Fat Activism: A History By and For Fat People

New post over at rabble.ca! I wrote a review of Charlotte Cooper’s Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement. Go read the review and then buy the book!

This review has been up for a few days. I’ve been sick the past while and dragged my coughing, spluttering self to the desk in order to link it for y’all. Enjoy!

Fat Activism cover
Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement jacket
Advertisements

Counting calories in the office

You know what I fucking hate? Moral judgements around food.

The office I work in has recently relocated, which means I have been forced out of my antisocial hidey hole into an open plan nightmare. Not only does this mean no more cute videos of bulldogs on skateboards, it’s also forced me into contact with a couple of colleagues who are obsessed with counting calories.

“This is so naughty,” “How many calories are in that?” “I shouldn’t. Oh, go on then.” This is what I hear around me every lunchtime and afternoon. This kind of food talk between women is so common it feels trite to claim it’s noteworthy. But we should pay attention to this language; we should notice it.

I’m so mad at this situation that I’m finding it really hard to come up with coherent thoughts about it. Hearing this kind of language at works reinforces a lot of negative beliefs I have about my body, but have also been trying to de(con)struct for some years. I think I look quite good, with my round tummy and pencil skirt, munching on a chocolate, but then I hear a colleague joking about how she’s going to be “naughty” and have a cookie, and I think – “wait, am I supposed to be feeling bad about this? Am I supposed to be hating myself? Oh God I am, aren’t I!” and descend into a bout of self-hating that, as we well know, contributes to an obsessive relationship with food and, paradoxically, comfort eating.

OK, this isn't office workers on a donut, it's police on a donut. But I thought it sufficiently similar to be funny. Thanks, Tumblr.
OK, this isn’t office workers on a donut, it’s police on a donut. But I thought it sufficiently similar to be funny. Thanks, Tumblr.

It’s not like these thoughts aren’t already there. I’m not blaming individuals at work for my insecurities, but I am certainly blaming an anti-feminist work culture that fails to support its colleagues by excluding this kind of moral language from the office. I guess this is what is meant by triggering. Although I am leery of the culture of excessive trigger warnings I see around me in lefty, queer, feminist online spaces, I can appreciate their use in this situation. I just want to yell SHUT THE FUCK UP YOU ARE MAKING ME FEEL BAD ABOUT MYSELF AND NOW I CAN’T CONCENTRATE ON THIS DAMN PROOFREADING! Hearing them talk about their own insecurities remind me of, and contributes to, my own.

I have enough internalized fatphobia as it is, I don’t need people at work making me feel even worse. When are we going to learn that internalized misogyny is just as harmful and pervasive as the racism and homophobia that we already (mostly) know is not OK in our workplaces?

I know I could take the feminist high ground here and empathize for these people who have such a complicated relationship with food. But, you know what? So do I! And I don’t need to be exposed to anyone else’s.

So, the next time you joke about being bad because you’re going to have one of the chocolates in the kitchen, spare a thought to the rest of us who don’t need to be reminded of our own body hatred and difficulties with food.

And now it’s time to turn to you, dear readers. I would appreciate your advice. Do you have any strategies for dealing with this language at work? I really don’t think pointing it out to them would be productive, or supported, as it is the management team who talks like this. Any advice would be great.

Lastly, here are a couple of resources that I’ve found helpful:

Navigating assumptions about weight loss as a fat positive person

Self-hating feelings about fat and their transformation into FAT ACTIVISM AWESOMENESS

The Obesity Debate: What’s It Really About?

Having listened to yet another radio programme that brainstorms ways to tackle the ‘obesity epidemic’ I decided it was time for a little Fat Hatred 101. I argue that our ‘concern’ about fat on our own and other people’s bodies has nothing to do with caring for anyone’s health. It’s about a system that deliberately fosters self-hatred in women.

I just listened to a recent Freakonomics podcast, ‘100 Ways to Fight Obesity.’ Listeners eavesdrop on a think tank, made up of field ‘experts’ who take as a given that obesity is unhealthy and think up ways to discourage unhealthy eating.

I guess it will come as no surprise to regular readers that this really pissed me off. The participants of the think tank and the creators of the podcast were well-intentioned. But when discussion of obesity spends so much time discussing ways to prevent eating – such as bottling the smell of human vomit to sniff when you are hungry – and none discussing the meaning of cultural attitudes towards fat, it becomes problematic.

My own attitude towards obesity is complicated. I don’t believe our societal concern with obesity has anything to do with concern for the health of our fellow humans, but everything to do with trying to control the bodies of our renegade citizens. I believe that, as this study shows, obesity as a concept affects women more than men. When fat women are afraid to eat in public because we think we will be judged, we are being denied our right to pleasure and to public space. When fat women spend more energy on trying to control our rebellious bodies that we do on pursuing our dreams, we are living less full lives.

Me being fat and awesome with my zine and vulva cupcakes at Berlin Zinefest.
Me being fat and awesome with my zine and vulva cupcakes at Berlin Zinefest.

Obesity rhetoric and fat shaming are two of the most effective ways to control women’s mind and bodies. Get us to spend our energy chasing a skinny pot of gold (beauty) and we won’t have enough calories to work up the physical or mental energy to rebel. Diet not riot, baby.

My argument here is not so much whether or not the obesity epidemic exists, which I am sceptical about, or even if being fat is unhealthy. I argue that we, as a fat-fearing society, aren’t actually concerned with the health status of our fellow citizens. Our aversion to fat doesn’t come from a desire to be healthier. We don’t care if we are healthy. We care if we are pretty. That is, we care if we are thin.

Fear of being fat is misdirected self-hatred

Now, of course, I realise I am referring more to the reality of food- and fat- fearing women than the experiences of fat kids or fat men. While both children and men are undoubtedly concerned with how they look, fat hatred is targeted at and affects women more than men. It is fat hatred directed at and internalised by women that I want to think about here.

Now for the hard truth. When we say that we think we are unlovable because we are fat, we are deliberately misdirecting our energy. Let’s face it: this isn’t about being loved by others, this is about loving yourself. The reality of the world is that we are all beautiful and your boyfriend will love you if you are size 10 or size 24 because he loves you, as you are, in your body. It’s not your boyfriend who finds it hard to look square at your naked body. It’s you.

Quite frankly, I don’t think my boyfriend gives a fuck that I am a size 16-18. He thinks I’m hot and he loves me just as I am. This is about how hot I think I am and how much I love myself. He’s not the one who has a problem making love to me. I do. I’m the one who hides under the covers and imagines I have a thinner, more ‘Hollywood’ body when I jerk off.

This isn’t about being considered attractive, getting a lover or even getting laid. This is about low self-esteem. This is about not being able to love ourselves and blaming it on our fat. Fat women get laid less, not because we are less sexy, but because we think we are.

This is about a billion-pound dieting industry of slimline food, shakes, and ‘slimming medication’ that profits from your unhappiness. This is about you being able to live your life to its full potential without being haunted, every hour of every day, by eating or not eating food. This is about not feeling shame or guilt every time you eat something fatty and pride when you don’t. This is about breaking the cycle of public food denial and private bingeing that sustains the myth that not eating is virtuous and eating is bad and shameful.

Charlotte Cooper: swimming in activism
Charlotte Cooper: swimming in activism

Fat hatred isn’t actually about what we look like. Fat hatred doesn’t concern itself with our health. Fat hatred is about cultural attitudes. It is, simply, that we think the fat on women’s bodies is disgusting. When we see a fat person we don’t worry for their health, we react with disgust to their overflowing body. Fat hatred uses the idea of health to legitimise its hatred of women’s bodies and the consequent cruelty it enacts on us.

You don’t need to be a doctor or a health expert to see that fear of fat and its expression in dieting behaviour is the opposite of healthy. And even if you do believe that public health campaigns will affect the ‘obesity epidemic’ (which I don’t), you have to acknowledge that the perceived solution to obesity for many women and men – dieting – so often leads to more obesity. Dieting fucks the body up and makes you fatter.

So, whose fault is this epidemic of fat hatred? Who can we blame for the proliferation of eating disorders and low self-esteem and what can we do to stop it? Unfortunately, when a prejudice becomes so widespread that it’s part of our culture, we can’t blame it on one person. There’s no such thing as a point of patriarchal origin.

Luckily though grassroots activism and re-education works! Although I doubt I will ever have a 100% healthy relationship with eating, reading and learning from awesome fat activists has taught me how to deconstruct some of the self-hating bullshit I’ve learnt.

To that end, below I have compiled a list of fat resources I have come across doing my research for this article. Thank you so much to all my friends who have provided me with these links and the bloggers who put their kick-ass opinions out there. If you haven’t already, also click on the links in the post because they are the bestest. Lastly, you can also find more about my thoughts on fat by clicking on the ‘fat’ category in the toolbar.

FAT STUFF:

The. Best. Fat. Myth. Busting. Resource. List. Ever.

Blaming weight for differences in mortality isn’t scientifically supportable.

Being fat can have some health benefits

Unhealthy as well as healthy people deserve access to civil rights

Everyone deserves to be treated like a human and, yes, you can be healthy and fat!

Assigning blame and fault has no place in healthcare 

But you have such a pretty face!

my breasts and the bras that don’t fit them

Yeah, I said I wouldn’t be on here for a while, but I am so you guys are just lucky. Buy me an ice cream to say thanks.

On having socially unacceptable breasts and trying to find bras that fit them. Includes gratuitous picture of me naked. NSFW bitches.

I have socially unacceptable breasts. When I was 18 my Mum offered me a boob job. She would pay, she said, because she had always been unhappy with her breasts. Hers were large, mine were uneven. I considered the option seriously for a while, and then decided against it. Major surgery and scars probably wouldn’t make me any happier with them. I was also worried about how they would feel. Later, I became glad that I made this decision. To keep my breasts, imperfect as they are.

Walking into Marks and Sparks I am already stressed. Hot in the summer, down to my last bra that doesn’t really fit. The underwire has pinged out of all of my favourites. I really need some more bras. I’m extra stressed today, because it is my last chance to buy English sizes before I head back to Germany (European sizes confuse me, and bras are way more expensive here) and I’ve put on weight. Being a responsible, feminist woman who wants her bras to be comfortable as well as sexy, I know I need a fitting.

I book myself in for an appointment and fill in the next hour trying bras of every size. The only bra I can find looks like it’s from the 1950s with the amount of material it has (not necessarily a bad thing, I’m way into retro) but it’s disheartening to imagine that all the other bright young things are wearing cute skimpy bras, while I am stuck with a heavy wad that even my Mum might shy away from.

You see, not only am I a fat chick, I am a fat chick with different sized boobs. Combine the fact that the fashion industry only caters to thin ladies plus the fact that it’s a gamble that any cup size will fit both my breasts, and trying on bras becomes a Russian roulette of chance.

You see, lingerie shops make me approach my breasts as if they are a problem. There must be something wrong with them. They don’t fit into most bras, they are a challenge to me and a challenge to fitters. And I refuse to wear a prosthesis to balance them out anymore. I just fucking refuse.

‘Teach me to hate my body, make me fight it, and I will be subservient. I will expend all my energies on dieting and become too neurotic to create art that fights this norm.’

Buying a bra for me is like tackling a huge problem – a mathematical equation there is no logical answer to. It’s a game of hit and miss and forget choosing style or colour. I’ll be lucky to find one bra that fits!

I go with the fitter into a booth and explain to her my problem. I don’t know what chest size I am any more and I have different sized breasts. She looks at me as if she doesn’t believe me. Oh, she has no idea what she’s in for, this fitter. No idea at all.

Several bras later the fitter sweats at the impossibility of my breasts and asks in exasperation, ‘what do you normally do?’ Pretty much this, I reply. Yup, battle shame and self-loathing and trawl the shops until I find one bloody bra that fits. That’s my shopping experience.

Lathering my breasts with yoghurt in my punk anti-diet piece at The Berlin Femme Show 2012. It’s all in the name of art, honest. Copyright Simson Petrol.

It’s strange really, you’d think the women that work in these shops would have seen it all. Fat girls and thin girls, large boobs, saggy boobs, wonky boobs. But all the fitters I have seen seem baffled by my breasts. It’s as if they’ve never seen any before. What, breasts that are different sizes? How bizarre! But I have it on good authority from women I have talked to that many of us have different sized breasts, so how come these women act as though they’ve never seen any like mine before?

Given the amount of shame and self-hatred I have to battle just to get myself into that changing room, I do not find it surprising asymmetrical breasts are a new phenomenon to the fitters. Not because there aren’t any out there, but because we who have them are too afraid to show them. I get my bras fitted because I think my comfort is important and I know that a well-fitting bra is worth any amount of shame I will have to combat. I know how much it takes to get me in that changing room, and I know that I will keep going it because nothing is more important than my comfort. And I will keep battling, because I will not let self-hatred and evil beauty standards beat me. It’s not my fault I feel bad about my body. I know this isn’t really about me, or my body. Or it is about my body, but only the indirect way of cultural misogyny. Beauty myths make me hate me body. But this hating is a waste of my super intelligent creative energy, so I just try to ignore the insecurities and get on with it. I always was a stubborn one.

It seems too much to ask the lingerie industry to cater to us fat women, women with bodies that won’t be contained, that don’t fit prescribed ideals, and it probably is. As a wise friend once said, they don’t make clothes to fit the women, they produce the women to fit the clothes. The fashion industry produces models and all media images of women are digitally altered to fit a whiter, thinner, younger, symmetrical ideal. Unless of course the message is just how ugly Cameron Diaz looks without makeup. It’s all about control. Teach me to hate my body, make me fight it, and I will be subservient. I will expend all my energies on dieting and become too neurotic to create art that fights this norm.

This waste of energy is exactly what the big ole patriarchy wants. So I won’t spend my energy on self-hatred. I will go out there, buy a comfortable bra and get on with my writing, activism, adventures. I will just suck it up and move on because there are more important and more fun things out there than self-hatred.

Oh yeah, and in the interests of the personal is political. I am a 38D/B or 40DD/B. Like this awesome lady, I think such ‘confessions’ help change the world. Also, here are some awesome fat chicks in bikinis.

Riot not diet, baby.