Last week I was interviewed about fat politics, Fat Hiking Club, and when it’s appropriate to use the word fat. Have a listen!
The first barrier to health for fat people is how health is defined and prioritized. The World Health Organisation defined health in 1948 as “a state of complete physically, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” This definition moves health away from a state of being free of disease, to a label awarded to those who are able to negotiate their way through multiple physiological, behavioral, and social criteria…As Metzl and Kirkland (2010) query, in any definition of health, who is left out?…Given the anti-fat society that surrounds fat people, we can imagine that the mental and social health of fat people are at great risk; possibly greater risk than their physical health. And if we acknowledge that mental and social health have significant impacts on physical health? The entire approach to fighting the war on obesity would have to drastically revise and revisit its strategy…
In a neoliberal environment, assumptions are made that nutritious and affordable food is available for everyone, that people have the time to engage in enjoyable physical movement, and have the finances to support their food and exercise choices and time needs. All of these assumptions pose potential problems, and could exclude those fat individuals who are outside these privileged assumptions.
When the HAES® model is discussed in public forums, there is often still the assumption that good citizens want to engage in health-seeking behaviors, despite the principles directly stating that “ASDAH’s HAES Principles reject judgments about health and any discourse of individual responsibility around health, in favor of a discourse of individualized health needs” (ASDAH, 2016)…
As Stacey Nye writes, on the Association for Size Diversity & Health (ASDAH) HAES® blog: “Being healthy takes time, effort, and money, and it’s no one’s business but your own whether you choose to engage in healthy behaviors” [our emphasis](Nye, 2015). This individual time, effort and money is not often acknowledged by the dominant discourse about health.While HAES® proponents deconstruct the notion that weight is within an individual’s control, health at times is still presented as within an individual’s control.
‘You’re so lucky.’ I want a euro for every time I’ve been told that in my current relationship. When your partner is masculine and thin and everyone tells you he’s hot (I wonder how many people tell him I’m hot?) and emphasizes how ‘lucky’ you are to be dating him (I wonder how many people tell him he’s ‘lucky’?), what are they saying? When other queer feminists tell me this in the queer bar, what do they mean? Do they mean that because I’m fat I should be single or dating someone less attractive because logic, obviously, would say that I’m undesirable of the sexual capital that his masculinity and thinness generates?…
… My subjective experience of fatness doesn’t just engage with desirability politics, it also has a load of respectability politics to consider that thin people probably don’t have to worry about in their daily lives. Like, for example, how I always try to take the elevator when I’m late to my university seminars, because showing up to a class five or ten minutes after it has begun, and trying to silently enter the room whilst huffing and puffing because I just climbed five flights of stairs is a whole different experience as a fat person. I still can’t explain this to my thin, queer, feminist, cis-man classmate, who insists we ‘not be lazy’ and take the stairs every time. Fatness never gets to be turned off; fatness never gets to hide; fatness never gets to be ignored.
I loved this show, and I think this analysis is thoughtful and intriguing.
I grew up thinking Malcolm in the Middle was a zany show about four quarrelsome brothers and their parents. Re-watching it now it’s clear what the show is actually about: the idea that meritocracy is a sham, social institutions are corrupt and wage-labour is cruel. The parents, Hal and Lois, have a comically carnal relationship, which I didn’t really understand when I was young. It’s a way of protecting themselves from the vicissitudes of capitalism. All the characters are condemned, in one way or another, by the world that surrounds them…
… In the beginning Malcolm’s family are in debt, perpetually stressed, living in a house that’s falling apart. A typical image is Hal and Lois sitting at a kitchen table littered with bills. Lois doesn’t have time to go beyond the basic demands of the roles expected of mothers – cleaning clothes, scrabbling together lunch – since she’s keeping up a low-level service job in a drugstore. Hal works a white-collar clerical job in an office. It’s the kind of unproductive, pointless job capitalism makes up just to keep people miserable. He does so little work it’s at one point discovered he’s never turned up on Fridays, going on day trips by himself to places like Seaworld – a radical refusal to work if there ever was one…
It’s become obligatory recently for critics to end reviews by attempting to integrate pop culture into the contemporary political climate – an impulse that has, at times, felt over-laboured. But as politics becomes increasingly senseless, it’s harder to detach it from culture at large. Completely immersing myself in Malcolm’s world, I have such sympathy for their lives that I can’t help but wonder how they would fare in Trump’s America. Probably not well.
Then I had a scarier thought: what if they voted for him?
I don’t believe in New Year’s Resolutions.
I used to write them. While my annual pledge to drink more water has now become a daily reminder (/threat/bargaining tool), I have stopped making annual promises of “self-improvement.” This article does a pretty great job of summing up my past relationship with resolutions.
This year was a hard one, however, I discovered that nothing honours a tender heart more than a road trip to the ocean with a dear friend. I was lucky enough to go on two different trips this year with two of my best friends; one spent hiking and camping on Vancouver Island, and the other driving down the coast to Coachella with stops in Oregon, Washington, California, and Nevada.
In the article I previously linked to, fat activist Ragen Chastain says
This year, instead of focusing on being less, let’s focus on being more. Resolve to have more gratitude for everything your body does for you. Take up more space in the world. Speak up more about things that are important to you. Do more joyful movement. Eat more delicious food that nourishes you. This year, instead of trying for to create a ‘new you,’ resolve to take the old you out for a spin. I think you’ll find that she’s pretty spectacular.
So often, fat people are chastised for taking up too much space. I pushed back on that idea a lot this year.
I also began production on a documentary and launched a successful crowd-funding campaign for the film – a campaign in which I had to publicly speak about my experiences as a fat person.
I am so proud of how much noise Fat Hiking Club made not only in my communities, but in so many other ways that I continue to find out about months later. I am so excited for the increasing visibility fat politics and activism continues to receive. I am so grateful for the people who supported the campaign.
What I learned this year, particularly on those road trips, is that your life becomes so much better when you surround yourself with people who love you as you are, who encourage you to chase your goals and to invest in yourself. When you build that kind of environment, it is amazing the kind of positive experiences you will attract, how much softer the impact of hard times are, and how much more energy you have to give back.
I am making a list of what I want more of in 2017: more road trips, more quality time with people I love, seeking out more inspiring and positive people, more work on Fat Hiking Club, more involvement in team sports, more fat activism, more emphasis on fat studies in my education, more volunteer work, and more art and music.
What do you need more of in the next 12 months?
One of my favourite assignments this semester was designing an undergraduate fat studies course. I was encouraged by the positive responses from a presentation I did in a third-year course and in my CMNS800 class about fat activism and outdoor activities; it was obvious that students are intrigued by fat studies theories and work, and had a lot of questions. I am excited about creating a space where students can ask these questions, be introduced to new ideas, and explore these ideas through both research and creative work.
One of the texts I worked with this semester, however, contained many articles about the politics of a fat studies classroom. Specifically, these articles touched on how the body size of the instructor impacts the classroom, and different ways students may be resistant or uncomfortable in discussions focusing on fat bodies.
Discomfort around fat bodies wasn’t a new idea to me; indeed, my last blog post shows how most people are uncomfortable with fat bodies in public spaces. There is much writing in fat activist circles pertaining to the different ways fat bodies are abused when they dare take up space outside of their homes.
I understand why students might be defensive or resistant to fat activist ideologies. I don’t like it, but I understand. Especially in regards to public health, I feel confident in my ability to create a safe environment in which students can ask questions and together the class can work through fat studies literature that deconstructs and critically looks at institutionalized fatphobia in medicine and fitness industries.
What I have yet to digest, however, is my position as a fat lecturer. From the literature I have read on the topic, there is no simple answer or single approach emphasized. Some authors argue that it is essential to acknowledge one’s identity right off the bat in the classroom, to ease the tension, or “stigma threat”, that a fat professor might bring into the class dynamic.
While I don’t want my hypothetical future students to feel afraid of offending me in our discussions, and therefore want to do what I can to create an inviting environment, I also don’t want to (pun not intended) take up too much space in the classroom. While “the personal is political” mantra of second-wave feminism is something I believe whole-heartedly, I still feel hesitant to assert myself, my feelings, and my experiences in the classroom so bluntly. Perhaps this is because of my identity as a femme-identified scholar, which, because of my gender identity, often pressures me to embody masculine-ascribed qualities of rationality (read: unemotional) in order to assert myself as a legitimate scholar. Or perhaps this is because while the personal is political, it is also traumatic, painful, and complex; characteristics that are sometimes best nurtured in private. Many of the questions I received after my presentation in the third-year course were about how my family and friends felt about my fat activism, and how openly I speak about my experiences as a fat person. This is difficult to navigate in an academic setting, and I can imagine even more so in a situation where there is a teacher-student dynamic.
There are many feelings involved in fat studies, and I don’t believe that all scholarly circles are open to involving emotions in academic work. If this fat studies course is presented only in social justice oriented fields like gender studies or feminist media studies that are open to utilizing personal experiences and emotions as sites of analysis, would this course be preaching to the choir? Or a choir that is already pretty open to fat soloists? How can fat studies infiltrate other disciplines? How can it reach folks who might not otherwise ever be introduced to fat studies work, while asserting itself as an academic field that, yes, uses feelings as a valid site for analysis?
One of academic departments that I imagine would be hardest to infiltrate with fat studies work would be exercise science. The course I designed was interdisciplinary, and presented immediately in the first few weeks fat studies work in the area of public health. In my research on fat studies pedagogical approaches, many scholars suggest addressing intersections of fat and health right away in order to answer the most obvious questions and address the most common hesitations about fat acceptance. It is my hope that the inclusion of such work catches the attention of students from a variety of backgrounds, so that this information can make its way into other areas of the university, making the classroom more accessible for fat folks of all walks of life, and perhaps even a bit friendlier towards fat lecturers too.
Ann Coulter recognized the political activism of fat folks in a series of tweets regarding the response to the 2016 US Presidential Election:
You can read more about the protests and see some of the responses to Coulter’s tweets in this CBS article here.
It wasn’t surprising to me that these tweets received a lot of backlash. There are two aspects to this backlash that I think are important to note: how uncomfortable people feel when we acknowledge that someone is fat, and that we can depend on fat activist communities to provide insightful pop culture commentary in response to fatphobic incidences.
Many of the responses to Coulter’s tweets referred to her comments as cruel or hurtful. That is because being fat is still regarded as an undesirable embodiment; the fat body is still largely considered abject, unproductive, and out of control. To people outside of fat activist communities, being called fat is an offensive term akin to racial or misogynistic slurs.
However, fat activists are not immune to the effects of fat stigma despite their political activities. Kathleen LeBesco, in her book Revolting Bodies: The Struggle to Redefine Fat Identity, argues that fat activists often take on the ‘will to innocence’:
“Ridiculing a fat activist who proclaims that fat people are on the march for rights in record numbers, American Spectator writer Mark Steyn simpers, ‘If only. Alas, she was speaking metaphorically. But fat people are on the drive, wedged behind the steering wheel with a couple of Twinkies for the road and heading straight for the latest fat rights demo, with a quick stop at the drive-thru Dunkin’ Donuts.’ Certainly, Steyn’s inflammatory rhetoric warrants some response; but beware the impulse to saint fat people in order to protect them from the barbs of Steyn and his compatriots.
Fat activists of the assimilationist stripe typically respond to such charges by deploying a rhetoric of innocence which seeks to relieve them of responsibility for their much maligned condition,” (LeBesco, p. 112).
This means that sometimes, fat activists seek to justify their fatness in socially acceptable terms. This includes acknowledging that one’s fatness is a symptom of a disease or socioeconomic status, or when a fat person aims to prove that they are both fat and physically active. The ‘will to innocence’ is something I also touched on in my previous blog post, in regards to some of my concerns about my documentary that involves fat people engaging in physical activity.
We see the ‘will to innocence’ employed in both the general public response to Coulter (‘how dare you say that! You don’t know these peoples’ circumstances!’), and in the defensive nature of some fat activist responses.
However, I was quite inspired by some responses from the fat activist community. Blogger Kiva Bay presented a thoughtful and humorous response to Coulter’s tweets (and yes, another fat stereotype is that all fat people are funny):
“The truth of the matter is, I love that Ann Coulter thinks that protests exist entirely on the backs of fat women. It’s about time somebody noticed the work of fat women in activist spheres. I know there are fat black women who are cornerstones of power in the Black Lives Matter movement. I know there are fat indigenous women at Standing Rock. Fat disabled women are fighting for affordable access to healthcare, are defending themselves against the ableist abuse directed by the very jackass-elect who is promising to take away coverage. I know there are fat queer women marching from the east to the west coast right now to reject Donald Trump’s presidency. I know there are fat Latinas speaking passionately for the rights of immigrants documented and undocumented alike. I know there are fat Muslim women risking their lives to protest this Islamophobic Tang Nazi. I know there are fat trans women out there who are fighting, and marching, and living…
… It’s weird that the most recognition fat women activists and protesters will likely get in all this will be from Ann Coulter. How did she know? Has she seen the late 70’s Fat Underground video? How did she know, when so many have tried to erase our contributions, that it’s not really a protest until a fat girl shows up? (It’s the law, look it up.)”
As one Toronto-based fat activist and performance art collective claimed, we are Pretty, Porky, and Pissed Off. And while I was pissed off to see that most responses to Coulter’s tweets were people who were horrified that she dare call someone fat, I continue to be motivated by various people in fat communities who simply responded: “Yeah? So what.”
To echo Kiva Bay, Coulter ain’t seen nothing yet – this is just the beginning.
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.
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.
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.
Because call-outs tend to be public, they can enable a particularly armchair and academic brand of activism: one in which the act of calling out is seen as an end in itself…
… Call-out culture can end up mirroring what the prison industrial complex teaches us about crime and punishment: to banish and dispose of individuals rather than to engage with them as people with complicated stories and histories…
… More often than not, this boundary is constructed through the use of appropriate language and terminology – a language and terminology that are forever shifting and almost impossible to keep up with. In such a context, it is impossible not to fail at least some of the time…
… Humour often plays a role in call-out culture and by drawing attention to this I am not saying that wit has no place in undermining oppression; humour can be one of the most useful tools available to oppressed people. But when people are reduced to their identities of privilege (as white, cisgender, male, etc.) and mocked as such, it means we’re treating each other as if our individual social locations stand in for the total systems those parts of our identities represent. Individuals become synonymous with systems of oppression, and this can turn systemic analysis into moral judgment.
Read more here.