16 April 2014

Hamburger Queen 2014

Holly Revell took this photograph
I am ashamed to admit that I was cynical when I first heard about Hamburger Queen. It had been a while since I'd been excited about the idea of a détourned queer beauty contest for fat people. It's not like they're ten a penny, more like I felt that I'd got whatever I was ever going to get out of the concept from other iterations.

I showed up to the second show of the first run in 2011 and it was one of the most excellent things I'd ever witnessed, for reasons I'll explain below. I was hooked immediately and have been at every episode since then. I participated in 2012, acted as the in-house therapist in 2013, and have been on the peripheries this year too. It's become one of the joys of my fat queer life.

2014 marks the end of Hamburger Queen. It's too expensive and there are other things to be getting on with. There's one more heat and then the grand final. Tickets are still available, if you can YOU MUST GO.

It's not over yet, but I'm going to offer a few reflections on the thing anyway. Yeah, this is gushy but so be it. I hope that Fat Studies people are looking at this stuff closely, I sincerely believe it is the future of fat.

Hamburger Queen is immersive popular theatre masquerading as a strange kind of contest. There is a big cast of people who perform and do duties like take tickets at the door, or sell raffle tickets (I won the meat raffle two weeks ago!) and t-shirts. You can eat special Hamburger Queen burgers. You feel as though you have entered a different universe, one where fat people are as much a part of things as anyone else. There are a lot of sequins and glitter slash. The music is themed along with the look of the place. Amidst this are performances, videos, chit-chat with the audience. It's a total environment!

I'm writing this as though it all just happens by magic. It looks that way because the person behind it knows how to put on a show. It's been amazing to see Scottee develop Hamburger Queen over the last four years, a privilege to see the work come about as a product of his astounding imagination, aesthetics, intellect, ambition and sheer graft. He has so much to offer.

That this is Scottee's show is not in doubt, but he's managed to create a platform where many people can shine, not least his co-presenters Amy Lamé and Felicity Hayward. Other performers have come through too: Ginger Johnson has been bringing the house down this year with her love letters to chubby celebrities, Jayde Adams and Miss Annabel Sings have also made their mark, along with internet sensation Jude Bean.

The contest is the thing on which it all hangs. The contestants are a funny bunch and there's a reason for that. Hamburger Queen is a high pressure experience so you'd better be up to it if you're going to apply. It involves wearing something incredible, and doing so fearlessly; performing to a mixed and capricious crowd; and serving up a tasty treat to some very picky people. You do this twice if you get through to the final.

Hamburger Queen makes space for all kinds of people, and one of the things I love is that it does not exalt assimilation. Sometimes a contestant wears a nice outfit, or presents something that is very much a part of mainstream fat cultural values. These people are supported, but they're somewhat marginal to the main event, which is about eye-popping, draggy, fleshy, unapologetic embodied weirdness. My favourite contestants: the skinny hippy drag queen on drugs who twirled and twirled and twirled around the audience; the guy who played with razor blades, cut himself and bled profusely; Scarlett's Human Pass the Parcel act; Neon's Samba moves; Kayleigh's Venus of Willendorf dance; the woman who did Flashdance with paper plates of horrible cream; and on it goes. Every week there is something electrifying to see.

The judges are eclectic, to say the least. They make a mockery of fairness or justice. Contestants try and psych them out, but there's no rhyme or reason as to who wins. It's all decided in the Taste round, and woe betide the contestant who treats it flippantly. I thought Bea Sweet's Kentucky Fried dinner was sublime in the first season, but they hated it. Same goes for the contestant who produced a block of lard covered in party sprinkles. Yet they loved Ashleigh Owen's chocolate shit, served in nappies. You just can't tell. Sometimes a judge goes rogue. June Brown gave everybody a lecture about health; Nancy Dell'Olio threatened some kind of drama that I've now completely forgotten about; Matthew Kelly gave everyone hugs; Fenella Fielding needed an early night; Lisa Stansfield sang for us. Precious moments indeed.

Photo by Holly Revell
Hamburger Queen has played an important part in a shift in my own fat politics. I've been socialised into fat through a mixture of US-centric cut-throat identity politics that don't always translate so well here, and which sometimes feel like a form of cultural imperialism. Added to this is an academic training that values rigour. Hamburger Queen is a hot mess that sticks up two fingers at political purity as an ideal. This has felt so freeing to me. I still think that thoughtfulness and rigour are valuable, and I also adore the places where lines are unclear; the slapdash; the great confusing mixture of things that Hamburger Queen plonks right in your lap. It is so badly behaved. Cue Timberlina's unrepentant, frantic, sex dance in an inflatable fat suit. My eyes.

Hamburger Queen has brought about another change in the way I think about fat activism. I'm less about a reasoned debate with Important People these days and more about a fat tap-dancing troupe called The Cholesterols in a pub full of people roaring with delight. To me, this is about experiencing possibilities, imagining something gorgeous and making it real, doing so collectively in a broader social context that is generally very shut down and conservative. I find it very beautiful and, to invoke a couple of words that are greatly overused, inspiring and awesome. This is where I want to be.

Hamburger Queen is ending, but Scottee Inc continues. This means that there are more exciting performance things in the pipeline. Full disclosure: I serve on the board. Non-disclosure: I'm not going to tell you about the projects that are on their way just yet, you'll have to wait and see. What I can say is that they continue to develop fat spectacle, popular entertainment, new performance forms, queer thrills and more. It's going to be great! Hold tight.

Hamburger Queen
ScotteeScottee YouTube – view clips from all the Hamburger Queens

If you’d like to find out about ways you can support Scottee Inc please email shaun@scottee.co.uk

03 April 2014

Chins Up: Fat and Performance podcast now available for free

On Monday 31 March a bunch of us met and talked about fat and performance at an event called Chins Up. I chaired the talk and asked most of the questions. The event was supported by Arts Council England and The Hospital Club.

The panel came about because of ScotteeInc, a charity developing community-based popular performance around themes including fat, age, feminism, working class and queer identity. Scottee and I are part of ScotteeInc. The organisation has been going for about a year now, its award-winning inaugural production, The Worst of Scottee, has racked up a bunch of rave reviews and there are some exciting projects in development. Another ScotteeInc production, Hamburger Queen, opens in London tonight.

So, with ScotteeInc in mind, the idea behind this panel is to talk for a bit about what it is to do fat performance in a climate around 'obesity' that is very repressive. Amazingly, things are looking pretty great in the UK as far as fat and performance are concerned, lots of people are engaged with it and there are good things happening.

The talk was recorded. You can download for free it via iTunes: ScotteeInc Podcasts.

The night went by in a bit of a whirr. Looking back, there are many things I would have liked to have asked. I suspect, for example, that performing is a means that fat people use to make meaning of our lives and bodies. I wonder what it is to perform for majority fat audiences, if people have had experiences of that. I would have been good to make more concrete plans about how and what we need to develop fat and performance in the UK. Also, we never really defined what we meant by 'performance'. Oh well!

I've been flashing on bits of the talk all week. Mostly thinking about the repeated idea that we seek normality or acceptance. This strikes me as odd because none of the panel court normality in performance, quite the opposite in fact! I interpret this to mean that we want to be able to do what we want to do without the burden of people's limited expectations of what a fat person can do or be.

I wanted more of a social mix of speakers in the panel but quite a few people turned me down or weren't available. In spite of my optimism about fat and performance, I also wonder if this exists within a particular sphere of queer life, and that the idea of fat performance remains contentious elsewhere, something with which people would not want to ally themselves, or something barely worth talking about.

Edited to add: I wrote this post in a bit of a hurry and I now notice that it ended on a bit of a dour note. The talk itself was not at all dour! In fact, I think it a valuable discussion amongst practitioners. This kind of thing is pretty rare, I'd say. Fat people are spoken of, but it remains quite unusual for us to speak for ourselves. The inevitable questions about health creep in, but this was not really a panel about that, and that feels exciting too. I see this work as part of the project of developing fat culture, community and identity, which is to say, or recognising that fat people make valuable contributions to the work of being human and that sometimes we have great things to say.

The speakers

Scottee is a wunderkind performer, director, artist, broadcaster and writer from Kentish Town, North London.

Dr. Vikki Chalklin is a queer fat femme performer, activist and scholar based in London. She is interested in feminism, performance, art, bodies, fat, sex, and all kinds of queer cultural production. Alongside teaching and academic research, her performance practice works to blur the boundaries between her creative and scholarly worlds, giving cabaret-style performances of academic work at conferences, and performance lectures at queer performance and cabaret clubs and she has previously performed at Duckie, Bar Wotever, Bird Club, and The Fattylympics. She is also competing to be crowned 2014’s Hamburger Queen.

Kayleigh O’Keefe is a contemporary artist engaging with themes of fat acceptance, body confidence and alienation through performance and film. She has collaborated with established artists and filmmakers, produced and directed immersive live art events for the Pink Bear Club and distributed her performance art videos to an online audience.

Holestar is an artist, entertainer, DJ, writer and queer activist.

Scottee, Dr Vikki Chalklin (pic by AbsolutQueer),
Kayleigh O'Keefe and Holestar (pic by Lee Roberts)

21 March 2014

Fattylympics talk in London

I'm giving a talk in London next week about the Fattylympics. Come along! Here is the blurb:

The Fattylympics: creating community mayhem in a surveillance culture

The Fattylympics was an event that took place in Stratford in July 2012, in the shadow of the Olympic Park. Drawing on a number of entry points - fat activism, queer spectacle, gentrification, the Olympics machine – it blurs lines between activism and performance, art and protest. In this talk I will explain how the Fattylympics came into being, the background to the event, how we organised, some of the problems we ran into, and some of the reasons for doing the Fattylympics despite the problems. I will use the idea of cultural work to frame the event and the process of its production: that art is political and that art is work. It will not be at all dry and there will be time for a discussion afterwards.

This presentation is part of the Good Job Talks series of artist talks, being produced as part of The School of the Damned, a really fantastic para-academic project, and supported by ACAVA (Association for Cultural Advancement through Visual Art).

The Fattylympics: creating community mayhem in a surveillance culture
Good Job, 49 Grange Walk, London SE1 3DY
Wednesday 26 March
Facebook event page

17 March 2014

Fat and dancing and life and everything

Dancing feet?
I’m dancing this afternoon. I’m dancing and I’m scared and excited about it. This afternoon will be the first meeting for a new dance performance to which I am contributing.

Last October I went to see Alexandrina Hemsley and Jamila Johnson-Small dance a thing called Project O. ‘A thing’ is all I can call it at the moment because I don’t have a language to describe it. I wrote about the piece and some initial thoughts about what dance means to me as a fat person on my other blog.

I didn’t know this but Alex and Jamila were thinking about developing the project. They no longer wanted to dance it themselves but to work with other dancers, dancers who were different to them. They thought about dancing with men but they nixed that idea. Then they invited my girlfriend and I to dance. They’d liked what I’d written. Note to bloggers and zine-makers, it’s good to get paid for your work but DIY writing can also take you to places you’d never dreamed. The morning I opened the email inviting us to dance was a morning of exhilaration, heart-pumping, joy, excitement, expansive possibilities. That was a few months ago. We’ve met in-between and talked and sent a lot more emails since then. This afternoon is where it starts.

I don’t know what the piece will turn out to be yet. There’s a name and some tentative ideas, but the performance is a process. All we know for sure is that we’ve committed to some studio time together and that we will have an initial public showing in London of what we’ve done at Rich Mix on 7 June. Put the date in your diaries.

I’ve been thinking a lot about other fat dance forms, by which I mean the ways in which dance is used by fat activists. I’m thinking of burlesque, belly dancing, tap, projects like Big Moves and Force Majeure. Like them, SWAGGA (which is what the thing is called) is about fat, but it’s also about our similarities and differences as dancers, choreographers and collaborators. Project O has race and gender at its heart, and that will undoubtedly be present in this piece too. It’s a mixed-up mongrel affair, probably closer to my performances with Homosexual Death Drive than my work as a fat activist, though they can never really be separated from each other. I think this is very exciting.

Meanwhile, I’m nervous. I don’t know what to wear. I don’t know what we will do. I don’t know how a dance performance is put together. I don’t know anything, I’m a real beginner. I’m noticing how afraid I am of my own body. My main concern is whether or not my body will hold up. I had the pleasure of meeting Wheelchair Dancer last year and having a good conversation about what it's like to depend on your body as a dancer and it sounds pretty hard.

When I think of presenting myself to a choreographer I think of all the things about my body that cause me pain, or are inflexible, or which freak me out. Alex and Jamila have their work cut out for them. I’m aware that I think of my body as a problem in so many ways, and I suspect that this is a result of around a decade of obesity epidemic hysteria as well as a lifetime of fatphobia, and 25 years or so of putting my body on the line as a person with a public life around fat. Despite fighting this with everything I have, to some extent I have internalised the belief that my body is a big problem and this belief is intensifying as I get older. I’m hoping that dancing will help me appreciate the things my body can do, and create an awareness of its limitations that is built on my own knowledge, not other people’s bullshit. I don’t imagine that this will be easy, I expect there will be tears at some point, but I can handle that. I also suspect that I’m about to have the time of my life.

To be continued...

07 March 2014

Chins Up: Talking Fat and Performance

I'm convening and chairing this event in London at the end of the month. It's free but you must register to attend. The venue is accessible as far as I know.

Here's the blurb:

Although obesity is front page news, fat people are curiously invisible amidst the headlines, seen but rarely heard and generally expected never to draw attention to themselves. Fat bellies, wobbly arms and thighs, big bums and double chins are there to be covered up and wished away.

Headless fatty imagery reinforces the cultural belief that fat people can be pitiful objects of attention but have nothing useful to say about anything. Despite this, there is a rich tradition of fat performers who flaunt their physicality and refuse to behave or stay quiet. Chins Up is a unique and unprecedented panel discussion bringing together the cream of a new generation of performers developing dynamic possibilities for fat identity and culture.

Join us to talk about fat and performance in the UK. We'll wrestle with questions such as: how do performers bring in fat to their work? What's it like to be a performer who is fat amidst a war on obesity? Is performing fat always about being funny? What is the future for fat performance? We'll tussle with ideas like fat activism, fat community and much more. There will be opportunities to ask questions and to show off. It will not be at all boring.

This is the stuff that Weight Watchers and Slimming World don't want you to see.

We're finalising speakers and will post more details soon.

Chins Up: Talking Fat and Performance
Monday 31 March 2014
7.30pm - 9pm
The Hospital Club, Endell Street, London WC2
RSVP is essential: rachel@scottee.co.uk

This talk is being produced by ScotteeInc supported by Arts Council England.

03 March 2014

Panel: This is What a Fat Activist Does

I'm chairing a panel at this weekend's Women of the World festival at the Southbank Centre in London on Sunday afternoon.

Fat people are typically constructed in the public eye as a dehumanised and abstract population called 'the Obese'. This panel recognises that not only are we human and real, but also that we have agency and community.

In This is What a Fat Activist Does Rita Keegan, Kirsty Fife, Kay Hyatt and Kathryn Szrodecki will be talking about what fat activism might look like and sharing some of the things that fat activists actually do.

This is a ticketed event, details are on the WOW festival site.

This is What a Fat Activist Does
Sunday 9 March, 3 – 4pm
Weston Pavilion at Royal Festival Hall, South Bank, London

Check out the video for last year's panel: Feminism and Fat Activism

24 February 2014

At the Fat Positive Clothes Swap

I'm sitting here in a pair of cowboy boots and some really comfortable jeans both scored at yesterday's Fat Positive Clothes Swap. Also in the haul: a skirt, a top, a couple of pairs of shoes and, er, a leather corset! If I'd hung around for a little longer I probably would have come home with more. Aside from the donation I gave towards the room hire, none of this cost me a bean.

There have been a few fat clothes swap type events in the UK over the past couple of years, and I hope that they continue and proliferate. The Big Bum Jumble, a fundraiser for the Fattylympics, is probably the most ambitious to date, with a fashion show and DJs, but there have been smaller gatherings too. That these events can take place is a testament to the thriving plus size blogger scene, there are a lot of fat women out there looking for stuff to wear. Plus size gatherings typically involve representatives from plus size clothing brands, niche marketing is the name of the game. But a fat clothing swap is a little different. No one is buying or selling, it doesn't matter if you don't have money, and no one's increasing their debt over anything here.

A fat clothes swap is a breath of fresh reality built on re-using, recycling and redistributing things that didn't work out for you. One of the things I enjoy most about a clothes swap, which was really present yesterday, is that getting things for yourself is a big part of the pleasure, but it's also really wonderful to see your own stuff transformed on other people. A fat clothes swap is an act of giving that gives back. Because of this ethos, there's a fantastic playful atmosphere of conviviality and sharing at a fat clothes swap. "Try this on," "That looks great!" "I saw something over there that would look good on you," and so on.

Yesterday's swap was held at The Common House, a community space in Bethnal Green. There are remnants of other groups that use the space on the walls and in the fabric of the building. I really like how this helps build coalitions between groups. It means, for example, that the sex worker rights groups that use the space also get to know about fat activism, and that the fat people at the clothes swap get to know a little more about sex worker activism (not that these groups are necessarily mutually exclusive). I think this a good mix, we need each other.

Anyway, I just wanted to offer a few words about why fat clothes swaps are so valuable. Many thanks to Kirsty Fife for organising yesterday's swap. She made it look effortless, even though putting on any event is hard work. Will there be more? That's up to you.

16 February 2014

I heart Flabzilla

Kayleigh O'Keefe (@lady_in_fur) was my favourite entrant at last year's Hamburger Queen. I didn't realise that that event was the first time that she'd encountered fat politics, she was a natural with her Venus of Willendorf routine, which was as sophisticated a rendition of fat culture and embodiment as any I've ever seen over the years.

Since then, I've been following Kayleigh through the ups and downs of her Super 8/video project Flabzilla. You can read about this too via her blog. I know that this work has been a struggle to make at times, and now I'm so delighted to see it finished and released. It looks beautiful.

In her notes to the film, Kayleigh talks about subverting the idea of the monstrous fatty and for me this work plays beautifully with the idea that fat people are destroying the world, prompting climate change, heralding the end. She takes all those things that right-thinking normative people fear or scorn about fat people and she rubs their faces in it.

I see Flabzilla as part of a group of fat artists making work about fat that has embraced the monstrous. Rachel Herrick's tremendous Museum for Obeast Conservation Studies springs to mind, as does Allyson Mitchell's Ladies Sasquatch. Perhaps my own activity with Homosexual Death Drive performances is a part of this tradition. I see this work as a counterpoint to more assimilationist trends in fat activism, it's art that rejects normativity and represents the delightful yukky value of fat bodies, especially queer and feminist bodies. What Flabzilla contributes to this work is a good measure of malevolence and a lot more shameless fat nudity than I've seen before.

Anyway, that's all I want to say for now. I hope that Kayleigh is emboldened by the response to her work, and that she continues to create art and performance that develops these gorgeous and unruly ideas.

Go and watch Flabzilla.

12 February 2014

Research Justice Collective Guest Post: Fat Activists Resist Media Abuse

The gorgeous folks at the Research Justice Collective invited me to guest blog about my project 'No More Stitch-Ups! Developing Media Literacy Through Fat Activist Community Research'. Check it out!

No More Stitch-Ups! Fat Activists Resist Media Abuse.

30 January 2014

Fat activism talk in Glasgow this April

Dr Bethan Evans from the University of Liverpool and I will be presenting a joint paper called 'Queering arts and health: engaging with fat activism' in Glasgow this April. We're going to be talking about the Fattylympics.

This is part of a seminar series called 'Arts, Health and Wellbeing Research,' which is being supported by the Economic and Social Research Council in the UK. This third seminar is called 'Beyond evidence: theorising arts and health,' and is concerned with theorising experimental arts and health initiatives.

Fancy it? Come along. It's free to attend but places are limited.

Queering arts and health: engaging with fat activism
Seminar three - Beyond evidence: theorising arts and health
Arts, Health and Wellbeing Research
Thursday 24 April 2014
School of Geographical and Earth Sciences, University of Glasgow

21 January 2014

Doc prescribes weight loss drug without patient's knowledge or consent

Last week I was shocked to find out that my friend T had been prescribed Orlistat without her knowledge or consent.

Orlistat, also known as Xenical and, in another formulation as over-the-counter Alli, is a drug that produces a small amount of weight loss. It also has notorious side-effects, with users reporting explosive diarrhoea and flatulence, fecal incontinence and the curiously euphemistic 'anal leakage'. It may be implicated in breast and bowel cancer. It has been subject to criticism by health advocates in relation to its licensing.

T recently suffered a period of ill-health and had been in hospital. When she was released, she found that one of the drugs in her pack of medications was Orlistat. Nobody had discussed this with her and she had not consented to the prescription. She agreed to talk about what happened:
Could you introduce yourself please?

My name is T, I'm a black queer fat femme feminist, who also happens to be type 2 diabetic.

What happened?

I was in hospital for a few days due to an infection exacerbating my blood sugar levels and ketones, making me quite sick. Because of my high blood sugar levels, they were reviewing my diabetic medication, taken my current set of meds away and discussing possible changes of my medication with me. They asked me lots of questions about my meds, how I used them etc, and at meal times or certain points of the day they would present me pills to take. I was on a drip and several medications, and it was explained to me what they were and what for.

At least one day into my stay I was presented with a new bright blue pill and I asked what it was. They said it was Orlistat and I had to take it with meals and that was it. They didn't explain what it was for or how it could help me. The name rang a small bell in my head but I didn't say anything. And with the way they had been communicating before, I trusted them to have my well being in mind.

When being discharged they presented me with all my medications, going through how to take each one and how they would help. When it came to the Orlistat, the nurse was like: "I'm not sure who prescribed you that, or really what it is." I said that I had an idea and it was okay. When I got home I had a chance to look at it properly and confirmed my suspicions that it was a fat loss drug, and remembered that it was known for causing sudden and oily and violent diarrhoea if you had a high fat diet.

How do you feel about having been prescribed Orlistat without your knowledge or consent?

I didn't think of it as a violation at the time I had realised, just a weary 'of course they would prescribe me this, I'm fat;' just one of those things. I kept taking it for another day because... I don't know. The next day I started reviewing it in a fat feminist lens, and saw that I had no idea who prescribed it, and wasn't briefed on it despite its adverse side effects, it was prescribed without my permission or input, and only given to me due to my weight, even though I already take a far gentler and appropriate medication that helps with my appetite and diabetes which they knew about (and was negotiated with me). It's a violation, it's disrespectful to me as a human being to not even give me the decency of trying to justify fat loss medication to me. Not even to know which doctor thought they should chuck this obesity pill at me without talking to me. It's depressing to think those nights where I was experiencing abdominal pains, terrified about my blood sugar levels and if this was the start of multiple hospital visits, they had my fat ass primarily on their mind.

I've stopped taking it now. I'm glad I allowed myself enough self respect for that.

I wonder if you have any comments about how race, class, sexuality or other intersections might have fed into you being prescribed Orlistat without your knowledge or consent. My feeling is that the secret prescription reveals a lot about how people of colour and other minorities are treated in health care institutions, for example.

Hmm, I know there's a lot of talk and exposition when I see doctors about how black people's diets are particularly bad and cause diabetes, but I don't know if I see an intersection. My diabetes is something I've felt very helpless about a lot of the time and I feel like a lot of the time I'm fighting to survive and face off the medical institution, let alone have the ability to see the intersections I experience in this environment.

The main thing mentioned in relation to my blackness in terms of health is how I might be some kind of type 1/type 2 hybrid. But this hasn't been explained much and feels like another thing to confuse me. So I'm putting it out of my mind for now.

What else would you like to say?

I would like to say thank you for taking me seriously. These things happen and you're on your own and then you mention it on twitter and the reactions of your friends inform your reaction and the seriousness of what they have done. I acknowledge how useless/helpless I feel about diabetes, and your asking about the intersections has made me want to take action and read up on this, if there is anything out there.

Fat people are all too familiar with clinical tactics that compromise our well-being, be it bullying, unnecessary gatekeeping, iatrogenesis*, or a host of other negative interactions. But this story is scandalous, even within an already dismal context. Nobody should be secretly prescribed drugs, especially not ones that have such horrible side-effects. Patient knowledge and consent is a foundation of ethical medical practice. Indeed, this case is reminiscent of other human rights abuses around the administration of drugs, for example the contraceptive Depo Provera amongst developing world women.

I am grateful that T had the strength to be public about what happened to her, it's easy to see how others might be silenced by shame. It would be useful to find out if other fat people have been secretly prescribed weight loss medication without their knowledge or consent. If this has happened to you, please comment here or contact me in confidence.

*Iatrogenisis = where the treatment causes harm, where the patient is better off without the treatment.

06 January 2014

No More Stitch-Ups! Developing Media Literacy Through Fat Activist Community Research

This is an unusual post, here's why:
  • It's a research paper I have produced independently. No one's paid me for this, it's not part of a university programme or job, I've done it because I thought it would be a valuable community resource.
  • It's research by and about fat people. This pretty much never happens.
  • It's a research paper that's underpinned by Research Justice values, which are about recognising and drawing on community expertise, and creating research that benefits those communities directly. This pretty much never happens either.
  • It's by and about fat activists and makes use of our international networks. This really never happens.
  • It's not primarily about health! This is extremely rare when you're talking about fat.
  • It's written in language that, hopefully, people will understand. I've avoided jargon where possible.
  • It's free and available to anyone who wants to read it, unlike a lot of research that is only available for a payment. It's released under a Creative Commons licence which means that it's ok to share it non-commercially (you can re-publish it if you want to) as long as you don't alter it and you credit me.
  • It's about fat people who have agency, and how they might help change the practises of some of the world's most powerful institutions.
  • It's about you and me. I hope you will recognise yourselves in this work.
Please read the post and/or pass on the download to people. I would really love this work to make a difference.

Key words: fat, fat activism, media, agency, Research Justice, community, Fat Studies, news, journalism, ethics, power, social change.

The full paper is in this post, you can read it by clicking the 'Read more' link below. You can also download it:

No More Stitch-Ups! Developing Media Literacy Through Fat Activist Community Research by Dr Charlotte Cooper (.pdf, 270kb).

You might also like to read: No More Stitch-Ups! Fat Activists Resist Media Abuse over on the Research Justice Collective blog.

31 December 2013

Are you resolving to lose weight…again? Try this instead

Early January is the time of the year when people feel the pressure to lose weight most keenly. This is linked to the aggressive marketing of weight loss that kicks in just after xmas, and which plays out through pressure from friends, colleagues, families and loved ones. It's very hard to navigate this stuff, let alone resist it. Taking the mickey out of new year weight loss advertising can help people cope with the annual onslaught, but sometimes it's not enough.

Ever the killjoy, I want to remind readers that losing weight is a new year's resolution that is highly likely to fail. The people who lose weight without invoking further health and social problems, and who manage to keep it off over the course of their lives without weight cycling are well in the minority. Most people's experiences of weight loss are far from the ideal presented in advertising (and let's not forget that this advertising also creeps into places like the doctor's surgery thanks to deals between health providers and commercial weight loss companies). The negative physical, psychological and social effects of this are considerable and the people who bear it hardest are often those close to the bottom of the social pile.

Yet, despite being failed by weight loss again and again, knowing that their resolutions will fail, people still struggle to get off the merry-go-round. The pull of weight loss and its promise of transformation can be very strong and it's common for people to embark on one failed diet after another, each time believing that it is they who have failed, not the product or ideal they have bought into.

There's another level of failure that I've come across too. There are lots of people who are greatly inspired by fat activism, but who struggle to internalise concepts, such as self-acceptance, which might help them handle obesity discourse more critically, or find ways of being that aren't self-destructive. There is quite a bit of shame about this and, as with weight loss, people see their struggles as their personal failure rather than a shortcoming of the movement and its rhetoric. They feel that they have failed doubly: they are failures at weight loss and failures at fat activism.

If any of this sounds familiar and you want to change, then you might want to get in touch with me. I am a qualified, registered and experienced psychotherapist/ counsellor. I work with people who bring all kinds of problems and questions to the therapy room. One of the things I offer, and which is unusual in therapy, is a place to talk about thoughts, feelings and experiences relating to fatness without an expectation that weight loss is the natural answer. The idea is to support people in exploring their fears and struggles with fatness, and build on their strengths, with someone who understands what that means. This is not about folks feeling that they have to uphold a fantasy of being a 'good fatty' or 'good ally' within an imagined fat activist agenda. Instead, it's an engagement with the complexities of what it's like to live in cultures where fat is a big deal, customising ideas along the way, and working things out. I see this work as the early stages of integrating fat-friendly practice into therapy, which is often quite fatphobic. What's even more unusual about my practice is that I acknowledge social factors that influence how people feel about their bodies. Health At Every Size is usually applied to physical health, or an idea of social transformation, it is rare that it is applied to mental health practice, especially in the UK, but that is what I am doing.

My therapy room is not a platform for tub-thumping about fat activism, or ramming particular ideas about fat down people's throats. I am very careful about listening to people and working within their frames of reference about the things that are important to them. I understand that my unique experiences and perspectives can prompt questions and angles that other therapists might miss, but I believe that it is up to clients themselves to decide what is most useful to them. I undergo regular supervision to ensure that I am working ethically and with my clients' interests at heart.

If you are interested in working with me, for whatever reason, please get in touch. There's an extensive Frequently Asked Questions section on my website if you want to know more about how I work. All correspondence is treated confidentially.

28 December 2013

New Year Weight Loss Balderdash Bingo

I saw my first new year diet ad on TV at about 11pm on Boxing Day. "Those rotten sods!" I thought, hoping that I'd have at least until 1 January until the annual cavalcade of weight loss advertising rolled in. Instead, the usual culprits are expanding their seasonal marketing window of opportunity for guilt-tripping gullible consumers into signing up for a dose of snake oil. Nothing screams holidays like a series of corporate multinationals selling lies about your body.

My enjoyment of xmas and the new year is invariably wrecked by the knowledge of what looms: the most intense time of the year for weight loss marketing and fatphobia. But enough is enough. I've decided to stop cringing, actively engage with this nonsense, and encourage others to do so too. I want to transform its negative power in my life and put it where it belongs: in a world of ridicule.

New Year Weight Loss Balderdash Bingo is a game that anyone can play. Based on a Generation X parlour game, it will have you begging for another diet cliché so that you can rack up another line on the card and win the prize that is rightfully yours.

How to play:
  1. Print or share New Year Weight Loss Balderdash Bingo cards (.pdf, 110kb) for you and your pals.
  2. Decide upon a suitable prize amongst yourselves (I usually play for a foot-rub or a cocktail).
  3. Stay alert and immerse yourself in popular culture fearlessly.
  4. Cross off each new year weight loss cliché as you encounter it.
  5. When you have a vertical, horizontal or diagonal line, yell: "This is balderdash!"
  6. The first person in your group to get a full house wins the prize.

13 December 2013

Reporting Back from November's Fat Talks

I spent a chunk of November travelling and talking about fat with people*. I really enjoy presenting and hosting workshops, but my confidence has taken a knock recently and these events represented me getting back in the saddle.

Plus London

Organised by members of the fatshion blogging community in the UK, Plus London is now in its third year. Clothes, companies and brands take up a lot of the event, but this year the organisers wanted to develop more community-based discussions. This panel was focussed on 'confidence'. Host Isha Reid asked whether confidence is innate or externally validated; about stereotypes and how to negotiate media. It took me a while to get into the subject, I feel pretty out of touch with this crowd in general, but it was heartening to see people show up and engage, folks were warm and friendly. As a therapist and sometime sociologist, I'm interested in what people mean when they talk about confidence, how it's socially constructed and what it is that people are pursuing when they talk about wanting more of it. As a fat activist it's interesting hearing this term used within this particular community. For example, how does fatshion, and the consumerism that is often a part of it, affect fat people's sense of themselves as confident beings? What does it mean to be fat and confident? I came away with more questions than I'd anticipated.

Fat Sexualities

This was a panel talk, part of a bigger series of panels about sexuality that happen every few months. They're convened in London by Gender and Sexuality Talks and are sort of scholarly yet accessible.

Three of us talked, and then a fourth, Dr Caroline Walters, joined in the discussion. Ingo of Wotever World talked about how making DIY porn enables fat people to claim their bodies and sexuality. Bethany Rutter talked about her journey of self-acceptance, and how that's affected her sexuality. I think it was very brave of the three of us to talk, and I appreciate the work that Gender and Sexuality Talks did to enable us to feel that we could speak our own truths.

I talked about my own sexuality and said that it is next to impossible to develop an understanding of what might be meant by fat sexualities in the current climate of fat panic, which always frames fat experience in terms of health. I offered this observation to pre-empt the usual "But is it healthy to be fat?" questions that come up when you do a panel discussion about fat for people who might not be aware of fat activism. I noticed that although nobody offered that particular question, the discussion did come back to health to some extent. I appreciate the attempt to make space for something else, but I wonder if it will ever be possible for people to extend a discussion about fat beyond a public health sphere. Of course there were other questions, the issue of confidence came up again, finding partners, dating. But health is always the bedrock from which fat talk emanates in public. I wish it was different, there's so much to say about fat that isn't grounded in health discourse.

See also posts about this event by Cynthia Rodríguez Gender and Sexuality Talks: Fat Sexualities and Big Fat Betty Fat Sexualities.

Fat Activism at LaDIYfest Sheffield

The Ladyfest phenomenon has been going for some time and has mutated into other forms, like LaDIYfest. Nevertheless, in the UK at least it still seems to be a space in which young, predominantly white middle class people, become aware of and hone their politics across a variety of feminist topics. Fat has become one of them.

LaDIYfest Sheffield invited me to talk about fat activism and I proposed a freeform group discussion about what we think fat activism is, examples of things we like an don't like, and ideas for things we'd like to do. What was lovely about the workshop was that a) it was packed, b) it was in an accessible space and c) although fat people were well in the minority, the atmosphere was open and people had things to say. It's heartening to hear normatively-sized people talk about what they want to do to challenge fatphobia without trying to appropriate fat people's experience, and to hear sophisticated points of view issuing forth. Great, also, to witness fat people's engagement and awakening interest in this stuff, perhaps facilitated by the general atmosphere of support. As the artist-activist-scholar Naima Lowe pointed out recently, these sentiments don't occur in a vacuum; people know about fat activism because of fat activists' work. By the way, I was glad to see Yorkshire Rad Fat Collective representin' in the room.

Dr Fat's Show and Tell at L-Fest with Fat Positivity Belgium, Brussels

Fat Positivity Belgium are a new-ish, feminist, queer, mixed fat activist group with a large disability activism component. They invited me to talk at the beautiful Rainbow House queer community centre as part of that organisation's L-Fest, an annual dyke-centric arts and politics festival in Brussels.

The first part of the event was a talk by me. There's no way I can talk about all the fat activism I've ever done, so I offered people a lucky dip, a choice of many things where they could pick the ones that looked most interesting to them. The idea was to introduce some wide open possibilities for activism, and to encourage people to think about how they might adapt ideas and develop their own fat activism.

The second part of the event was participatory. I'd been thinking about developing the Queer and Trans Fat Activist Timeline project again. This is a piece of work that has morphed in various ways and has become a zine, a workshop, a download, an academic paper, and so on. So far this has been based on one Timeline. I wanted to make another one that reflected a different time and place to the one that was constructed in Oakland in 2010. I also wanted to use my experience to encourage Fat Positivity Belgium, this new group, to identify significant events in fat activism in their context, and to make connections between the personal and political.

So, we got the paper out and started populating it with moments and memories. We decorated the Timeline with glitter and stickers. I noticed that it was hard for people to write about things that were painful, one person wanted to write slogans instead and I prodded her to write more personally if she was able. People wondered if it was ok to write about things that were sad or depressing (yes!). Some people hung back, perhaps they didn't think that they had anything to add. There were some tears as memories surfaced. It was beautiful to see memories stretching back a long way, this challenges the idea that fat activism is only a very recent thing. Belgium is a place where people speak different languages and it was great to see people adding to the Timeline in their own tongues. At the end of the session, the work was rolled up and given to Fat Positivity Belgium to develop in whatever way they chose.

I really want to disrupt this pernicious idea that there is only one fat activist history, that it's about facts and not memories, that it inevitably radiates from the US, from certain celebrities and organisations, and that things which don't fit that model don't really count as history. Creating a Timeline together is like a movement materialising in front of your very eyes. It's about personal moments, often extremely intimate moments of the body, being placed in a wider framework of politics and community. Unexpected things come up and are placed within the discursive matrix of fat activism and are given meaning, they're no longer isolated and odd moments. The Timeline enables people to feel less alone, and also to have some context for their lives. It's a convivial and informal process. It's really powerful.

The Fat Positivity Belgium Queen and Trans Fat Activist Timeline made me think that there could be many Timelines, reflecting different communities and people, ideas and places. Being in Belgium and spending time with the group was a great experience for me. Fat Positivity Belgium is a multifaceted project and the people in the group are very thoughtful about fat activism and what it might mean. It's exciting to see European fat activist networks begin to emerge. As someone without much in the way of language skills, I always thought that this would be difficult to achieve. Apparently not!

Many thanks to everyone who invited me to speak. If you would like me to come and talk fat with your group, please get in touch. You can also check out some of my other talks.

*I also gave a presentation about queer and class where I mentioned the Fattylympics amongst other things, and if you're interested in following that up you can visit Class Out of the Closet.

12 December 2013

How to Get Shit Done

I made a zine called How to Get Shit Done. It's for the avoiders and procrastinators, the non-finishers, the inert, the moribund, and the people who dwell on fear and anxiety.

It's a sweary, punk, queer, critical and DIY take on self-help. It's not specifically about fat activism, but many fat activists would probably find it useful.

The first print run of How to Get Shit Done has nearly sold out and I don't know when or if I will get it re-printed. Better act now if you want a copy.

More information about the zine, and how to order it: How to Get Shit Done

03 December 2013

Hipsters flogging fat hate in San Francisco

Oh look, a clothes shop in San Francisco is using fat abjection to sell their shit to sensitive hipsters. Pose with the ugly old fatty! The perfect seasonal InstagramTM! No plus sizes here!

I saw this mentioned on BoingBoing.net: Santa the Hutt: grotesque photo-op Santa. I don't know where the boxed text comes from, it's not on any of the links included in the article, perhaps it's a press release that BoingBoing has cut and pasted (oh, hello Churnalism). The fat Santa is referred to as grotesque, vile, gorged, too obese to move, slovenly, groaning, sweaty, a danger to elves! People are warned against getting too close to him and advised to disinfect and take penicillin afterwards.

Apparently the shop is trying to use disgusting deathfat to make an important and serious statement about overconsumption. Yeah chinstrokers, retailers on the make with cheap hate-gags know all about greed and overconsumption. If you find any of their fatphobic stereotyping offensive then you obviously have no sense of humour.

I'm wondering if there are any Bay Area fat activists who'd like to head over to this store, Betabrand on Valencia, and tell them where to shove their fat hatred.

By the way, for all the critical reporting they do about science, no-nonsense coverage of digital justice, and general championing of activism and weirdness, it's a shame that BoingBoing has never really got it together in their treatment of fat. You'd think they'd be gagging for a subject that frequently exposes shitty science, corporate greed, life-hacking and oddball subcultures. Sad.

13 November 2013

Fat sex talk in London next week

I'm giving a nerdalicious talk in London next week. It's a panel talk called Fat Sexualities, part of the Gender and Sexuality series. I'll be speaking alongside Bethany Rutter, Ingo of Woteverworld and Dr Caroline Walters.

There are some tickets still available: http://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/fat-sexualities-tickets-8801273847

Here's my un-snappy working title and abstract:

I am a fat queer and I have had sex but I've never joined the Mile High Club

I am going to share some stories, and try and draw some conclusions, about my own sexuality as a fat queer. The fancy word for this is autoethnography. I am doing this to challenge dominant 'obesity' research, rhetoric and discourse that commonly reproduces us as abstract, anonymous, abjected Others. I want to show that fat queers are here, can speak for ourselves, and that it's powerful when we do. I will situate my stories within a Research Justice framework, which proposes that research must benefit those on whom it is based. That's it!

Fat Sexualities
Gender & Sexuality Talks
Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Doggetts Coat and Badge
1 Blackfriars Bridge
London SE1 9UD
United Kingdom

This venue is accessible to wheelchair users.

The talk takes place in a private room to facilitate frank discussions and presentations amongst participants. You are welcome to attend to observe and learn, even if you do not wish to participate in discussions yourself. Chatham House rules will apply to this event: http://www.chathamhouse.org/about-us/chathamhouserule to encourage discussion and ensure privacy and anonymity.

NB: Any participants from media orgs MUST contact the organisers in advance to identify yourselves. Otherwise you will be turned away at the door.

12 November 2013

Hot & Heavy One Year On

Virgie Tovar invited contributors to her wonderful anthology Hot & Heavy to reflect on the year since the book as published.

How could I resist?

Check out my piece Claiming Fat Power.

11 November 2013

Fat Queer Talk and Workshop in Brussels

I'm giving a talk in Brussels as a guest of Fat Positivity Belgium. Please come.

I'll be sharing some of the things I've done as a queer fat activist, and showing some pictures and little films. As a group, we'll make a new Queer and Trans Fat Activist Timeline. This one will reflect queer and trans fat histories, communities, culture, identity, memories, resources etc in Belgium and will be multilingual. See tinyurl.com/queertransfat for ideas and inspiration. The talk and workshop are for people of all body sizes.

Fat Positivity Belgium organises activities such as lectures, seminars, experience-sharing sessions and workshops on fatness. They are militant! Fat Positivity Belgium also collaborates with other organisations and are rooted in feminist and queer thought and activism.

This event is part of the annual L-Fest, a trans-friendly, dyke-centric feminist queer arts and culture festival in Brussels.

Dr Fat's Show and Tell
Tuesday 26 November, 18.30
Rue du Marché au Charbon 42 Kolenmarkt, 1000 Brussels
In English but Flemish and French translations will be available.

More information:
Rainbow House, which organises L-Fest.
L-Fest programme 2013
Fat Positivity Belgium on Facebook