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.

2 comments:

manchester fat acceptance said...

i was at LaDIYFest in Sheffield, and i can vouch that your session was awesome. it really opened my eyes and helped me to understand what activism IS. thanks for that

Dr Charlotte Cooper said...

Super!