27 April 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Fat Activism Book Update

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


08 April 2016

100 Fat Activists #8: Radical Therapy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

06 April 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

05 April 2016

Fat activism by the algorithms


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

30 March 2016

100 Fat Activists #7: NAAFA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



23 March 2016

100 Fat Activists #6: Civil Rights

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

16 March 2016

100 Fat Activists #5: Stigma

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

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

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

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

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

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

09 March 2016

100 Fat Activists #4: More people should be FAT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


02 March 2016

100 Fat Activists #3: Aldebaran's Books

One of the papers archived in the collection
Do you like to read? Do you own books? What does your bookshelf say about you? Do you take bookshelfies? Looking at people's reading collections can provide some insight as to what they are thinking about, what inspires them, or about the scope of their interior landscape. It can give context to a person.

The Mayer Collection of Fat Liberation is housed at the Archives & Special Collections at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Centre, part of the University of Connecticut Libraries in Storrs. This is a collection of personal papers and reading donated by Vivian Mayer, who was also known as Aldebaran, and now goes by Sara Fishman. Mayer wrote the forward to Shadow on a Tightrope, Aldebaran was one of the founders of The Fat Underground and Fat Liberator Publications, and although Sara left the movement, she is still in contact with some fat activists. She is a pivotal figure in fat feminist activism. Without her, there would be no me, and you would not be reading this blog post.

Aldebaran/Mayer and Sara to a lesser extent appear extensively in my book, Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement, though always through secondary sources. She is someone I encountered as an archival presence and her papers mean a lot to me. I tried to go to the Mayer Collection in 2011, it is open to the public though you need to make an appointment. I wanted more insight into her activism but I was thwarted by snow and ice storms and ended up stranded in Hartford for a few days, a great disappointment!

However, all was not lost. Although I never got to read archived correspondence, the finding aid for the archive is pretty extensive and gives you plenty of insight into the material that Mayer was drawing on between 1967 and the mid-1980s. By looking at her books, the periodicals and journals that she lodged with the archive, you can hazard some guesses about the broader contexts through which her style of fat feminism emerged.

It's clear that she was reading material from the radical left of the 1960s, including Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and all the usual suspects. There's also a copy of the Catholic Agitator in there, books on communes and radical pedagogy. Rex Weiner, who began his career in the underground, has a presence, it looks as though he collaborated on a piece with NAAFA in the 1970s. This emphasis on the radical reinforces my belief that fat feminist activism is a force for social change, you could call it a revolutionary movement although, as I argue in my book, it is vulnerable to gentrification and neoconservatism.

Of similar interest, there are books about environmental activism, mostly dating from the 1970s. This brings Elaine Graham-Leigh's work to mind, how fat people are currently being blamed for climate change. But Mayer's collection shows that fat feminist activists were probably engaged with early environmental activism too. It's amazing and depressing what can get overlooked in contemporary fatphobic rhetoric.

Works by the author Ann ForFreedom dominate the feminist materials in the collection. I have gleaned some scraps of information about her online, which may be way off the mark, but the gist of it is that she's a mover and shaker in the Californian pagan feminist witchcraft scene. What this means for fat feminist activism I have no idea, but I would like to know! Is this also a social movement of witches?! Mayer's collection also includes underground feminist comics by Roberta Gregory, Aline Kominsky and Diane Noomin – some of my favourites too.

A small group of books are concerned with medical self-advocacy, and navigating healthcare. There is one copy of a Radical Therapy journal, I would have expected to have seen more because this was a movement that incubated The Fat Underground. Perhaps Mayer couldn't bear to part with her own copies and they were never archived.

There are a few publications that I struggled to make sense of. Last Gasp published The Further Fattening Adventures of Pudge, Girl Blimp by Lee Marrs, which may have been an underground comic and certainly sounds intriguing. There's also a publication called Slim News, published in Brooklyn at some point, is this an ironic title, I wonder, or some sort of backlash against fat activism?

The Mayer Collection is located within a bigger archival collection of activism and civil rights materials. It still excites me to see this. Where fat people are usually categorised as medical problems, this archive demonstrates that there are other important ways of looking at fat, and that fat people have been at the heart of social change for some time and, hopefully, will remain there.

PS. There's more about fat activism and archiving in this post.

24 February 2016

100 Fat Activists #2: Steve Post's Fat-In Placard

I started the series of 100 fat activists last week with the 25,000 year-old Venus of Willendorf and from there I'm jumping straight to 1967. What happened in the middle? There are cultural historians of fat and weight loss who can fill in some of the gaps, Elena Levy-Navarro, or Hillel Schwartz, for example. But the genealogies of fat activism that I am interested in kick-in towards the end of the 1960s.

In my book, Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement, I plot the beginnings of fat feminism in an event produced by the WBAI radio host Steve Post on 4 June 1967 (some sources say it was on 3 June) at Sheep Meadow, Central Park, New York City. Around 500 people turned up for the spectacle, which I describe in depth in my book.

One of the sources I used for this section was Steve Post's own autobiography, published in 1974 and long out of print. I found a digitised copy floating around online at AmericanRadioHistory.com around the time that Post died in 2014. I can't tell you how excited I was to find this document. Although there were newspaper reports about the Fat-In, up until reading Post's own account I had never seen pictures of it. But here not only was there an explanation and description of the Fat-In by its creator, but a few pictures. I'd often wondered if I'd imagined this event because it's such an oddball moment in time, and weirdly influential, but here was proof that it really happened. Maybe there are other photographs out there too.

A photo spread from Steve Post's autobiography
depicting his Fat Power placard, a protester
and a defaced poster of Twiggy


On 20 March 2015, a memorial service was held for Post at Symphony Space in New York. On the stage was his Fat-In placard. He hadn't continued to have a public life as a fat activist, but I guess he kept a placard from the day, it must have been important to him but I wonder if he ever knew just what it had helped spark.

By the way, I can easily draw a line from The Fat-In through the beginnings of NAAFA, The Fat Underground and beyond to things happening today. But thinking of the Fat-In as the beginning also obscures fat feminist roots in the civil rights movement. This may be one of the ways in which people of colour could have been hidden in fat activist histories. There doesn't have to be one starting point, there can be many concurrent roots. Perhaps there was an equally important event, or series of moments, that inspired fat feminists who came out of civil rights. If you know about this, if there is any evidence, please share what you have.

Levy-Navarro, E. (2010) Historicizing Fat in Anglo-American Culture, Columbus, OH: The Ohio State University Press.

Post, S. (1974) Playing in the FM Band: A Personal Account of Free Radio, New York: The Viking Press.

Schwartz, H. (1986) Never Satisfied: A Cultural History of Diets, Fantasies and Fat, New York: The Free Press.

22 February 2016

Fat Activist Vernacular and other zines

I have been making zines – small homemade publications – for some time and I have just published two new titles. Buy them here.

Fat Activist Vernacular

As I was finishing up my book, Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement, I thought I'd take the pressure off a little by writing a zine. 15,000 words later I ended up with this behemoth, and there's still so much more to be said.

The Vernacular is a list of words and their definitions, like a dictionary, but a lot less formal. I wrote it because I thought people not in the know might like a glimpse of the subcultural riches of fat activism, and because activists might like to read about some of the beauty that our movement has generated. The zine is funny and serious, a deadly combination.

"When you talk about fat people the language of power is the language of medicine and public health. But the words I have collected here are words that subvert that power."

Some examples from the Vernacular:

Disease
It has become a popular view amongst obesity experts, that being fat is a disease. Some of them think it is contagious. This is part of the on-going project to medicalise and control fat people, which they depend on for a living and for their status as experts.

Doctor
The boss of you and everything.

Draw attention upwards
Wear a piece of jewellery, a scarf, a fancy collar, or have huge hair to direct attention upwards towards your face and hope that people don't notice your apparently awful body. Pernicious and pathetic fashion advice of yesteryear.

Drugs
A million goldmines will erupt for whichever corporation finds the magic pill that makes fat people thin and keeps them coming back for more. The race is already on. Meanwhile, weight loss drugs have significant side effects including feeling wired, getting an eating disorder, major organ failure, pants-shitting, impaired cognition and death. Some need injecting a couple of times a day and at the moment you are unlikely to lose a lot of weight on any of them.

Dummies
Fat dummies are used by health professionals and firefighters, and possibly others, to train people in how to handle fat people. They use dummies instead of talking to fat people.


Encounters with Nature

This is an autobiographical zine with stories from my life told through happenstance meetings with creatures. 

The vignettes include ants, a bearded fireworm, horeshoe crabs, birds, deer, fruit bats and many more. The zine explores different themes, such as regret, transformation, ethics and magnificence. A quiet zine.

The zine is about me being out in the world as a fat dyke, and a fat girl, someone who isn't assumed to have much going on. It shows me as an embodied, thinking, feeling person.

"I am in Germany for a period of time, feeling deeply alone and preoccupied with a lover. I am supposed to be more sociable than I feel so I make excuses and take long train journeys across the land as a means of making time to be by myself. It is spring and there are many hares in the fields as the train goes by. Hares are my favourites. They're not cute like rabbits, they run and fight, their legs are long, holding them high off the ground, they are mystical and lovely in art. I get to my destination, walk to the beach and lie face down in the sand for several hours, fully clothed, in a restless sleep."

Get copies of my zines

Throughout my zine-making life I have made small runs of zines very cheaply to give away for free. I will keep doing this, but now I'm interested in writing longer zines which require more production.

I have built a little online shop where you can buy my zines. Fat Activist Vernacular and Encounters with Nature are up there, as well as Simon Murphy's exquisite zine Different Times, in which I feature, about queer, drag, punk and disability in London during the 1990s.

If you would like accessible versions, please contact me.

Buy my zines.


15 February 2016

100 Fat Activists #1: The Venus of Willendorf

To celebrate the publication of my book, Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement, I am doing a series of blog posts about some of the stuff I came across during the research period that people might not otherwise get to see. I'm ripping off the BBC project, in association with The British Museum, called A History of the World in 100 Objects, in that there are 100 things, I'm listing them in more or less chronological order, and it will take me a year or so to blog 'em all. But that's where the similarity ends. Where that list is founded on a series of values I don't share, this one is queerer, more feminist and more unruly.

1. The Venus of Willendorf

The Venus is a statue of a fat black woman that was dug up by archeologists in Austria in 1908. She's at least 25,000 years old, and maybe the earliest carving of a human. She's fat and I'm not talking chubby.

She's an important figure for fat activists because she shows that people have known what a fat person looks like for a very long time. She disproves the rhetoric, popularised by the War on ObesityTM that fat people are a recent aberration, the product of junk lifestyles.

I'm calling her a black woman because of what I take to be her hair, it looks braided and black to my 21st century eyes. There are counter-claims that her head might not be a head at all, but a handle for an object. It is important to make people of colour visible within fat activism, and it would make sense that this figure who represents a root of some kind, should be black within a present-day activist rhetoric of centring black people. Maybe activists of another time would see her differently. In claiming her as black, fat activists might also want to critique the naming of her as venus (there are other venus figurines too), which has racialised connotations, and her positioning and interpretation within Western archaeology.

Edited to add: Karen D. has noted that the Venus can also be seen as disabled. This makes me think about how much of her is obscured by taken for granted claims.

Whether the Venus herself is a fat activist is also fodder for conjecture. She's usually called a fertility goddess, perhaps based on colonial anthropological assumptions about fat black femininity and the depiction of genitals. My feeling is that she could represent anything because the person or people who made her are now dust themselves, and people now will never know about her original context. Interpretation is all we have. To me, her existence is enough in itself and, as far as I'm concerned, it all starts with her.

What I do know is that she remains a powerful figure. You can go and see her in the Naturhistorisches Museum in Vienna. You might also want to search for vernacular images of her online, Venus of Willendorf tattoos, for example, or Venus of Willendorf crafting. I like it when people embellish her by adding feet, a face, a setting, nipples or whatever. Sometimes she's fatter or has bigger tits, as though people now want her to be more than she is. This perpetual re-engagement shows that she is still relevant and that her age just makes her all the more compelling.

Image credit: Jorge Royan

18 January 2016

Acknowledging the book's supporters

It's taken years to get Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement together and the experience has been a strange mixture of aloneness and putting things into a public realm. I did quite a lot of public speaking over its main research period, from 2008-2012, and of course there's blogging. But the work of putting a load of complex, scattered ideas together into something coherent, which started with the thesis, is a solitary thing shared only with a few close people. Perhaps what I'm saying is that I have felt alone in holding the full picture of this research and the book in my head.

Now things are changing.

I have started speaking about the book in public. Last week we had its launch, and yesterday I spoke at a queer community gathering. Both were packed out. There are more events on the way and I will post them as details emerge.

I'm struggling to identify my feelings in making this work public and being received in such an encouraging way. It's overwhelming. At the launch I remembered what it felt like being 15 years old and how unimaginable it would have been that I would grow up to experience people caring about fat stuff. What has been especially moving to me over the past week is the mixture of people who are finding things in the work. There was a time when I thought that there was only a small readership of fat people for stuff like this. I was wrong. My secret belief that fat resonates with people in many different political ways rings true. I suspect that people are as hungry as hell for a book like this, and lord knows I want to see more work in the world that shares and builds on its breadth.

By the way, I imagine that the book will find readers who hate it too, or people who haven't read it but have already decided that it shouldn't exist. I am steeling myself for that. There will likely be people who take the book and appropriate my ideas as theirs without crediting me. It's happened with this blog often enough. Oh well, no one expects much from a fat person! Putting work into the world is pleasurable and also painful at times but so far I have been lucky.

Even though I have felt alone, I have not really been alone. There are many people I need to thank, and here is a little list of them:

Some of the people's legs at the launch last week at
Gay's The Word bookshop
Pic by Debi Withers
All the people who consented to be interviewed for the project.

People who gave me direct emotional, intellectual and practical support. Between 50 and 100 people who I won't name because they value their privacy. This included talking things through with me, hosting me, cooking meals for me, making sure I was safe, caring about me and checking in.

Everyone associated with HammerOn Press.

The institutional advocates: The Irish Social Sciences Platform; University of Limerick, Coventry University.

The organisations that gave me platforms to publish, show, develop and discuss my work: The Association of Size Diversity and Health; Bad Art Collective; Big Bum Jumble; Bildwechsel Hamburg; Bird Club; Body & Peace Workshop; The British Film Institute; The British Sociological Association; Burger Queen; Canterbury Christ Church University; A Carnival of Feminist Cultural Activism; Club Milk; Coventry Peace Festival; Department of International Studies and Social Science, Coventry University; Department of Media, Music, Communication & Cultural Studies, Macquarie University; Entzaubert Queer DIY Film Fest; Economic and Social Research Council Fat Studies and Health at Every Size seminar series; Fat, Awesome and Queer; Fat Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Body Weight and Society; The Fat of the Land: A Queer Chub Harvest Festival; The Fattylympics; The Feminist Art Gallery; Gay's The Word; Gender Matters at King's College London; Goldsmith's University; Incite; Department of Sociology, Warwick University; Lesbisch Schwule Filmtage Hamburg; London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival; London Zine Symposium; My Mouth Your Ear; New York University Press; NOLOSE; National Portrait Gallery; Palgrave; Pop Culture Association/American Culture Association; Power Queers; Project O and all the dancers and everyone associated with SWAGGA; Queer Images Edmonton; Raw Nerve Books; Rebel Bellies; Riots Not Diets; Ryerson University; Scumbag; Sister Spit; Sociology Compass; Soggettiva; Somatechnics; thirdspace; Tate Modern; Theatre Royal Stratford East; Well Now; Vignette Press; Villa Magdalena K.

All the reviewers, the ReTweeters, the supportive commenters, the people who have put me in touch with people who want to support the book, the translators, the people who have showed up for this work, the organisers and inviters, all the pre-orderers, the readers, the encouragers.

Ack, I know I've forgotten people. Please forgive me.

I imagine there will be more thanks to make as time goes on. As I said, I feel overwhelmed and very humbled by the response so far in these early days of the work.

Normal snark will be resumed shortly. Right now I need to lie down.

06 January 2016

Fat Feminism, missing women and conversations unspoken

A little while back, my girlfriend's neighbour got married to a man and had a clear-out of a load of lesbian feminist books from the late 1980s. She offered them to my girlfriend and said that a friend had left them. There was a great collection of about 30 books, popular genres like humour, detective fiction, romance. A real throwback to a different time, when lesbian feminist book publishing was in full swing.

I've been stressed about getting my own book together, which has manifested as insomnia, so my girlfriend has been reading these books to me to help me nod off at night. We may be postmodern queers but Lesbian Bedside Stories 2 has given us a lot of pleasure!

The other night she read a short story from that collection by Amanda Hayman called The Gift. It's about a fat Western woman working in Tokyo who gets picked up by a smooth operator and has an exciting fling with her. The story explores the protagonist's internalised fatphobia, and how the love of a normatively sized and rather glamorous lover helps her to heal.

I was pretty sure that I recognised the author's name and, the next day, when I checked my fat activism bibliographic database (yes, nerd alert, I have built one of these) I found her as the author of an article about fat oppression from 1986. Her article had led to quite a discussion in the journal in which it was published, including a fatphobic backlash piece! I did a quick internet search for her, bought a copy of the first Lesbian Bedtime Stories collection, and found that Hayman had a story there too and had published a few things about fat around that period.

1986 was pretty early to be writing about fat oppression in the UK. As I understand it, things didn't get rolling until a couple of years later, in the preamble to the Fat Women's Conference in 1989. It strikes me that Hayman is an important figure in British fat feminist activism. I'm currently feeling a really strong yearning to know more about her, to sit and have a coffee together, if she's up for it. There is so much I want to ask her. But I can't find her.

There are others whose work was instrumental in developing fat feminism in the UK. Heather Smith and Tina Jenkins spring to mind but I've never been able to get in contact with them. Their work is central to me. I've had brief exchanges with Angela English and Rita Keegan, who were also part of the London Fat Women's Group. It is too late to find Barbara Burford, she died in 2010, and Mandy Mudd too. I feel these absences very strongly. Conversations never had, continuity broken, transgenerational fat feminist activism thwarted; I miss these women. There is so much we could tell each other. I dream of them finding me, or of someone knowing them and putting us in touch with each other.

My own book is now out, but I wonder if I will ever stop trying to understand fat activism. The historicising of the movement is so underdeveloped, especially the older fat feminisms upon which so much of fat activism is built. It bothers me so much that their work is barely known whereas other stuff, often mediocre, gets trumpeted as the next big thing. I imagine I will always keep an eye open for the odd random name or connection that pops up, even when my girlfriend is reading me to sleep. I can't let it go, there are so many dots that need joining up, it's a monumental puzzle. No wonder I have a hard time dropping off at night.

Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement is now available through HammerOn Press and all good booksellers.

Bean, L., Duguid, B. and Burford, B. (1987) 'Body Consciousness', Spare Rib, 182, 20-21.

Hayman, A. (1986) 'Fat Oppression', Gossip: A Journal of Lesbian Feminist Ethics, 3, 66-72.

Hayman, A. (1989 and 1990) in Woodrow, T. (ed) Lesbian Bedtime Stories vols 1 and 2. Willits, CA: Tough Dove Books.

Jenkins, T. and Farnham, M. (1988) 'As I Am', Trouble + Strife, 13.

Jenkins, T. and Smith, H. (1987) 'Fat Liberation', Spare Rib, 182, 14-18.

Mitchell, L. (1986) 'Skinny Lizzie Strikes Back: an apologia for thin women's liberation', Gossip: A Journal of Lesbian Feminist Ethics, 3, 40-44.

Smith, H. (1989) 'Creating a Politics of Appearance', Trouble + Strife, 16 (Summer), 36-41.

04 January 2016

Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement - Now Out!

My book, Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement is published today by HammerOn Press. You can get it directly from the publisher, in bookshops, from all the usual online sellers. Paperback, hardback and EPUB formats are available.

HammerOn and I decided to publish the book today because for many people it is the first miserable day back at work after the holidays. It's the peak of New Year diet season misery, where people realise what their pledges to lose weight actually entail. We thought that readers deserved something better: a tool to help them incite revolution in an accessible way.

Oh yeah, we made a video.



In Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement I write about what people say about fat activism, how they're quite limited and how you need different methods to talk about what it actually is. I describe what my peers do, where this stuff comes from and some of the ways in which it travels. Towards the end of the book I explain how it has stagnated and how that could be remedied. I use queer feminism, anti-colonialism and disability to talk about this stuff.

Me, holding my book for the first time

The first responses from people who pre-ordered it have been very positive. The general feeling is that this is an exciting book that reveals useful and important things about fat activism, and activism in general. This is heart-warming for me to hear because I think I have written a book that anybody might enjoy.

Bethan Evans snapped this at News From Nowhere in Liverpool
Look, it's with the other political books, no longer stuck in 'Health'.

21 December 2015

Five things I have learned from writing this book

I think of fat as a life's work. Sometimes it is there strongly, very present in my life, sometimes I get burned out. But the question of what it is to be fat in cultures that hate fat people is on-going. I doubt I will ever find a definitive answer but so what, it's the journey that matters.

My book, Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement is about to be published on 4 January 2016. It represents a period of great intensity for me, about seven years or so, maybe a bit longer, of thinking and working on fat. It's about to have a life beyond me and the many people who have supported the project over the years; it's about to go public.

I've certainly learned a lot about fat as I've done this work, but writing the book has been an education in itself. Here are five big things I've learned and a thing I knew before.

Our invisibility is profound
It remains unbelievable to me how much serious, credible, scholarly, rigorous work ignores fat people. I'm not talking about obesity research, that's a given, but the stuff that gets cited and circulated in other spaces and treated as reliable. It is extremely rare for fat people to be treated as a community, or series of communities, a social group, as people with agency who can speak for ourselves. This, to me, is so basic I can't believe it needs stating, and is emblematic of how dehumanised, patronised and alienated fat people are in general. Where fat community is mentioned, it is invariably white, straight, represented by organisations and based in the US. Want to see your own experiences of being fat in the literature? You will probably have to write it yourself, which might be no bad thing.

This is about revolution
Fat activism is a way of thinking about activism more broadly. It does away with the idea that activism always takes place in organised groups, through campaigns, on the streets with placards. It makes activism more accessible to people. It's what I think of as a meta movement, it has connections to a great many struggles for social justice and can offer useful insights, for example about bodies, marginalisation, absurdity, medicalisation. It's a way of approaching revolutionary politics so that nobody gets left behind.

The medium matters
The work, the thoughts, the people involved, the way a piece is published, this is all activism too. Caring about the subject means doing your best to consider who the work is really for and how they might find it. I have written elsewhere that I did not want this work to disappear into the academy, for example. The way that the work enters the world is very important.

It's lonely work
People expect you to be sort of magical and invulnerable. People you depended on and thought were rock solid will disappear. You are judged by people who don't know you. You share your thoughts where you can but you're basically alone with things. When I say you I mean me. It is very painful and hard work, work that is brutal and invisible a lot of the time. I won't be sad when it's over.

Things shift all the time
Communities fracture and change, people come out of the woodwork, I've found that who I am in relation to the work is constantly changing, I'm always reorientating myself depending on who I'm talking to. People can be very surprising too, over the past few weeks I've had conversations with people who I would never have thought would be interested in this stuff. This makes me feel very hopeful about the future of fat, a conversation can be pivotal and spark delightful changes, even though things are pretty awful a lot of the time.

There are bits of autobiography in the book, I situate it in my life. But I am part of a movement that is bigger than me, there are many who came before and I hope there will be people who come after. The book is a building block, something for other people to use. What I knew before is that this is not really about me, it's about a social movement that won't be stopped.

14 December 2015

Archiving Fat Activism

My book, Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement is built on research. Some of this research involved interviewing people and some involved sifting through archival material.

I went to archives to look for fat activism because there are very few books and papers available that document it so I needed to look at original source material and try and piece things together. I drifted into archival work, it wasn't part of the original plan for the research but I just kept getting pulled further in because the things I found there were very moving and exciting to see. Where I often feel isolated in my present-day fat activism, in the archive I could clearly see myself and others as part of a much bigger movement, it was like visiting my ancestors. I felt a duty to witness the fat feminist activism I found there and to become an agent of its transmission. I'm not a spiritual person but this came close to being like a religious experience for me and was very emotional work. Sometimes I would find things that I had made in the archives I was searching too.

The materials I had the pleasure to read and handle represent evidence that is not in mainstream spaces. I also think that you sort of have to know a bit about what you are looking for when you visit one of these archives looking for fat activism, for example it helps to know about particular women. In addition, you'll soon get very lost if you use dominant culture language like 'obesity epidemic' for example. What I'm saying is this: your years of living in the margins are an asset in an archive when you are looking for fat activists.

I was very lucky to have a period where a lot of my travel was funded by a research institution, namely the Irish Social Sciences Platform. This was a dream come true. But you don't necessarily need cash to look at an archive. The ones I've listed below are free to use, and some are online. If you live in a big city, chances are that there will be archives, perhaps queer or feminist archives, perhaps archives with local newspapers and newsletters and flyers, perhaps archives that have zine libraries and finding aids where you can search for fat stuff. You don't have to be a student or part of a university, these resources are open to the public, ie you. Perhaps, like me, you are interested in setting up fat activist community archives, or are finding out about DIY archiving.

Fat activist histories are so very fragile because fat people are not culturally valued and often we do not value our own lives enough to document or preserve them. The material that does get archived represents the tiniest tip of the iceberg in terms of what constitutes a social movement of fat activists. Where people are further marginalised their legacies are even more fragile. People of colour and trans people's fat activist archives are particularly invisible, even within archives that are already very marginal spaces. One of the most painful experiences of being in an archive whilst looking for fat activism is the knowledge that there are terrible absences.

With this in mind, I urge fat activists to support archives that are open to documenting and preserving the evidence of our lives. Think about donating not just money but material, keep copies of things you make, encourage others to do so, learn how to use archives, try not to be intimidated by them.

Anyway, here are some of the archives that I visited between 2008-2015 to look for fat activism. Some have bigger holdings than others, some are more like libraries than archives, some require many visits and others are worth an afternoon of your time. Check them out if you can.

56A Infoshop
A radical social centre and book shop in London that also has a zine library and is generally a happening place to be. In fact, zine libraries, anarchist info centres and autonomous social spaces can be good places to find fat activism.

Bildwechsel
A wonderful feminist queer media archive in Hamburg. They have an active interest in supporting fat activism and hold the original copy of A Queer and Trans Fat Activist Timeline.

Black Rose Library and Info Centre
This anarchist centre in Sydney was evicted from its longstanding home and is now on hiatus. When it flowers again you can find a handful of fat activist zines in their collection.

Cassero
A really beautiful queer library in Bologna. Some fat holdings.

The Feminist Library
A brilliant community library in London. It has a lot of my stuff in there, and also full collections of 1980s lesbian journals such as Sinister Wisdom, which were hotbeds of fat feminism. Indeed, their periodicals reading room is the place to be if you want to know about early fat feminism in the UK and US.

Gay and Lesbian Historical Society
Based in San Francisco, this archive is a wonderland and its fat holdings include flyers, leaflets and boxes of Judy Freespirit's papers and personal effects. A compelling space.

Glasgow Women's Library
Beautiful, friendly local library and archive that has some fat activist material and, I'm sure, would be interested in collecting more.

Hall Carpenter Archives
Britain's prominent queer archive. It's very formal but don't be put off and don't be afraid to ask for help. They have an excellent collection of LGBT journals.

The Labadie Collection at the University of Michigan
Mind-blowing and massive queer archive, one of several special collections at the University of Michigan that should be of interest to fat activists. I found some holdings but only had a short amount of time there. I'm sure there's a lot more if you dig.

LAGNA
Lesbian and Gay Newsmedia Archives, a fabulous collection hosted by the Bishopsgate Instutute, a centre of working class research and culture in East London. Their queer clippings library is really worth a look.

Largesse
The place for US fat feminist activism. Maintained by Karen Stimson for many years, this ESSENTIAL resource is now offline, though you can find its pages through the Wayback Machine internet archive. Completely worth your time. Try searching for http://www.eskimo.com/~largesse/ at The Wayback Machine.

Lesbian Herstory Archives
Situated in a house in Brooklyn, the archives have some fat holdings and very helpful volunteers to help you navigate the lovely space and its collections.

QZAP
The Queer Zine Archive Project is an incredible free resource. It has some fat zines in its collection, and some of my stuff too. zinelibrary.info has also been a useful repository with some fat zines, but it is currently offline. Perhaps try searching snapshots of it through the Wayback Machine.

Spare Rib
The British Library hosts a full digital run of this feminist magazine, which includes important fat activist articles from the late 1980s. There is a keyword search, a bit fiddly and hard to find but great if you can get it to work.

Spinnboden
Peaceful feminist archive in Berlin. Some fat activist material, they are interested in collecting more.

Stuart Hall Library
A small, well-curated library in London mostly dedicated to art and design but with more political and sociological works and material on fat by women of colour.

Sinister Wisdom
This journal of lesbian feminist arts and culture was founded in 1976. It has been sympathetic to fat feminism over the years and is a rich source of material by and about fat activists. Issues 1-57, more or less, are archived online and are available to download for free.

Trouble and Strife
The whole run of this British feminist journal has been digitised and is available online. Includes essential pieces from the 80s-90s by Heather Smith, Tina Jenkins, Karis Otobong, Cath Jackson and Margot Farnham.

The Women's Library
Important national collection now buried in the London School of Economics. Their collection is excellent, they have a full run of Fat News, but access leaves a lot to be desired.

I was thwarted in my visit to the Mayer Collection at the University of Connecticut by a blizzard and an ice storm. I tried! Very sad to have missed it but their finding aid is illuminating in itself.

Meanwhile, there are many more archives that I would like to visit. Two in particular are The Schlesinger Library at Harvard University which has the holdings of a number of fat feminists involved in the early part of the movement. The other is June Mazer Lesbian Archives in Los Angeles, which has more West Coast early fat activism holdings.

There is also work underway on a major disability archive in the UK, which I hope will have at least some material on fat in its collection. The People's History Museum in Manchester is also a useful resource, though at present underdeveloped as far as fat activism goes.

Also, you know, The British Library, The Wellcome Library, the big institutions are also there and worth a look, though the places I've listed above have better fat activist material, in my opinion.

Are there other important archival sites for fat activism that I have overlooked? Add them in the comments please.

07 December 2015

DIY Publishing and Fat Activism

When I finished my PhD someone asked me about my plans for publishing it. I said that I might publish it myself and they looked at me aghast, this would clearly have been academic suicide. A book published by an academic press would most likely be expensive and would have to conform to an idea of what an academic book is. In my experience, academic books may be full of useful knowledge but are generally very boring to read. I didn't want to produce something that sends people to sleep. I want my writing to help people feel alive and full of possibility.

Somebody else said that the thesis contained some work that would be REF-able papers. REF refers to the Research Excellence Framework, a model for quality research in the UK that many of the academics I know feel is somewhat shonky. A REF-able paper would most likely be published by a journal that would cost ordinary people without access to university libraries quite a bit of money to read. That's if they knew how to use an academic database. It would be quite likely that the paper would not be read by many people, and certainly not the people who could most benefit from the work, or the people on whose lives the work was built.

In both cases, readers would have to know how to read an academic book or paper, to feel that they could handle dense language and lots of jargon. I thought but didn't say: "I have other hopes for this."

These two comments have stuck with me over the last year as I have prepared the book of my thesis for publication. Is my research excellent? I think it is! Early readers of the book also agree. I may be committing academic career suicide but I'm not pursuing an academic career right now and none of this has stopped me engaging with universities, doing research projects, continuing to have a rich intellectual life inside and beyond the academy and getting paid for it.

REF-able papers and academic status would be lovely, but I think of them as gravy, not a publishing rationale. What really matters to me is that people who are interested in fat activism, any kind of people, should be able to read a sophisticated book about it and not need a PhD or a lot of money to do so. I want as wide as possible a readership for this work because I think it has exciting applications for how people do and think about activism. In these conservative times activism is an important survival tactic. I want to be able to say what I need to say in a book that has my name on it. This didn't happen with my first book, the editors had political ideas they wanted to promote at my expense. So having editorial control over my own work is important to me, never again do I want to be pushed around by a publisher. I want to be able to learn new skills and meet new people in the process of publishing a book. I want to continue working collaboratively with other creative thinkers, writers and artists. Lastly, I want a good deal that doesn't rip me off or line the pockets of a corporate owner.

The publishing world is changing and so is academia. They would like to be closed worlds for an elite, especially under this government which wants to deny poorer people the cultural wealth that they enjoy. But people who have been pushed out are finding other ways to disseminate and benefit from ideas. This is why Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement is being published by a small independent press. HammerOn has been instrumental in developing ideas about the para-academy in the UK, and is also rooted in DIY values. We both come from punk and are not afraid of experimenting and doing things in unorthodox ways.

From the initial PhD proposal to publication, this piece of work has often been unruly. It resists conventional narratives about fat, about fat activism; it's the product of an irreverent style of research and it challenges academic publishing strategies. It's a disruptive book and I hope it finds readers who enjoy misbehaving. The subject matter is about fat activism but the research and the book itself is also fat activism. So that's why I'm doing it this way and, I have to say, it is very satisfying.

Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement will be published on 4 January 2016.



30 November 2015

Good citizenship and fat hate cards

In 2005 I was invited to give the keynote at NOLOSE, a great honour. I said that a storm was coming and that although fat hatred was bad enough now, it was going to get a lot worse. I was talking about and getting my head around the global obesity epidemic. This is a moral panic about fat people instigated by the World Health Organisation through its 2000 report on obesity, authored by people with interests in the weight loss industry, which, unsurprisingly became the textbook for global interventions. Where fat hate had previously been a matter for people and their health practitioners, their families and random strangers in the street, it was now enshrined in policy, a major coup for the weight loss industry.

What has happened in the 15 years since the report was published is that concepts relating to the global obesity epidemic have become normalised and the weight loss industry has become legitimised through policy aiming (and always failing, of course) to "tackle the obesity crisis." Concepts surrounding these policies – obesogenic, sugar tax, fat people heralding the end of the NHS, fat people causing climate change, and so on – have also become normalised. In 2005 I could not have anticipated how hating fat people could be seen as a form of good citizenship through global obesity epidemic rhetoric. But now I see that this is what has happened.

At the weekend I saw a post on Facebook by a friend of a friend who said that she had been handed a card by a stranger on the underground in London. He had put it on her lap and then run away. On one side the card said "Fat" and on the other it had about eight lines saying that fat people are fat because we are greedy, that we consume too much, are responsible for world poverty and starvation, are responsible for a struggling NHS, and would be better off if we ate less because we would be healthier and have partners who are not perverted. It ended by saying that fat people are fat and ugly. The card was credited to Overweight Haters Ltd, "our organisation hates and resents fat people". It was crappily produced and misspelled.

The woman who was handed the card has now found herself at the centre of a storm of hungry journalists wanting a nasty story, and Twitter trolls, not to mention friends who keep telling her what she should have done. This through no fault of her own. She was just going about her business and then this happened. This is what it is like to deal with hate, it blows up in your face, it comes from nowhere and it can ruin your day, or life. My heart goes out to this person and anyone else who is handed a card like this.

At the weekend there was no search result for Overweight Haters Ltd but now there is a thread on, surprise surprise, Fat People Hate. The friend of a friend's post and images were taken down, but not before someone screen-shotted them and put them online, I'm sure without her permission. It looks like the guy who dumped the card and then ran away can't resist boasting about it. I suspect it won't be long until someone finds out who he is, someone quite pathetic no doubt. The "Ltd" is a pose of course, if this was a limited company you could look up the owner's address and financial details. More evidence that this is someone's clever hate-prank.

I have noticed a shift within Fat Studies towards talking about stigma rather than hate. I think this is a shame. Stigma feels a lot more rational, de-stigmatising fat is a respectable project of debate, listening, discussion and understanding. But this card and the discourses that have helped to produce it are not stigma, they are hate. Within the logic of fat panic being a good citizen has become confused with hate. What happened to that woman is hate. It is not hard to understand where that hate comes from, the arguments are similar to anything you might read in the BBC or Guardian's reporting on obesity, for example, it is only the language that is more direct and raw. I would like to see a re-instatement of fat hate as a subject for analysis, because to me this is the crisis and it has arisen through every bit of shit policy and every well-meaning but misguided think piece about fat people that refuses to engage with us directly.

By the way, in the UK there is no law protecting fat people from hate crimes, though there is disability law that might be invoked. If you are handed one of these cards you might want to think about getting legal advice.

Edited to add:

Not long after I posted this, the story was broken in the mainstream press and has become huge. If Overweight Haters Ltd wanted attention, they surely got it in spades. I expect it will blow over just as quickly too, but what struck me were the responses to the event. Here are some notes:

I don't know if the press spoke to the woman. Articles seemed to be made up from her Facebook post and Tweets. This is pretty scary. A story can take hold without your involvement or right to reply.

Further Tweets were published from a man who saw another woman being handed a card and crying. Was this even real? How could this ever be corroborated? There was something in the crying woman that was more lurid and newsworthy than the original woman, whose concern was for others who might be hurt, not for her own feelings. It makes me suspect that what the public wants is a shamed fat woman crying in public; someone to pity.

Predictably, there was a lot of outrage. I don't know if this would have been different five years ago. Many people bragged about what they would have done instead, but they weren't there and a fantasy of petty revenge versus the reality of being suddenly hated are quite different, in my opinion. I saw some jokes about getting organised but sadly would be very surprised if anything came to fruition. There was also a lot of trolling. Commenters typically said that what the man did wasn't very nice but 'these people' need to learn that it's not ok to be fat and that shaming fat people (ie hating us) is an acceptable tactic.

I was surprised by the amount of disbelief. People couldn't believe that someone could hate fat people that much. Derailers said that the act of handing cards must have been a PR stunt, and a number of Tweets were about the Ltd part of the name not being real and possibly being illegal. One site called the act "real life trolling" as though this was a novel phenomenon. No pal, fat people deal with real life hate all the fucking time.

Through conversations online with people concerned about the attack, I found that I was being asked to debate the fact that it was a woman and not a man who was the subject of the story, and to express my opinions on food taxation. I thought that the story opened a can of worms about things to do with the treatment of fat people that people are generally too inhibited to talk about. I don't mind this, but it was exhausting and a lot of emotional labour. I imagine other fat people also had to field this stuff. On the other hand I also felt that I was being asked to justify my existence as a fat person.

Amazingly a plus-size shop Tweeted an offer of a £500 outfit to the crying woman. They urged her to "be positive," useless advice to someone who has in effect been assaulted, as far as I can see. I do think that using this attack as a marketing opportunity is somewhat shady but then who am I to talk, I Tweeted that my forthcoming book is a weapon against hate of this kind. Hypocrite.

Will there be copycat attacks? What has this story opened up? It's hard to tell now. According to the Guardian, the police are now involved, which I'm sure will be a wonderful experience for everyone. More hearteningly, they reported this from Steve Burton, director of enforcement and on-street operations at London Transport: “All of our customers have the right to travel with confidence, and this sad and unpleasant form of antisocial behaviour will not be tolerated.” I think this is pretty extraordinary, that they are taking the event seriously and are framing it as harassment that no one should suffer. I think this at least is a development.

I had to step away from my computer a number of times during the day. The whole experience of witnessing this story and its explosion took a lot out of me. I was shaking, very tense, wound-up. Overweight Haters Ltd really are the gift that keeps on giving.