and time again? How much profit has been made off this image? What might the person in this image say if their power to speak had not been stripped from them? I would like to read a novel or a poem, or see a film or a play or a dance piece about and by someone like this.

Wiki: Headless Fatty

18 April 2015

The six types of obesity researcher

Warning: bile ahead.

Obesity reporting is cranking up again following a relative post-new year lull. The papers seem to be full of this stupid crap. It's too early for swimsuit season, so could it be something to do with the election? Drive people into a frenzy, like panicked sheep? Or maybe it's academic conference season and researchers are vying for attention. Either way, there's a strong whiff of bullshit in the air.

Today The Guardian published a story based on research by Sheffield University and presented in the august Journal of Public Health. The research team has made the AMAZING DISCOVERY that all fat people aren't the same. That's right folks, you heard it, we are not all one homogenous blob of couch potatoes needing rescuing by the weight loss evangelists. Way!

The research identifies six types of fat person and argues that this stereotyping is important because it will help NHS managers distribute resources more effectively. The idea that the good healthy fatties will be harassed less by medics is being presented here as progressive and ethical. One wonders what will happen to the bad fatties.

The context in which these GROUND-BREAKING findings are being set reminds me of how fat panic produces its own set of rhetoric and that, when repeated often enough, this hot air is made real, it becomes a truth. The Obesity Epidemic is one such example but this is old news now. Instead it has spawned new, exciting ways of hating fat people though concepts such as 'obesogenic,' 'the burden on the NHS,' 'tackling obesity' and, another one from The Guardian last weekend, 'obesity of the mind.' For a discourse completely obsessed with eliminating junk food, it sure supports a lot of junk concepts.

If the tables were turned, what would things look like? What happens when the gaze is reversed? I love a listicle and so here I present to you, with great fanfare:

The six types of obesity researcher

NB. None of these people know any actual fat people other than as their grateful research fodder.

The government jerk
Imagine every episode of Yes Minister, The Thick of It, The West Wing and so on with added posturing about obesity. These researchers are blowhard masters of spin and pomposity. Found in every department, they haunt the NHS and all public health organisations. They are hard to pin down because they're always rushing from one place to another and live in some weird realm of unaccountability.

The early career opportunist
They have just spent the best years of their youth trying to get a toehold in an academy where good solid jobs are becoming very rare indeed. By making obesity their special area of interest they can claim to be doing social good and get their hands on second-to-none funding opportunities. Result: they score complementary articles in Times Higher Education and can finally afford to move out of their parents' place.

The mid-career switcheroo
This irrelevant scrote is to be found in a completely unrelated field where the research funding has virtually dried up. He (it's always he) is not quite ready to retire yet, but must justify his tenure and has seen that the grass is greener in the world of obesity. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

The obesity NGO bumbler
Research is a tool to legitimise the untenable and make yourself indispensible to the people with money. Usually rides a Brompton and has a very nice wife and kids at home. Beloved by journalists.

The weight loss industry creep
Research is a tool to legitimise the untenable and sell more product. Basically a robot.

The media chancer
Research is a tool to legitimise the untenable and sell more product in the form of exploitative TV shows, newspaper and website articles. They may also become a celebrity and win an award.

Missing from this list, as ever: fat researchers, especially those using a research justice frame.

I could make Freedom of Information requests to find out how much the public research on this list costs, but life is too short. Let's just assume it isn't cheap. As for the others, I can only guess at the amount of time and money these people waste. They are truly a burden and need to be stopped now before they do any more damage.

13 March 2015

The New Empowering School

For the last year I have been involved in a dance project called SWAGGA, working with Jamila Johnson-Small and Alexandrina Hemsley under their Project O wings. Kay Hyatt is also a part of it all. I have blogged about it from time to time. It has been one of the best things I have ever done, and I have done a lot.

Project O is developing this work through a series of free workshops in London called The New Empowering School. The workshops are open to all but you must make an application to participate and you must be able to attend all ten sessions.

This is a really fantastic opportunity for anyone with any interest in bodies, movement, dancing, being total motherfuckers of the universe, to come together. This includes dancers and also others (fat people, crips for example) who are generally alienated by dance culture; people like you and me. Jamila, Alex, Kay and I think that dance should have worked out its issues around access a thousand years ago. Now it's our time to get busy.

I implore you to apply.

Here is the blurb:

The New Empowering School

Project O would like to invite people with an interest in moving their bodies just for the heck of it; for the pure shameless mad joy of it; for the reveal of it; for the labour of it, to the New Empowering School. You might be a professional performer, or a non-professional regular dance class attendee, or a weekend party dancer, or a private dancer in secret moments when no one else is watching, or you might never dance, then read this and think "Fuck it, why not?"

The New Empowering School will be a place for a community of movers and shakers. The focus of the school will be engaging participants with their bodies as agents of movement, politics, desire, self and dance. We are looking to create a space of permission, discussion, transformation and revelation through languages of the body-mind. We want to create a space where otherness is celebrated as standard - a place to come worship the wonder that is you!

The School will run over ten weekly sessions with different artists invited by Project O who will also be attending the School.

The New Empowering School is part of the creative process for Project O’s current work SWAGGA with Charlotte Cooper and Kay Hyatt. Project O is a choreographic collaboration between dance artists Alexandrina Hemsley and Jamila Johnson-Small.

To express your interest send us a statement about why you would like to be part of The New Empowering School by Sunday 29th March. We will also gladly accept audio or video statements.

All sessions are FREE, wheelchair accessible and will be held at Artsadmin’s Toynbee Studios (28 Commercial Street, London, E1 6AB) on Wednesday evenings 7-9pm.

You must be able to attend all dates:

29 April
6, 13, 20, 27 May
3, 10, 24 June
1, 8 July

Do get in touch if you have any questions. We look forward to hearing from you.

Alexandrina and Jamila
Project O


The New Empowering School is supported by Artsadmin Bursary Scheme and Arts Council England Grants for the Arts. The New Empowering School image by Hamish MacPherson.


Fat and dancing and life and everything
SWAGGA has begun
SWAGGA: fat dancing, bodies, watching and shame
SWAGGA is unassimilated fatness
SWAGGA opening night happened!

09 February 2015

Who speaks for fat people?

Like many of us* who use the internet to say what we think, I get hate mail from time to time. The flavour of it varies – sometimes it's really vitriolic, other times it has this hurt and surprised quality – but the bottom line is always: SHUT UP! YOU HAVE NO RIGHT TO SPEAK!

I found this little comment in my spam folder:
"surely if you want to blog about obesity you should not be fat yourself sorry but it dont make sence"
I usually delete this kind of thing because I think it's stupid. But this one was accompanied by the author's email address, which I Googled. This person is a bit of a troll and I was amused by two of their comments elsewhere: "i agree i am a real asshole and love to piss off people," and "i am a liar i find it helps me get my way and get attenshun". So true!

Anyway, enough about them. I was interested in the gist of what they said, which I think is something like: if you are fat you have no right to talk about it, you are a failed person and can never be considered an expert of your own life, it's nonsensical to think otherwise. The only people who should talk about fat are thin people, preferably anti-obesity professionals of some kind. I might be reading more into this than the commenter offered, but this is where it took me regardless.

I've come across this conviction in lots of places, not just mean commenters. It's a fundament of fatphobia, about reminding you of your place as a fat person and reinforcing the rights and entitlements of the medical industrial complex to your body and your life. It silences and diminishes fat people through fear. I've met many fat people who are waiting for their lives to begin and Fat Studies scholars, like Hannele Harjunen, have written about this process, it's a recognised thing. People are waiting for romantic rescuers, medical miracles, an elusive feeling of self-confidence, whatever, and they'll be waiting forever as far as I can see.

I'm giving the mean commenter special attention here because I disagree with them completely and I want people to know it. As a fat person it is vital that I write about fat and obesity (yeah, they're different) and don't leave this to the others, whoever they may be. Claiming my own life, connecting with others, that's where the power is. It does make sense.

*people who are not entitled and privileged white guys

05 February 2015

I need you to be happy so that I can feel ok about your oppression

Not so long ago I gave a talk at a conference where I described an event that I had co-produced. The subject matter was serious, but I like to throw in a laugh or two when I talk, especially if I'm presenting to a bunch of chin-stroking academics. This lot must have been starved for humour because they really went for it. I was pleased. Later, in the Q&A part of the talk, someone asked me a question that prompted me to reveal some slightly less jolly facts about the thing I had been talking about. People seemed quite shocked by my disclosure, but I felt that it was important they see the reality of what I work with.

The conference organisers and speakers went to a dinner that evening and the person in charge came and sat and talked with me. She was a senior academic, a little bit drunk and braggy, exuberant, thin, kind of posh, straight. She said that she enjoyed my talk but thought it was a real shame that I had disclosed the hard stuff. It had ruined the moment. I felt angry but I smiled and nodded because I didn't want to be blamed for destroying this moment too whilst eating fancy food that her department had paid for.

I thought: this is what oppression looks like. She wants to hear the funny stuff, the joy, which is an undeniable part of my life, but not the struggle. I suspected that she'd rather I hadn't mentioned that part so that she could carry on thinking that everything is fine. She didn't want to engage with my reality, even though she was pretending to do just that.

It's taken me a while to write about this incident because I realise that, up until now, I felt that I had to protect other people. I was worried that if I said what I actually thought, it would make life difficult for people I actually do care about who sometimes have dealings with her. Maybe there would be some knock-on effect on me too, that has certainly happened in the past. This is also oppressive.

This is a small interlude. I don't have much more to add, just wanted to get it off my chest. I suppose I'm offering it as an illustration of a micro-aggression, dressed up as something else. Maybe she thought she was on my side or something, enlightened and enlightening me. It's like a sibling behaviour to concern trolling, or a kind of concern trolling, hatred that is kind: I need you to be happy so that I can feel ok about your oppression.

17 December 2014

Is fat about to be classified as disability in the UK?

About 20 years ago I published an academic paper and a book based on some postgraduate research that explored the possibility of thinking of fat as disability.

Other people built their own papers on that work, others ignored it and, over the years, there have been occasional flurries of interest in fat and disability intersections within Fat Studies.

My main argument at the time was that it is useful to think of fat as disability using a social model of disability. This means that it is people's attitudes and social structures that need changing as opposed to people's physical and mental impairments (ie, their embodied difference). The social model offers a useful way of critiquing medicalisation which, for fat people, is becoming increasingly intrusive. It also proposes helpful ways of thinking about charity and pity, and about 'helper's' motivations. The social model of disability is a potentially very powerful means for fat people to gain a social identity, build coalitions, and develop a critical and cultural voice collectively. This has remained an idea with scant application, although things might be about to change.

What has hindered that change is that disableism and ignorance about disability means that people resist identifying with it. There is also a belief that fat shouldn't be thought of as a disability because it is the result of people's bad choices and bad behaviour. Why people are fat is a dead-end thread and derails a discussion of who counts as disabled. Within disability community there are vastly different experiences of impairment, it's a very broad group of people. Similarly, smaller fat people are likely to come up against fewer social barriers relating to fat than fatter fat people, although this depends on other intersections such as gender and race. So claiming fat as disabled is complicated, depends on the social context in which people live, it isn't a one size fits all affair. It's also worth pointing out that fat and disabled are not mutually exclusive categories either. There are disabled people who are fat as well as fat people who already think of themselves as disabled. Disability might also be a transient state or a state that people reach with age.

In July of this year the advocate general of the European Court of Justice gave a ruling on a case about employment discrimination involving a fat person using disability as its basis. This echoes cases in the US, described by Sondra Solovay in her book Tipping The Scales of Justice, and on which anti-discrimination law was established in Michigan and a handful of cities. The court found that people with a Body Mass Index of 40 or more could be considered disabled and could therefore be protected against discrimination. Their findings were not binding, but it was recommended that the case be referred to another court for a decision that could be brought in across the European Union. That decision is due any day now.

There are a few things to consider if the ruling passes that fatter people can be classed as disabled:

The main thing is that it would mean an entitlement to rights. In employment, which is the basis of the ruling, it would mean that we would be entitled to 'reasonable adjustments' that ensure work is accessible to us. Here the responsibility to provide an accessible environment shifts to those providing the environment rather than the expectation that fat people should lose weight to fit in. I'm not sure, but perhaps this could be extended to access in public space, for example seating and transport. I think that within this ruling is the implicit acknowledgement that losing weight is not a viable option. Legally recognising some fat people as disabled would also mean that we could, theoretically, claim cases against discrimination and be eligible for compensation. Given the evidence that fat people routinely experience discrimination, including at work, this would be extremely helpful.

I have some concerns, however. Body Mass Index, on which the ruling would be based, is notoriously flawed and, by using it, the court reinforces the idea that it is a valuable 'scientific' way of measuring fat or classifying fat people. There are likely to be cases that could benefit from the ruling but which would be thrown out because the complainant does not have the correct BMI number. I wonder if the ruling might be used to further medicalise fat people, or use ableism to leverage more problematic medical interventions such as weight loss surgery with the aim of producing allegedly able-bodied citizens (I say alleged because surgical complications produce disabled fat people). It will be interesting to see how classifying fat people as disabled affects commercial weight loss organisations, for example, and their public-private partnerships within the NHS and statutory healthcare provision. Would they have less of a claim on the public purse? I was intrigued by Glenn Hayes, an employment partner at the UK law firm Irwin Mitchell, who told The Guardian earlier this year that 'reasonable adjustments' at work could include: "ensuring that healthy meal options are provided at their staff canteen." This seems to me typical of how obesity discourse is likely to become embedded within the ruling, if it passes, to create increasingly fatphobic and coercive environments where, for example, your food choices at work become even more policed and loaded.

The situation for disabled people in the UK at the moment is particularly dire. The government's commitment to cutting social service funding means that to be disabled is to experience extreme social marginalisation. Rhetoric about assisted suicide for disabled people cannot be divorced from the ideology of austerity. This is the context in which fat people's potential legal recognition as disabled will occur. Cuts in Legal Aid might mean that accessing justice is reserved for the rich. I hope that legal recognition will encourage fat people to feel confident and empowered to claim our basic rights and participate in a community of disabled people who are already fighting hard for their lives. But I also wonder if this will further entrench fat identity in abjection, shame, patronage and pity because we won't just be fat now (with the attendant false promise that we could make ourselves normal is we really wanted to) we will be disabled too and therefore presumably beyond hope.

Whatever the ruling, prepare yourselves for a parade of outraged anti-Europe right-wingers in the media spluttering about political correctness gone mad. Joy.

18 December, edited to add:

The court has made its ruling, but it looks unclear.

The European Union's Court of Justice in Luxembourg ruled that "under particular conditions" fat people can be construed as disabled. The particular conditions are where one's fatness hinders one's participation in common activities, including work compared to other people. It looks as though the court is saying that each case should be judged on its own, it is not proposing that fat people should have protected status.

This is obviously a medical framing of fat and does not draw on a social model of disability. Hence the ruling, as far as I can see, does little to protect against discrimination, and I don't know how people might use it to demand that reasonable adjustments should be made so that spaces are accessible.

Because it is drawing on a medical model, it could be that people who have medical problems or impairments relating to fat could access rights, but even then it is not clear.

It seems quite a weak and wishy-washy ruling, in my opinion, although my legal expertise is minimal. Lawyers talking to the press about the ruling sound more positive and are saying that it's an important step in legally recognising ant-fat discrimination in the workplace.

The case that led to this ruling has not been resolved and will be referred back to the Danish court for a decision on whether or not the plaintiff can be defined as disabled. It will be interesting to see how that plays out and if it will offer a precedent for test cases in the UK and elsewhere.

28 November 2014

Scavenging fat activism

This week The British Psychological Society published a report called Understanding Psychosis and Schizophrenia. It's free to download and there is a useful article by Dr Jay Watts, Making Space for the Meaning in Madness, which gives it some context and is a much shorter read.

Both pieces cover a lot of ground but for me the takeaway message was that variety in human experience is normal and that medical cures, used without listening to people at the sharp end of things, can be experienced as abusive and counterproductive.

This ethic can be applied to a lot of things. Autism features prominently in my life, for example, and I find the liberation and acceptance narratives that have arisen out of autistic rights activism really compelling. Although there remains a resarch community invested in proposing physiological causes of being gay, as a queer I can see what happens when people largely relinquish medicalisation, and where other forms of framing concerning identity and experience are enabled. People flourish.

It's not hard to make the connection here to fat. This week weight loss surgery was mandated by statutory bodies in the UK for many more people at lower weights. The authorities think that it will be cost-effective in the long term regarding how Type 2 Diabetes is managed. These surgeries are risky, have mixed results and exist within a context of devastating fatphobic rhetoric. I see the effects of this with clients in my therapy room every week and it is neither cost effective nor supports people's well-being in the long term. As far as I can see the institutions making these proposals offer no critical reflection on the value of these interventions and discourse. The proposers may have a financial or professional stake in offering them. User voices are absent. Surgery is now being considered the only possible route that can be taken to look after fat people's health, which itself is becoming synonymous with Diabetes.

If people with experience of psychosis who have been profoundly oppressed by trauma and medicalisation can organise for social change and influence a community of sympathetic and radical health practitioners on a large scale, why not fat people? Medical institutions, and the world in general, is much farther away from understanding fat people as a viable social group that is being harmed by what is presumed to be the cure. This applies to us too, fat people are barely organised and we suffer intensely from a shame that often prevents us from taking action, as well as marginal social positioning at our intersections. Because of a decades long war on obesity it is difficult for all of us to frame fatness as part of the diversity of human embodiment.

I hope that this will change in time and that fat activists will be able to make use of, contribute towards and expand upon, for example, the ideas of the mental health survivors' and autistic rights movements among many others. Some of us are mental health system survivors, some are autistic, some of us are already involved in activism. But at the moment fat activism is a scavenged affair, using and remodelling the vital work of other liberationists, and always very tentatively. Many fat people feel that we have no right to exist, even though we have been part of the fabric of humanity since the dawn of time. Fat activism is the perpetual newbie as a social movement and I suspect it will be a long time until we are able to offer theory and blueprints for change to share with others.

10 November 2014


This post is part of an on-going series about the experience of becoming a dancer who is also fat, old and becoming disabled. Project O is the umbrella organisation, owned by Alexandrina Hemsley and Jamila Johnson-Small, who are choreographing and directing us. SWAGGA is the name of the piece we are developing together. We debuted a version of this piece in June 2014. Kay Hyatt is my girlfriend and co-dancer.

Photo by Katarzyna Perlak

We did SWAGGA again. We were selected to perform at SPILL, which is a festival of performance that takes place in Ipswich, a large town in the East of the UK. We spent a four week period preparing for two performances. This entailed meeting to dance, working out practical details, with lots of talking and wondering on top of that. We met at Dance Research Studio in North London, a beautiful space run by Jacky Lansley. Here are some reflections on what that process entailed.

It feels remarkable that we were able to make that space our own during this time. It's a dance studio, with wooden floors, white walls, with evidence of dance culture: a piano, musculoskeletal posters, objects on which you can bash out a rhythm. There is nowhere really to sit, it's a space in which movement takes place. In our breaks we perched on a futon, on a stair, on the piano stool. It's not a weight loss clinic waiting room or a fat activist workshop space, there are no concessions though perhaps there are assumptions. We have worked with getting up and down on the floor and I am somewhat preoccupied with it. Ultimately I do it and am able enough. I see this as part of the work we have been doing, noticing movement, having a go at things, working through trepidation. Together we have made a space where awkward physicality is welcome.

When I think about how Alex and Jamila work with us I can't believe how lucky I am. They are firm and confident as creative workers, they treat us with a lot of respect, they guide and mentor us carefully, they bring their politics and hearts to the work, they are patient and loving. The relationship sometimes feels quite holy and parental, even though I'm twenty years older than them and at least twice their size. I feel as though I am really thriving in their care. It's great when they're full of joy and gleeful, I just want to make them happy if I can.

In one session we watched a video recording of our performance in June. I had been apprehensive about watching it because I knew that I would feel overwhelmed at seeing myself dance and maybe overly critical. Alex and Jamila were gentle and supportive. There was a dissonance in what I saw and how I remembered it feeling. I thought I moved more quickly and with more dynamism. Perhaps this is a feature of being a fat dancer, you feel the interior of your skeleton and muscles moving in a particular way, and your flesh sort of catches up. I don't know, I'm almost loathed to say that because it feels uncomfortably close to an idea of a thin person within, an idea that I reject in favour of a more holistic fat embodiment. Perhaps there are other theories.

Watching myself dance set off a series of reflections about what it is to dance. I realised that I'd assumed that dance is a finite number of movements, that a body with a head, two arms and two legs, hands and feet, can move a lot, but that its actions are ultimately limited and that these limits have been mapped by dancers and choreographers who have come before us. This isn't true. In thinking of dance in this way I'd internalised a load of rubbish about good dance being a knowledge and mastery of those movements. Maybe some of it is, but not the kind I'm doing. When I thought of dance in this way I often felt as though I was not and could never be good enough. I'd continually construct the dancer as someone else, not me. Someone else is younger, thin, fitter, uninjured, flexible, fast, mobile, agile. The Perfect One who shames me. Jamila said that accepting your body and its movements is the work of dancing and I've found this very helpful in allowing my body to move in its own way, and in developing that movement, really inhabiting my own body. Sometimes it can be very hard and frustrating work, other times not so much. The work brings many rewards in the form of self-knowledge, self-compassion, confidence and delight in my own body. I listened to and felt, with pleasure, my internal organs sloshing around and rearranging themselves as I stood up from lying on the floor, for example. I felt like a miracle. I may move in ways that are recognisable to and replicable by others, but what I have is my own.

I was nervous before each practise, but this diminished as time went on and disappeared completely before the performances; I was really ready when the time came. Kay and I talked about how dance has been a consistent encounter with shame. Shame is what we work through in order to dance, and shame is how we experience oppression as fat people, as dykes, as working class women, and so on. Shame is the unsurprising response to a decade-plus of obesity epidemic rhetoric. We understand that our bodies are not suppose to be autonomous, creative, expressive, organisms that contribute positively to the world. Yet here we are. When we dance we are aware of this, we feel it and we do what we can to refuse the idea that dance is not for the likes of us and our allegedly worthless bodies and lives. We are finding out what happens on the other side, the side without shame. It feels pretty amazing to experience shamelessness is all I can say at the moment.

The piece that we performed in June looked sort of similar to the SPILL version, but the feeling behind some of the movement changed, and that gave it a different flavour. People still ask me what it's about and I still struggle to say. It's dance, it's about whatever you want it to be about. It's a performance that invites feeling, it's a spectacle, I have particular feelings when I perform in it too. For example, we've been working with a sensibility of 'motherfuckerliness,' for want of a better term, a swagger. I feel brawny, giant and powerful when I connect physically to this quality. I got big bruises on my arm where I accidentally whipped myself. It feels a long way away from fat representation that is about beauty or being 'just as good as thin people'. I don't want a place at the table, fuck the table. Gender was a lot more relevant to me this time, women are really not supposed to present like this. On the night before the performance Kay and I went out to eat and sat next to a table where three normatively-sized women in their early 30s, one of whom was pregnant, body-policed themselves, each other and pretty much everyone they talked about. It was dreadful, their struggle for normativity so painful to witness. I imagined that we were pitiable objects to these women, I wondered what they would have seen had they come to the performance. I felt that what we are doing with SWAGGA is vital and life-affirming in the face of all this.

It turns out that this is true. Mathilda Gregory was also performing at SPILL She wrote a blog post, The Elephant in the Room, about that and about what it meant to her to see SWAGGA. I remembered shaking my tits at her aggressively during the show, and her excellent response. I found Mathilda's writing hard to read because I was so touched by it. She is right, we are good to look at! Fancy that! It is fucking fabulous to perform, especially to other fat women because we need each other so badly. This is absolutely where I want to be.

SWAGGA continues to be developed. We are looking at a residency in the spring, some public events, and then performances in London over summer 2015. There may be more, we don't know yet, but I will keep writing and reflecting about it here.


Fat and dancing and life and everything
SWAGGA has begun
SWAGGA: fat dancing, bodies, watching and shame
SWAGGA is unassimilated fatness
SWAGGA opening night happened!

Review Project O Goes Large: SWAGGA and Benz Punany by Charlotte Richardson Andrews