28 July 2014

What could fat activist choreography look like?

SWAGGA introduced me to the idea of a score in relation to dance. As I understand it, a score is kind of like an instruction. It's also a way of describing choreography, like notation. A score can be a bit like a poem and exist in its own right.

I co-created scores as SWAGGA was being developed and made notes of them. Over the past couple of weeks I went to a couple of this guy Hamish McPherson's events, called All The Things That We Can Do. I wrote a score for someone taking a shower, to answer a question about what dirt means. Someone else wrote a score for me too. We danced our showers!

Scores are on my mind. I've been thinking about what choreographic scores for fat people, fat activists, might look like. As an experiment, here are some choreographic ideas for fat activists to improvise with. I thought about physicality; protest and agency; historicising fat activism and community as general themes. They can be danced solo or in a group (the third one is intended for a group). They can be long or short, repeated or not repeated, adapted for people's physical limitations and specialities. There can be music but I don't know what it is. The temptation would be for some pop culture thing that references fat; it would be good if people went for something that isn't corny or overexposed.

It would be a dream come true to see people doing and/or performing these scores, or developing others, maybe recording them, making them public. Would you like to have a go? How could this happen?

Fat Activist Score 1

Change the air around you by being.
Smack your thighs together, whomp fat against itself, against hands, against other parts of the body, against flat objects if you want to, but do not hurt yourself.
Create sweat and heat, warm up the place.
Stamp if you can, like Godzilla, Flabzilla, like a T-Rex, the Terminator or a Transformer. Create earthquakes.
Aim to make the building shake as you move.
If you have hair or clothes you can swish, swish them.
Aim for people to feel your presence without you touching them.
Allow yourself to vocalise your breath as you move.

Fat Activist Score 2

Make eye contact. Use your body to let people know that you are looking at them. Use gestures. Point. Look without shame. See.
Head shaking and other forms of saying no, refusing, interrupting and stopping things.
If the gaze is directed at you, move into it, make the most of it, give people something to look at.
Pay attention to the parts of the body where there is pain. Show what pain looks like. Tend to the pain, tend to others' pain.
Stop and rest. Start again.

Fat Activist Score 3

A group of people arranged in either a circle, a line, a square, a recognisable form of some kind. Standing, sitting, a mixture.
An originator makes a gesture and it is passed along, it moves back and forth. You can see it passing back and forth. People are still when they are not gesturing.
Another originator makes another gesture and, again, it moves back and forth in the group.
The gesture might pick up speed, people might lose interest in it and it becomes forgotten and lost.
Originators make more gestures which move through the group. Sometimes the gestures are adapted as they move. There are many gestures and many movements. Sometimes it gets really confusing.
An originator reinstates a gesture that was lost.
An originator invokes a gesture that they did not originate as though it belongs to them.
Different parts of the group become preoccupied with particular gestures and they do not move far, they stay. The group fractures along these lines.
The dance ends as the shape falls apart and everyone is caught up in the gestures, sometimes moving synchroniously with others, sometimes moving alone with their own gestures and original movements.


11 July 2014

On hearing the news this morning about NICE and WLS

I woke to the news that the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, part of the British government's Department of Health, wants thousands of people to have gastric bands in order to prevent the National Health Service paying for diabetes treatment.

Dear NICE,

It is 6.30 in the morning and I am burning when I should be dozing.

You are slime.

I just want to call you names because I am so angry.

Let's talk about treating fat people with diabetes but let's not pretend that you have found a risk-free, health-enhancing way of enabling people to lose weight, or that weight loss is The Answer to Everything.

Instead let's talk about your treatment of fat people as guinea pigs and scapegoats.

Or the conflation of fat and diabetic.

Or pre-diabetes.

Or the obesity epidemic.

Or how fat people "cause climate chaos".

Or food addiction.

Or how fat people are responsible for The Deficit.

Or the need to tax sugary things.

Or The Children.

Or obesogenic environments.

Or the thousand other bullshit ways that hatred is leveraged to reconstitute and dehumanise fat people in the public eye through fatphobia, and how this affects a population's health.

You have no idea how difficult it is to access adequate healthcare if you are fat. That fat people's lives – probably including mine – are shortened by fatphobic 'care,' aka iatrogenesis, is the real scandal here. It is really hard to be healthy in a culture whose major institutions and centres of medical excellence want to obliterate you.

Now you have made it a lot worse.

A gastric band is a surveillance device. You throw up what the band decides is superfluous. Your body then eats itself because you are really really hungry. This is how you lose weight.

This government loves surveillance.

But like all surveillance, people inevitably find a way around it. It is a faulty surveillance device. It doesn't make diseased fat people into healthy thin people, it makes people have really fucked-up relationships with food and it causes the kinds of problems you would imagine would be caused if a major organ was messed with. Surgery is a relatively recent intervention and it is hard to know long-term outcomes. It's a gamble. It doesn't keep people thin. People still regain weight after a band has been installed. Diabetic people too. What then?

Gastric bands further medicalise people, including those with diabetes, for the rest of their lives. How does this save the NHS money?

I cannot believe that you would mandate more weight loss surgery. You want to invest in something that is entirely duff and requires expensive and risky procedures to install.

You want to invest in this rubbish instead of no-risk, cheap, community-based health promotion rooted in Heath At Every Size. Models that have success records, that fat people are happy to engage with because they/we are seen as agentic authors of our own lives with lived expertise to offer.

It makes no sense at all. Whose sponsorship is behind this decision? Who is making money out of this? What further crap will this recommendation inspire?

With horror,

Disgusted of E15

PS. Insert Headless Fatty here.

07 July 2014

Fat activism and tattoos

On Saturday around noon my girlfriend and I went and got tattoos.

It wasn't my first, that one was in 1996. I'm hardly covered but every now and then I'll go under the needle. I like it, the pain feels good, I enjoy the rush afterwards as well as having a picture on my skin. I have one tattoo that I might do differently with hindsight but I've never regretted them, they remind me of things that I don't want to forget.

We got matching tattoos, which is really lezzie, but the subject matter has other stuff going on. In 2004 someone who will be known here as Yeti, unless they want me to name them, and someone else known as Big Blu designed a symbol for a fictitious girl gang project that I was stirring up called The Chubsters. This symbol became known as the Screaming C: a fat letter C, with fangs dripping blood. To me it symbolised the fat person who bites back; a refusal; a snarl. The Screaming C has been deployed in various ways over the years, as graffiti, as embroidery, as doodles, even as stonemasonry. It's a fantastic symbol. As a project The Chubsters is more or less played-out, though a web archive is on the way. But that symbol endures, I think about it often.

Alice works on my skin
We got Screaming Cs tattooed on our hips. I'd been hemming and hawing about it for a while. I'm aware that my tattoos further position me as a marginal person in many people's eyes. I've been reading news stories lately by tattoo haters about how getting tattooed is akin to self-harm. Nice girls don't get tattooed. This is precisely the reason why I went ahead: I'm not and don't want to be a nice girl.

We didn't pretty-up the artwork, we used the original drawings as source material and our tattooist, Alice at Divine Canvas, was faithful to it. It looks like someone has taken a biro and scratched it onto us, which is not so far from what actually happened. The blood droplets are red.

I realised on the day that so much of today's tattoo aesthetic is about prettiness, 'a work of art on your skin,' an inflated idea of art, or 'good art,' taste, which of course is all about class and cultural capital (knowing what the 'right' art is, for example). I like bad art, cruddiness, things that are bodged together. I don't care so much about prettiness. It's one of those things that I conflate with being nice: "nice and pretty". This is not what I'm looking for in life.

My favourite tattoos on other people are ones that would be deemed crap: the group of friends who got a banana tattooed because it was only a tenner; a wonky Siouxsie Sioux; dots made with a sewing needle and ink; a friend who has a cartoon penis and fanny tattooed on her ankles; a pal who has a devil with the words 'Not sorry' underneath, and so on. It's no coincidence that these tattoos are always the cheapest ones in the shop, or homemade, they don't cost the equivalent of a small car.

Having a Screaming C tattoo feels like part of the work of feeling at home in my body as a fat person; it's playful, silly, has meaning and is nothing more than what it is. It felt freeing committing to a tattoo that is not about high-minded aesthetics but is connected to something more basic.

Anyway, getting our tattoos was a lot of fun, not very expensive, and now they are healing nicely and I'm looking forwards to flashing mine from time to time. Some people said that they also wanted to get Screaming C tattoos. I'd rather they went for something more original than copying my tattoo, but it's up to them what they do. The experience has made me think of other fat activists and their tattoos, and it's led me to wonder about fat activist tattoo aesthetics.

I hope commenters will chip in with their own thoughts and pictures, but at the moment it seems to me that a fat activist tattoo often has one or more of the following qualities: cute renditions of junk food; slogans, especially Riots not Diets, inspirational quotes; vintage-cute renditions of fat figures, maybe cartoons, or traditional Western tattoo culture figures (they might have names that I don't know); fat animals, pigs, whales, cows, manatees and so on. Fat activist tattoos are placed on parts of the body that are coded as problematic in the rhetoric of weight loss: bellies, thighs, fat rolls are popular. A theme emerges where fat and tattoos converge where bodies are embellished by flowers, the natural world, sea creatures; these symbols beautify bodies that are reclaimed from, for example, medicalisation and fatphobia, with love that has been hard-fought in many cases, they say to me something like: "My fat body is beautiful and worth beautifying."

Obligatory dodgy tattoo selfie with added flowery knickers
So where might this go? I don't want to yuck anybody's yum, I wish power to all fat people and their beloved tattoos, but what happens if a tattoo is not necessarily about being beautiful? What happens if tattoos undermine discourses of beauty? What might happen if fat activists question the trend towards cuteness? What's that cuteness about anyway? What might a fat activist tattoo - or aesthetic more generally - develop into? A tattoo of a raised fat fist? A trashed set of scales? A broken chair? The cover of Shadow on a Tightrope? I want to see more of this stuff! Fat activists, unleash your imaginations, it's only skin after all.

25 June 2014

Detroit, Fat, Allied Media Conference

I went to Detroit. I first went to the city in 2001 and this was my fifth or sixth visit to the place. Detroit is changing. There is still a lot of poverty, there are still ruins, but a demolition programme, the shutting down of essential services, including water and sewage, is forcing social cleansing on a massive scale. There are now areas of gentrification that would have almost been unthinkable 13 years ago. Detroit, a city of working class black people, is becoming a magnet for gentrifiers who consider it a new frontier. The city's problems are both unique to Detroit and an indication of what is happening in neoliberal cities elsewhere. I was struck many times during my visit by the similarities between Detroit and where I live in East London. I love both places.

Here are some snapshots from my trip:

a) My friend Amanda Piasecki met up with my love and I and we hung out for the weekend. A fat guy passing by laughed openly at us squeezing out of the small car I had rented. "That's a tiny car!" he spluttered. "Yes it is!" we replied.

b) Amanda gave me this really big badge. The woman on it looks familiar to me, who is she? Someone from the early days of NAAFA? I like how plain and unglamorous she looks, like a fat hippy or a student. The badge says "Made in Hong Kong" in tiny letters on the side, which dates it, I think, to the late 1960s or early 1970s, when Hong Kong was exporting cheap manufactured goods to the US. I think it's amazing that this badge exists at all. Historic fat culture. What a gift! Thanks Amanda.

c) I got to see some Midwestern fat friends and to eat at the wonderful fat and queer-friendly Bona Sera café in Ypsilanti. I felt nourished by Bad Fairy's grits and the homemade gelato on the menu as well as the conversation and camaraderie. We talked about fat community, class, stupid stuff too. I often feel the burn of community, but this was not one of those times.

d) The Grand River Creative Corridor at Core City has some stunning street art, including this, which inspires a lot of feelings in me. I have no fondness at all for Captain America, so I'm always glad to see him as a satirical object. I get that he is representing a broken dream of America, he's painted on a wall in a run-down area bordering a more gentrified neighbourhood. Perhaps this painting heralds the start of more gentrification. His fatness here is complicated. It's a product of fast food consumption, I recognise a fatphobic and patronising view of Detroit as a food desert and am mindful of how this rhetoric is used to leverage the presence of gentrifying corporations (a Whole Foods – an upmarket supermarket – has recently opened not so far away). I read this fat as weak, bloated, abjected. It reeks of fat panic. I wonder who painted it, are they fat? What does it mean to see a depiction of fatness like this in such a fat city?

e) We went to see the fantastic band Speaker for the Dead at the Trumbullplex, an anarchist house and venue. One of the band's members is called Charlie V. Stern and they are a stand-up comic as well as an accordionist. They did a set and began with this line: "Your Mama... your Mama she's so fat that no one can look her in the eye because we live in a fucked up sizeist and ablest society". I couldn't believe what I was hearing. I was probably the fattest in the room, Stern is not particularly fat but maybe identifies as fat, I don't know. I was amazed that fat activist discourse could have filtered in to a right-on joke by a stand-up in an anarchist performance space. I thought: "Things are changing."

One of Beryl-Elise Hoffstein's illustrations.
f) I went to visit the Joseph A. Labadie Collection at the university of Michigan, which is open access, meaning that members of the public can go and look at things for free. The Labadie is a collection of radical left archival material, including papers, journals, magazines, ephemera, t-shirts, badges, all kinds of things. There is a lot of queer stuff in there. Their holdings on fat are not excessive, but they did have a beautifully preserved copy of the Proceedings of the First Feminist Fat Activists' Working Meeting, April 18-20 1980, New Haven CT. This was a report prepared by Judith Stein, and illustrated by Beryl-Elise Hoffstein. It was distributed by Fat Liberator Publications. I found this document very moving to read, so many of the concerns of 1980 are relevant today. It was also funny and full of spark, for example "Goals and Priorities for the Fat Liberation Movement" include: "build a feminist fat culture;" "burn Jean Neiditch (head of Weight Watchers) in effigy;" "have public demonstrations of fat people's strength and endurance;" "Defence squad against hassles (Fat Terrorist Society)" – sounds a bit like The Chubsters to me.

g) I went to Detroit to attend the Allied Media Conference (AMC). This is an annual affair dedicated to grassroots social justice media-based organising. Yes, that's a mouthful. It's a really big conference, with many workshops, practise spaces, panels, performances, delegates and things to blow your mind. Some of these things are convened under 'tracks,' special collections of sessions on a particular theme. I was interested in several of these tracks but the ones most relevant to this post are Research Justice and Abundant Bodies Media. You can read notes and Tweets from the sessions via the AMC website.

We drew a cartoon illustrating research injustice
and research justice
I attended the Research Justice Network Gathering, a mini-conference that took place before the main event. Regular readers of this blog will know that I have been getting interested in decolonising obesity research and that I used RJ principles in the project No More Stitch-Ups! Developing Media Literacy Through Fat Activist Community Research. The Network Gathering was a powerful reminder of the political nature of research, and a call to action in creating more just and inclusive methodologies. I came away from the gathering with a firmer understanding of the harm that obesity research injustice causes, and a commitment to develop harm reduction strategies around that stuff. I found it very helpful to think of this work taking place within a wider agenda calling for accountability, it can be very alienating doing this work, it's good to know that those of us who do it are not alone.

Abundant Bodies Media is the first time there has been a dedicated fat track at the AMC. This is somewhat surprising to me since the conference has a strong healing Justice presence and there are many fat people in attendance. The eight sessions in the track focussed on creative practice, inclusive community-building, sexuality, intersectional bodily autonomy, anti-assimilationist and online fat activism. Not bad! It was exciting to participate as a panellist and a presenter, working with groups of younger fat activists, a mixture of those new to the movement and more seasoned players.

I understand that not everybody had as positive an experience of the track as me. There were problems with accessible seating throughout, and getting around the conference venues was not straightforward. Although the AMC is a radical and visionary space, fat politics remain marginal and unknown to many of its participants, some of whom tried to discredit the track and its participants. This echoes the ongoing problem of fatphobia in the left, a subject I've written about previously. I witnessed these interactions, for example: when I mentioned the track to someone in an interview they said that they hoped it would focus on healthy eating; another person did not understand the rationale for a session and lectured some of us on the causes of obesity, framing us as pathological in the process. The AMC is an overwhelming experience at the best of times and people were often absent, me included, trying to cram in as much as possible across all of the tracks. This meant that Abundant Bodies Media, and probably other tracks too, tended to feel fragmented and it was hard to build a solid activism base.

Despite the problems in putting together an inaugural track, I hope that Abundant Bodies Media will continue. It was well-curated and shows that there is clearly a hunger for a fat presence in this radical space. There are bound to be glitches as the track gets going, developing community takes time and hard work. Whether or not people have the energy to invest in this remains to be seen, but I want to leave this post now by quoting the Allied Media Projects Network Principles in full, because they are really powerful, full of hope, and might offer those involved some kind of comfort for the work that lies ahead.

Allied Media Projects Network Principles

"We are making an honest attempt to solve the most significant problems of our day.

We are building a network of people and organizations that are developing long-term solutions based on the immediate confrontation of our most pressing problems.

Wherever there is a problem, there are already people acting on the problem in some fashion. Understanding those actions is the starting point for developing effective strategies to resolve the problem, so we focus on the solutions, not the problems.

We emphasise our own power and legitimacy.

We presume our power, not our powerlessness.

We spend more time building than attacking.

We focus on strategies rather than issues.

The strongest solutions happen through the process, not in a moment at the end of the process.

The most effective strategies for us are the ones that work in situations of scarce resources and intersecting systems of oppression because those solutions tend to be the most holistic and sustainable.

Place is important. For the AMC, Detroit is important as a source of innovative, collaborative, low-resource solutions. Detroit gives the conference a sense of place, just as each of the conference participants bring their own sense of place with them to the conference.

We encourage people to engage with their whole selves, not just with one part of their identity.

We begin by listening."

12 June 2014

SWAGGA opening night happened!

This post is part of an on-going series about the experience of becoming a dancer who is also fat, old and becoming disabled. Project O is the umbrella organisation, owned by Alexandrina Hemsley and Jamila Johnson-Small, who are choreographing and directing us. SWAGGA is the name of the piece we are developing together. We gave a public performance of this piece at Rich Mix on 7 June in London, together with a piece by Alex and Jamila called Benz Punany. Kay Hyatt is my girlfriend and co-dancer.

Two dancers, after.
The silly season has started, not that it ever goes away where fat is concerned. There are many things I could say about whether or not I think fat is a disability, today's subject for fatphobic hand-wringing, but I'll save that for another time. You could read my book (Fat and Proud: The Politics of Size, which goes into it somewhat), or this ancient article too, I still agree with a lot of what I wrote and thought 17 years ago.

What I really want to write about today is SWAGGA. We had our debut and I am still cruising on a high from that. It's a while since I've felt this sustained from doing something. Nearly a week has passed and the messages of congratulations are still coming in. Today DIVA magazine published this excellent review by Charlotte Richardson Andrews: Project O Goes Large: SWAGGA and Benz Punany. What I'm noticing is a sense of unreality when I remember the night, so maybe it would be fruitful to focus on the facts.

The performance sold out. This is unusual for a show with no marketing behind it, just word of mouth, my blogging and a bit of social networking. It wasn't just our friends in the audience either, people we didn't know came. This makes me suspect that audiences are hungry for work like SWAGGA and Benz Punany and will show up for it. The audience was diverse, there were lots of people there who don't usually go to see dance. Arts organisations, take notice of this and commission us for more!

When I think of the dancing I remember a busy day of practising, doing the tech rehearsal, waiting. We had a company warm up, which was really interesting. This was the first time in the whole process that Alex, Jamila, Kay and I had been on a stage together as fellow dancers. I generally feel warm in my body and ready to dance after jigging around and stretching a bit for a couple of songs. This is what I did. Jamila and Alex have much more experience with warming up for a performance and they are experts of the body, their bodies in particular. They went through a range of movements that took some time, it looked meticulous to me and so impressive, yet probably very workaday to them. I find it hard to imagine attending to my body with such focus in a way that isn't bound up with fatphobia, but I would like to be able to inhabit my body with a similar level of directness and concentration, at least from time to time.

The performance itself was a great experience. I loved waiting backstage for the lights to go down, our cue for taking our places on the stage. Even though I was nervous I knew that I was ready for what lay ahead. We did as well as we could, it wasn't a perfect run, it never is, but it was more than good enough. Sometimes people check out when they are performing but I was present on this occasion. There was a lot of applause, we took it shyly.

People were engaged. Afterwards I had conversations about identity politics; how brave I was (I'm not sure how I feel about that, I am brave, but maybe not in the way this person meant); how moved people were, people who cried; people thinking for the first time that dancing is something they might want to do too; how both pieces gave people ways of saying things, permission to say things, that had previously been too difficult to talk about. I saw a lot of delighted faces, there was a great feeling of excitement afterwards, people I don't know very well were hugging and kissing me! My friends brought me flowers. It was an incredible privilege to be a conduit for all of this stuff.

One of the overarching themes of these conversations was something like: "How can you even be there on stage, doing that?" people wanted to know our process, and also how we came to be on the stage, participating in a project like this. What I got from this was a feeling that dance is not for the likes of us, but disbelief that we had somehow managed to squeeze in. I don't think this was a malicious sentiment at all, though maybe it would be with other audiences. I think it is a product of how fat hatred (and racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, all of which are also part of SWAGGA and Benz Punany) makes people's lives small and diminishes prospects and possibilities for people. It is electrifying when people refuse that impoverished social positioning, it's as though it wakes others up from a trance. Of course we belonged there on that stage! Why wouldn't we?!

Another thing that people said to me was: "I bet you're really fit now." This ties in to the relationship between dance and weight loss culture. Fat people dance to lose weight, dance is sometimes framed as a means through which unruly bodies become 'disciplined.' I have no idea if I am fitter as a result of dancing. I feel exactly the same, ache and sweat the same, feel as asthmatic as I ever do. My clothes fit the same. The main difference that I have noticed is that I feel less fearful of my body and its ability to move than I did at the beginning.

There will be more SWAGGA but I can't say where or when just yet. We are just beginning. I am also beginning as a dancer. I need to find my people and the places where I can be. I looked at some dance classes this week and so many stipulate that "a reasonable level of fitness is required" without explaining what that means. I imagine it doesn't mean people like me. Their loss.

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

06 June 2014

SWAGGA is unassimilated fatness

This post is part of an on-going series about the experience of becoming a dancer who is also fat, old and becoming disabled. Project O is the umbrella organisation, owned by Alexandrina Hemsley and Jamila Johnson-Small, who are choreographing and directing us. SWAGGA is the name of the piece we are developing together. We will give a public performance of this piece at Rich Mix on 7 June in London, together with a piece by Alex and Jamila called Benz Punany. Kay Hyatt is my girlfriend and co-dancer.

Last rehearsal, Alex took this picture
We perform tomorrow and every now and again I think of myself as a cartoon with a giant exclamation point in the thought bubble above my head. I am nervous and excited. I can't wait to show what we have to people. I feel really privileged to be opening the show for Benz Punany. To be part of the world of Project O is a dream come true.

On Monday we did a test run in front of three friends and the response was very positive. Alex videoed the session and we watched it yesterday. This is the first time I have seen myself dancing and it is quite hard to articulate what this means to me.

The fact that I can watch myself dancing strikes me as significant; I felt some panic rising, but I was able to talk myself down and I understand my ability to do this this as a product of years of work. Seeing myself was useful in terms of thinking of what I need to do in the piece, where the movement might need to go. Kay and I noticed that the feelings we had whilst dancing and watching were pretty aligned – what we see is how we experience the dance – and this feels encouraging.

A big part of watching was seeing that I am really very fat! There are others who are fatter, but I have plenty of fat of my own. I like how other fat people look and I know that I look like them, but I don't have much of a sense of how I actually look, even though I don't shy away from photos or mirrors. It's bizarre that being really very fat should be a revelation at this stage in my life, but there it is. I think of my fatness in the video and in the dance as unassimilated. The dance is not pretty and my fatness is not contained, respectable, veiled, hinted at, flattered, cordoned off or made nice, it is undeniably there. I'm often plodding, huffing, red-faced, sagging, stiff, awkward. When I look at my fatness I also see class, gender, disability, age, marginalisation. I am presenting my unassimilated fat body for an audience to look at and have whatever response they're going to have and I will probably learn something from this. It's a different kind of selfie.

What is a dancer supposed to be like?
My surprise at my own fatness touches an internalised self-hatred that is very deep, a basic part of my identity as a fat person which threads in and out of my life. It is this: how can anyone bear me? I am under no illusion about the extent to which fat people are profoundly hated in 21st century western cultures. I also know that I am a worthwhile person, a success in some spheres, I know that I am loved. Here I am, monstrously fat. How can anyone even look at me, let alone treat me as human, or as a dancer, as a person who deserves respect? I am forced to deal with a load of fatphobic shit daily, but I'm puzzled about why I don't get more of it.

Perhaps I'm protected in spite of being very fat because of the work that I and many others have done. We have started the difficult task of making a world for ourselves. That people don't run away when they see me could be down to their indifference about fat, maybe it doesn’t really matter, or people can cope with more than I think. My whiteness and education protects me from quite a bit of crap. Perhaps most people keep their fatphobic thoughts to themselves and it's only occasionally that it crosses over into action. Sadly/luckily I'm not a mind reader.

As I watched myself dancing on a screen I wasn't sure what I might do with this 'self-seeing'. We had a break afterwards and Kay and I went to the supermarket to get a snack. I tried to embody that monstrously fat self that I saw onscreen as an experiment in the supermarket, to see what people would do around me, and how I might feel. Nobody screamed or ran, nobody noticed, but inside I felt big, powerful, able to walk without feeling that I should be less of me. It was funny to notice this feeling. I was a monster buying a box of falafel. I thought about all the other monsters in the world, doing their thing.

Rehearsing at Rich Mix
One of the themes that has emerged through SWAGGA is about being appalling. I often appal people because I don't behave in the ways they have circumscribed for me; what they can imagine for me is not expansive. My sense of monstrousness is likely to stir up some of those feelings and responses in people. I feel ambivalent about this, I gotta be me but not everyone can handle that. I love being powerful, it's exciting to play with unassimilated monstrous fatness, and I'm also wondering about how I might use that power as I move through the world.

All this makes me feel even more certain that what we are doing with SWAGGA, and the Project O Goes Large double bill with Benz Punany, is very powerful. It is sophisticated and beautiful, it presents many intersections, multiple layers, with space for lots of different interpretations. The four of us are very daring in working with our differences and we have been so richly rewarded because of these leaps and because we are already strong in who we are. This convinces me even more that mixing things up is the way to go and that, where identity is concerned, I have little desire to pursue cultural work or activism that is rooted in purity, safe space, monoculture or fear.

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

19 May 2014

SWAGGA: fat dancing, bodies, watching and shame

This post is part of an on-going series about the experience of becoming a dancer who is also fat, old and becoming disabled. Project O is the umbrella organisation, owned by Alexandrina Hemsley and Jamila Johnson-Small, who are choreographing and directing us. SWAGGA is the name of the piece we are developing together. We will give a public performance of this piece at Rich Mix on 7 June in London, together with a piece by Alex and Jamila called Benz Punany. Kay Hyatt is my girlfriend and co-dancer.

Jamila made a trailer full of whip cracks, strange rooms, wigs, deranged delights. I love it!


Project O Goes Large trailer from Project O.

Ha! I can't believe that's us!

It's hard to put this project into words. I suspect it will take me a long time to process what is happening. Mostly it feels pleasurably overwhelming and preoccupying. It's opening channels that I couldn't have imagined before, not in a traumatic way, but by helping to put pieces of the puzzle of body, identity and marginalisation together. Here are some notes from the story so far.

Body

My body has held up, mostly. This was a big concern before we started. I get tired, but it is ok. Sometimes I ache afterwards, but not as much as I thought I might. When I am a physical being, I realise that I have internalised so much rubbish about what a fat person is or can be. This is: a medicalised body in need of immediate, terrible, invasive interventions; someone who could die at any minute from a heart attack or seizure of some kind; a passive blob; a body on the edge; a wrong body; an assemblage of pathologies; a profoundly fragile body. It is about a pernicious fear that has been engendered through fatphobic discourse, which I see in many fat people.

What I'm finding out, at 45 years old, is that I just have a body and that it is good at some things, average at many things and not so good at other things. The reality of my body as I experience it when dancing is that it is unusual in some ways, but also really ordinary. I sweat and I get fatigued. The other thing is how closely it is connected to my ideas, experiences, how subtly it picks up on surroundings, how sensitive and reflective it is, how expressive. This is immensely reassuring and helps me look at and inhabit my body with equanimity and, often, delight. My body is me, I'm not a disembodied floating pair of eyeballs after all.

I am grateful to Alex and Jamila for inviting Kay and I into a space where this stuff can be explored as part of a broader creative process. It feels like an incredibly lucky break but saying that erases who we are and how we found each other. When I think about it, it's more a story of feminism, generosity, anti-racism, openness, hope, reaching-out, trying something new, courage, work, persistence, listening, mutual delight. These qualities have not sprung from nothing, they're a part of us and how we are in the world, they inform the dynamics with which we work.

What are we doing?

At the beginning of this I thought I knew what dancing was but now I'm not so sure. I thought it was about steps, rhythm, virtuosity, craftsmanship(sic), an ideal body of some kind. Last week I went to a symposium for Dad Dancing. This is a piece of work convened by Alex, Rosie Heafford and Helena Webb, a multi-layered project that creates dance works with fathers and their children. To me, it develops exciting ideas around dance and amateurishness, and offers a feminist re-reading of power in the family. Alex said that Dad Dancing came about as a result of conversations between the three of them in breaks whilst they were training, talking about how their Dads related and responded to their work. She said that dance training is all about the body, but there's little space for talking about Dads, which I took to mean the dancer's social context.

This reminds me that Jamila and Alex both reassured us at the very start that they think Kay and I are great. This gave me permission not to worry too much about what I brought. I interpret this now as something like: "our dancing is about bringing your socially embedded self to the floor to show what you have through movement that may or may not relate to music or rhythm or steps. You are compelling to watch as you are, virtuoso or not." Today at practise Jamila said that emotion and intention is also an important motivation for the movement. We are improvising scores, where certain things happen at certain times, but there is a general looseness to the thing. All of this makes me feel very free and in my element, not like I'm having to conform to a weird idea of 'dancer' (in my mind: flexible, doing ballet moves or tap, wearing some kind of floaty thing over a unitard).

Watching

We talk about watching. Kay and I are being watched closely much of the time, other times Jamila and Alex are doing other work and we work without their gaze. We are aware that we are making a performance for a public audience. Kay and I have witnessed and heard stories about a racialising that goes on when Alex and Jamila perform, which is in turns frustrating, enraging, silencing. We are aware that people who watch us might not know what to do or say about us, in a related but different way that is to do with fat. I have a body that is both socially visible and invisible and doing a dance performance is, for me, about inviting people to watch my body. Yeah, get an eyeful! This is on my terms, as much as it can ever be. Nevertheless, this is a risky thing to do and we expect to hear a lot of crap amidst the good stuff.

Alex asked us how we thought people would take it and I said: "I think they will be delighted". I said this because I know there is a desperate hunger for something else, especially where fat or otherness is concerned. By something else I mean alternative kinds of representation, other possibilities, dreaming, hope. Obesity discourse feels suffocating and people want to breathe and live. I see SWAGGA as oxygen. This is something that can happen, and if this can exist then something else can happen too.

Shame

Shame has burned me a couple of times, usually when we are copying moves or images by and of people with athletic or 'poetically thin' bodies. I have spent many years struggling to feel good enough and one of my strategies is to reserve judgment when I look at different kinds of bodies, to allow all bodies to inhabit their own space. Copying a dance on video, or a painting that involves 'better' bodies, pushes my buttons! I get panicked, "My body can't do that!" I feel inadequate and I shut down and feel cross with the world.

When this happened, Jamila gently talked about how I might make my own translation of the video or image, whilst trying as hard as I can to replicate it. I couldn't take that in at the time because I was trying to manage my shame, but a shift happened when I saw her and Alex perform Benz Punany a couple of weeks ago. In part of this piece they danced along to pop videos. They struggled too, and they're Proper Professional Dancers with Dancer Bodies and Dance Training. I realised that the struggle is the thing. It is impossible to keep up, but what is captivating is being able to watch the struggle as it collides with the fantasy portrayed in the video.

This experience has made me think a lot about Allyson Mitchell and Deirdre Logue's series of crocheted banners about their relationship to the art world, Can't/Won't. I think of this as: you don't have to grease the cogs of the sausage machine of the art world or, I now understand, the dance world either. You can make your own translation, or at least aim for that. It can have rough edges or incorporate values that are anathema to the machine. This is something that is part of my own background in DIY cultural work too. The slogans tell the story: WE CAN’T COMPETE, WE WON’T COMPETE, WE CAN’T KEEP UP, WE WON’T KEEP DOWN.


More soon...

Fat and dancing and life and everything
SWAGGA has begun
SWAGGA is unassimilated fatness
SWAGGA opening night happened!

09 May 2014

Fat Activism for Unruly People, a workshop in Detroit

I'm coming to Detroit in June to present a workshop about fat at the Allied Media Conference (AMC).

The AMC is a wonderful annual gathering that supports and develops social justice media organising. The conference takes a broad view of media, with a strong emphasis on grassroots and Do-It-Yourself endeavours. I dare you to read the Allied Media Projects Network Principles without weeping. I went to the conference in 2012 and was blown away by its intergenerational, intersectional joie de vivre and I hope I have other opportunities to attend in the future.

Every year there are specialist 'tracks', which are themed series of events. The Research Justice track was life-changing for me. This year, the AMC is hosting its very first fat track, called Abundant Bodies, with many great speakers and activities. My workshop is part of this.

I proposed this piece because the fat activism I enjoy least, and which seems most preponderant to me, is about defending my right to exist. This work is necessary, but I also look to activism to help create liveable worlds for people, on our own terms, right now. I want different kinds of fat activism to emerge and I think the margins, not the centre, is where this good stuff happens.

Here is the blurb:

Fat Activism for Unruly People: creating experimental fat activist media to resist normativity and assimilation

I'm not looking for fat activism that produces well-behaved citizens on the back of inequalities; what I want is wild, weird, funny and free. In this session we will explore queer forms of fat activist media that disrupt the push towards assimilation and normativity prevalent in the movement, and make some space for those of us who don't want or will never get a place at the table. Together we will develop ideas and strategies for righteous fat activist media experimentation.

What you will get if you come to this workshop:
The ability to imagine and create customised, experimental fat activist media.
An awareness of international historical fat activist media that seeks to resist assimilation.
An awareness of potential media resources available to YOU.
New friends and activist networks.
Hope, optimism, agency and energy.

There is a fundraising project associated with Abundant Bodies to help get fat people to the AMC. If you or someone you know has any spare cash at all, please consider making a donation. Pass it on too.

Fat Activism for Unruly People
Saturday 21 June 2014
11.00 – 12.30
Old Main 111
Allied Media Conference
Detroit, Michigan
#unrulyfat

I hope to see you there!

05 May 2014

SWAGGA has begun

photo by Katarzyna Perlak

SWAGGA is now underway. Alex and Jamila and Kay and I have met and we have danced. It is happening. Katarzyna Perlak has taken some photographs of us. Tickets for our first performance are available on the Rich Mix site, buy some and tell your friends. It is real. (By the way, Alexandrina Hemsley and Jamila Johnson-Small are talking about their work this week in Benz Punany: A Lecture. Please come along if you are in London, it's free).

This is what happens: we take off our shoes and warm up. Sometimes this is stretching, sometimes arsing around, sometimes shaking, sometimes a mixture. I'm not really sure what being warmed up should feel like, so sometimes I go through the motions, eventually I start to feel warm, maybe that's what it's about! Alex, usually, sets some parameters for movement, for example showing some pictures, picking evocative words, interacting with an object, using certain kinds of movement in particular spaces. We will have a go at this and see what happens, improvising all the time. Some bits will be stronger than others and we pick the best bits and develop them further. We'll do this a few times. Eventually we find ourselves with a sequence of moves that has a beginning, middle and end, and that makes sense to us. Often these include what Alex calls 'the spaces inbetween' where we are real, maybe showing tiredness. Sometimes there's music but not always. That's kind of it.

People have been asking me what SWAGGA is about and I find it hard to say because when I'm dancing I'm in this strange state of high concentration and play that feels quite loopy. I've been joking that dancing is almost psychotic, it has its own reality and logic that exists beyond the normal world. As I'm moving I'm keeping in mind what this enigmatic term SWAGGA means to me, and channelling that as far as I can into my body and out through movements and gestures that are, I guess, dancing. I draw on punk, being female and also somewhat masculine, a feeling of defiance, ersatz street dance, aggression, SM, animal moves, a feeling of wildness, and fat fat fat, always my fat body at the heart of it. Maybe this will change, no doubt the others see and feel different things, but this is sort of what's there for me at the moment.

My transformation from un-dancer to dancer has not been seamless. I still have doubts about my body. Sometimes I ache, sweat, get out of puff, eventually get tired. It appears that I am a human being after all. My arthritis flared up after the first two sessions and I got scared, but I have been pacing myself since then, I'm learning about my limits. I also think that, for me, some pain is acceptable if the payoff is an extraordinary movement or moment. Kay and I get nervous before each session. What our dancing is remains unknown. We are getting to know our choreographers but we are still relatively new to each other. I am taking tentative steps, but I do so trustingly; I have seen them dance and I trust them, I trust their aesthetic, skill and vision.

I feel very powerful after each session. This is to do with spending several hours at a time in an enclosed space with three other powerful people all of whom are encouraging each other to Go There. We Go There each time. You can't predict what the There will be, it emerges as the session goes on, and it is always intensely sublime and all about our bodies. It is amazing to be watched with delight as these moments unfold – a dance of a double chin, a wiggy titty dance, a dance of muscles and fists. We are profoundly un-pretty, we move in ways that were never mandated or imagined for middle-aged fat dykes – I live for this! I can't wait to share it with audiences! I'm so proud of what we are doing!

More soon...

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

We rehearse in spaces like these

16 April 2014

Hamburger Queen 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

03 April 2014

Chins Up: Fat and Performance podcast now available for free

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The speakers

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

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

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

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

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

21 March 2014

Fattylympics talk in London

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

The Fattylympics: creating community mayhem in a surveillance culture


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

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

The Fattylympics: creating community mayhem in a surveillance culture
Good Job, 49 Grange Walk, London SE1 3DY
Wednesday 26 March
7pm
FREE
Facebook event page




17 March 2014

Fat and dancing and life and everything

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued...

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


07 March 2014

Chins Up: Talking Fat and Performance

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

Here's the blurb:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


03 March 2014

Panel: This is What a Fat Activist Does

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

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

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

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

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

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

24 February 2014

At the Fat Positive Clothes Swap

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

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

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

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

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

16 February 2014

I heart Flabzilla

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

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

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

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

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

Go and watch Flabzilla.


12 February 2014

Research Justice Collective Guest Post: Fat Activists Resist Media Abuse

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

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

30 January 2014

Fat activism talk in Glasgow this April

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

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

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

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

21 January 2014

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

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

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

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

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

What happened?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What else would you like to say?

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


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

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

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