What is Fat Activism?

As defined by Fat Studies: an Interdisciplinary Journal of Body Weight and Society, Fat Studies is:

an interdisciplinary, international field of scholarship that critically examines societal attitudes and practices about body weight and appearance. Fat Studies advocates equality for all people regardless of body size. It explores the way fat people are oppressed, the reasons why, who benefits from that oppression and how to liberate fat people from oppression. Fat Studies seeks to challenge and remove the negative associations that society has about fat and the fat body. It regards weight, like height, as a human characteristic that varies widely across any population. Fat Studies is similar to academic disciplines that focus on race, ethnicity, gender, or age.

Charlotte Cooper, in her book Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement, recognizes that while many social movements, including fat politics, purposefully utilize methods of organizing and resistance that are socially valued – she refers to this as political process activism – the fat politics movement utilizes four additional forms of activism: cultural work, community-building, micro activism, and ambiguous activism.

This past weekend I had the opportunity to attend a retreat for fat folks called Wild Abundance, which fell into the latter three categories of fat activism. It is obvious that this camp is organized to build fat community, but it is important to note the political importance of this process. Building community enables fat people to develop social and cultural capital by converting the abjection of their bodies into an asset. These communities empower fat folks by recognizing and valuing the group’s collective humanity, which is not often recognized in mainstream culture.

The camp also served as a form of micro fat activism in that it occurred in an every day space, and also in the small one-on-one interactions the camp space offered. These interactions are important because, while they may not influence large-scale social change directly, they are more difficult to surveil or control, allowing fat folks to lead the conversation and draw attention to micro aggressions that are often ignored, and to call each other in. Akin to the second-wave feminist mantra “the personal is political,” this minority influence can be opinion changing, placing value on lived experiences and offering validation to marginalized folks’ experiences of oppression.

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The camp was also a form of ambiguous activism, both through what it was and what it was not. The camp did not engage in any diet or fitness discourse, there was room for fat folks to be anti-social and/or indulge in independent self-care, it disrupted the YMCA’s typical programming by making a fat-only space that met the accessibility needs of fat folks (including super fat folks), and made room for fat sadness.

“Fat activism does not have to be coherent in order to be valid. In not fitting traditional or well-documented forms of social action, fat activism is creating and reflecting new styles of generating social change,” (Cooper, p. 92)

I heard about this camp through channels on my social media networks, and in reading Cooper’s book I was struck by the idea that I might have a strong network of fat activists and community already. Cooper argues that when fat activism was first assembling, “there were groups that were trying to get the word out, you know, but you had to be in the world to find out about it,” (p. 134).  I would say most of the people who attended the camp were indeed already heavily involved in some form of fat activism. And while I am incredibly excited to attend the next edition of this camp, there is a part of me that feels extending that space to people who are not involved in the fat activist movement might be an important political act. 

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Shilo George at Wild Abundance Expeditions on Orcas Island

Fat activism recognizes and finds value in personal experience as a form of knowledge production. I am excited at the possibility of utilizing a short documentary film I have been working on as a site of analysis for my PhD research. This film is an example of cultural work within the fat politics movement as it is not only a form of creative expression that produces a cultural good, but also a piece that increases the visibility of fat folks and offers new possibilities of understanding fatness. As this film centres on fat folks who engage in outdoor activities, I would argue that this film is heterotopic in nature, an idea that Cooper explains, in reference to Foucault and Miskowiec, “disrupts normative concepts of space and time to create windows of possibility in which other ways of being that cannot normally be tolerated have opportunities to thrive,” (p. 76).

One thing I feel concerned about in regards to my film, is that I do not want this film to end up as an object that reflects the gentrification of fat activism. This article and this article do an excellent job of exploring this idea, as does Cooper in her book.

The roots of fat activism developed in the 1970s out of the civil rights movement, radical feminism, and socialism. However, today it is most likely to be influenced by neoliberalism because that is the dominant ideology in a western context. In neoliberalism, good citizens are productive and healthy, and fat people are believed to be unproductive and unhealthy, and therefore bad or immoral citizens. Kathleen LeBesco argues that this social position and marginalization leads to the “will to innocence,” in that fat people work hard to be seen as healthy and therefore as morally good – they want to be seen as not responsible for their fatness.

This is harmful because this creates subcultures of good and bad fat

One thing I was reminded of at Wild Abundance was the mantra “No Fatty Left Behind,” an idea that all fatties are good fatties, that health is personal and no one’s business, that fat activism must include all fat perspectives and that fat liberation must be liberation for all.

I am trying to combat the gentrification of fat activism by 1) refusing to remove the word Fat from my film’s title, regardless of the amount of criticism this generates, and 2) by emphasizing that this film is about feeling good in one’s body regardless of what activity facilitates that feeling. My interview with Courtney Szto elaborates on this goal. I hope this film achieves this goal, I am proud of the fat community I have built and am building, and look forward to more adventures in the outdoors with fellow fatties.

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