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Under the radar: Fat activism and the London 2012 Olympics

An interview with Charlotte Cooper

The fat body has moved from relative invisibility to object of moral panic in the space of the last 15 years. To be fat now is to be regarded as socially deviant, branded with the stigma of poverty, a ‘faulty consumer’ within the paradigms of late capitalism. Images of fatness cluster with the refusal of work in policy scenarios. Schools have become sensitised to the body weight of their pupils, health educators articulate a normative crisis in national eating habits. In the run-up to London 2012 ‘the body’ objectified was placed centre stage.

The fattylympics poster: via    PDF download (13MB)

Charlotte Cooper describes herself as a queer fat activist and lives in Stratford, east London. She is currently finishing off a PhD, courtesy of the Irish Social Sciences Platform at the University of Limerick. Charlotte is widely published. Fat and Proud: The Politics of Size, published in 1998 and based on research she did for her Master's degree, has become an important text in the emergent academic field of Fat Studies. She is also author of a novel, Cherry, published in 2002. Charlotte's working background is in journalism and DIY culture. She makes zines and films, and produces events from time to time, including the Fattylympics on July 7. Charlotte is in a band called Homosexual Death Drive, and has a faux girl gang called The Chubsters. She blogs about fat at Obesity Timebomb. More information and links are available at Carolyn Smith of Games Monitor interviewed Charlotte by email.

GM: In a recent book, In the Nature of Cities (Ed. N. Haynen, M. Kaika, E. Swyngedouw, Routledge 2006), fatness is described as 'obesity' and presented as a metabolic heresy, a biopolitical trauma (also traumatic for the authors). More commonly, 'obesity' is presented as a neglect of the self. The thrust of social policy meanwhile is that all good citizens should be desirous of their own health and wellbeing. Can you tell me about fatness. Is fatness ruinous of the social order? Do you think that the state has any right to legislate over the body?

CC: Wow, that book sounds amazing(ly awful) and is typical of recent publications that have popped up to support the rhetoric surrounding the idea of a global obesity epidemic.

There is a body of work in the Sociology of Health that takes apart the imperative that the good, productive citizen is a healthy citizen, and disability theorists also have a lot to say about this. Sociologists talk a lot about neoliberalism, which is a dominant ideology in the UK at the moment. It's about the reduction of state support for people, everything becomes privatised (this explains why the NHS is being sold off, and cuts to social services). This is fine if you're rich and basically don't have a soul, but for the rest of us it means that life becomes increasingly precarious. We are required to work all the time because not working means that we can't depend on the state to catch us if we fall. It's all about being productive worker bees. People who are sick or can't or don't want to work, or are unemployable (perhaps through discrimination by employers) pose a big problem in this schema so, instead of changing a system that doesn't work for everyone, the discussion becomes one of morality; people who can't work are scroungers, a burden, they should try a bit harder. It also becomes a discussion of pity, fear, revulsion for the ones who allegedly aren't pulling their weight.

There's a book I love by Mike Oliver called The Politics of Disablement that came out in the early 90s. He talks about the social model of disability and locates this in historical understandings of how people came to be disabled by social structures. Surprise, surprise, capitalism and industrialisation have a lot to answer for because they require standardised bodies to perform their tasks, people who don't fit those standards are considered surplus or, rather, waste. You can see how this might play out in relation to disabled people, I have argued elsewhere that fat is a kind of disability too, and the discourse also applies to fat people, I think.

There are Fat Studies scholars and activists, and people involved with an allied movement called Health At Every Size, who would maintain that fat people are normal and nice, and do not upset the social order. They point to scientific evidence that maintains that fat people are no less healthy than thinner people, and are very critical of obesity research, or the dominant discourses in which fat is abjected. It is my belief that evidence about the relative health of fat people is hard to pin down because of the subjective nature of wellbeing, and the general crappiness of obesity research, which is almost always produced within a paradigm that already makes fat a problem, or upholds weight loss (itself problematic) as the universal panacea. So the question of whether or not fat is ruining global health is complicated. On top of this, I think when uppity fatties like me pipe up, we are ruinous of the social order because we expose its hypocrisy, the meanness and limitations of anti-obesity discourse, and (basically) we throw a spanner in the works because we just won't or can't fit in and behave.

Whilst the state and legislation remains a fact of life I think it should legislate on the body in some instances: I want legislative protection for the NHS and my right to an abortion, for example. But health promotion built on a moralising crusade that scapegoats fatness, increases discrimination, and lines the pockets of weight loss interests is a waste of time. The paleolithic icon of the Venus of Willendorf shows that fat bodies have been known for at least 25,000 years; we are part of the fabric of humanity, and attempts to legislate or socially engineer us out of existence are a bad idea, futile even.

GM: Olympic rhetoric around body size revolves around a biomedical model. How does this model impact on fat people and on fat children especially? How do you challenge this discourse?

CC: The image of the Olympic athlete is one that is supposed to inspire people to embodied greatness, but this is also an alienating image if your body is not that ideal. I think the Paralympics goes some way in addressing this, but it's still an event that is about ultra-competitiveness, nationalism, and corporate power, which inevitably leaves a trail of losers in its wake. I think it's very hard for kids, especially in schools in the Olympic boroughs, because this athletic, sporty ideal is being pushed very hard right now, in a stigmatising and bullying way, and it exists within a wider context of anti-obesity campaigns aimed at children, such as Change4Life and Jamie Oliver's work. I think these weight-based initiatives are building a foundation for long-term problems with eating and bodies, they are profoundly shaming.

I challenge biomedical discourse on fat through my activism. Many fat activists are interested in countering obesity discourse claims, but my interests are in creating communities and cultures, and documenting fat activist histories, that are somewhat autonomous and exist beyond the boundaries of medicalisation. Hence my fat queer girl gang, The Chubsters, which is semi-fictitious and for which you do not have to be fat, queer, a girl or remotely aggressive to join. The Chubsters is a platform for all kinds of odd things, like stonemasonry, filmshows, workshops, symbols, playfulness. It does not answer to biomedical discourse, it is something else entirely that is built on the creativity and sheer badassery of fat people. It shows that there are other ways of thinking about fat, and embodying fatness. I find this liberating.

GM: At school (many years ago!) I was taught that conceptions of the body beautiful are tied to historically shifting notions of affluence. For instance, in the Renaissance, a fat body was considered the most desirable, partly perhaps because food was scarce. Is there an element of class prejudice in contemporary stigmatisations of fatness and deployment of the biomedical model?

CC: It's useful to bear in mind that the ways in which fat is interpreted vary in time and space but it's difficult to talk about historical and cross-cultural representations of fat in the West because they are often tied to imperialist and ahistoric interpretations. I resist the idea that "Being fat is ok in some cultures" or "It was ok to be fat in the past" because the Other and the past can't really be contained in this way. These claims must be contextualised, for example, what might a fattening house mean? Who is being represented in paintings, and why? I also think that the food scarcity model is a bit flat, not least because I think that fatness and consumption are not necessarily bedfellows despite the overwhelming preponderance of the energy balance model (calories + activity determines body weight).

Nevertheless, class is an important intersection in the ways that fat is interpreted in the West today, as is race, gender, age, disability etc. The fattest people, according to statistics, tend to be the people at the bottom. There is a lot to be said about how fat ties in with other forms of oppression (and liberation). But beware with this argument, because it often fuels well-meaning yet patronising claims that fat people are fat because we don't know how to eat properly and need instructing by our betters.

Speaking of class, I've blogged a few times recently about the uses of fat capitalist and fat cat imagery by people on the left. I think this is also fatphobic.

GM: In a Foucauldian schema, bodies trained in disciplinary institutions and by implication, disciplinary regimes such as fitness, are regarded as 'docile', that is as an object and target of power: 'a body is docile that may be subjected, used, transformed and improved' (Discipline and Punish: 136), which makes the fat body (resistant to normalising discourses) an 'active' one. How would you respond?

I think the idea that fat is resistance is a romantic one and that most fat people don't feel that way at all. I also think the Magical Fatty is a significant social talisman in the West, proof for the Normals that fat hatred isn't as bad as all that. The Magical Fatty is someone loveable, 'feisty,' 'sassy,' successful-in-spite-of-it-all, who makes it all better for everyone (and then goes and gets a lap band).

But resistance is important. There is plenty of attention paid to Foucault and governmentality in Fat Studies, but I tend to think that this is a truncated means of theorising what's going on. Foucault also talks about power and resistance, and, like him, I believe that people in the most dire circumstances can enact some form of power, even if it's just sticking out your tongue at someone behind their back. In this way I think that power, agency, resistance and activism are really vital means of making life bearable.

In my research I've found that most fat activism isn't of the being in the streets and waving placards variety, although that does happen, and many people in fat activism are invested in speaking upwards to power through legislative and policy change, for example. Instead, most fat activism takes place in micro moments: in conversations; in choosing some things (wearing clothes that do not hide one's body, eating in public, putting up pictures of excellent fat people on your wall, reaching out to other fat people) and refusing others (dieting, speaking badly of one's or other's bodies, etc), and so on. I love the everyday accessibility of these forms of resistance, they can be very small and unheroic and also amazingly transformative.

GM: In the Convergence document, the strategic regeneration framework for the Olympic host boroughs, 'obesity' is factored in as a major problem for the resident population, along with benefits 'dependency', residence in social housing, propensity to move (ie to be subject to the vagaries of the private rental market). What are the implications of including the body in governmental frameworks?

CC: The Convergence document does not surprise me, it's creating a stereotype of workshy fat people, about whom something must be done. Hello stigma! They're not alone though, it's common for organisations of all kinds that have anything at all to do with bodies and health, to have some kind of anti-obesity thing on their mission statement, The Ramblers Association and The London Cycling Campaign spring to mind. It's a load of crap, and really alienating for fat people who might otherwise want to join or get support from them.

GM: How did we get into this position? Is there a genealogy of stigma?

CC: I think fat is another intersection in the many ways that people are marginalised and that these have many genealogies.

GM: Could you tell us a bit about your event, the Fattylympics on July 7, and what you hope to achieve.

CC: The Fattylympics is a community event satirising the You Know Whats in East London 2012. It features stalls, games, performances and other DIY activities. It takes place on July 7, 12 noon-5 pm at the Grassroots Resource Centre in Memorial Park, which is close to West Ham station. It's free and anyone can come, kids are welcome, and the venue is accessible for wheelchair users.

I think I've wanted to put on some kind of an event pretty much ever since London got saddled with the Olympics. I knew it was going to be trouble, though I couldn't have imagined the depth of trouble it has brought, missiles on roofs being the latest atrocity. Over the past few years I've been co-organising odd little fat-related events with various people including a harvest festival and a big size jumble sale. I like making spaces that mix fat activism with other social issues, and which are fun to take part in, and the money we made from these events has paid for the Fattylympics.

For the Fattylympics I envisage an afternoon of silly fun in the park. We have a Fattylympics anthem, a torch, participatory events such as 'Getting Very Dizzy,' 'Rolling,' 'Ribbon Twirling' and 'Spitting'. We have official mascots, Egg'n'Spoon, who are an egg in a leotard and a spoon with a whistle. Someone's bringing a fiddle to play. The Fattylympics embraces an ethos of non-competitiveness, so everyone will get a medal and we also have some very sporty orange towelling headbands to give away. The event is fat-friendly and pretty queer, but it's more than that, it's also a comment on life in East London since the Olympics landed, and it's bodged-together, amateurish, un-slick, and very unlike the GamesTM, because these are the qualities that I value.

At the time of writing, we need people to spread the word, volunteer, come and have a stall (free for non-commercial, £10 everyone else) and to help make medals. Please get in touch if this sounds like your kind of thing.

We have a blog, which gives more details:

GM: Finally, Games Monitor has so far neglected to address a politics of the body in its critiques of the Olympic process. This interview is perhaps a small start in redressing that. How should we proceed?

CC: Keep talking! I'm really delighted that I haven't been laughed out of the room and that Games Monitor is taking this stuff on board. Bodies, health, citizenship, patriotism are central to the Olympics, and thinking about fat is a great way of questioning that stuff.

Fat pushes people's buttons, it gets in the way, it really, really upsets people. I think these are excellent qualities! There's a big rhetoric of inclusion surrounding the Olympics, of sport as a thing that ameliorates social barriers, and fat people, who have bitter experience of always being picked last for the team, expose the limitations of this hype. Fat people are living evidence that the competition enshrined in Olympic values does not make everything better for everyone, especially in the host borough of Newham, where I live, which has one of the fattest demographics in the country. Given this, fat activists are really well-placed to aim a dart or two at the Olympics-Industrial-Complex and look amazing and inspiring when doing so. It's easy for us to get away with things because fat is apparently so funny, so silly, so trivial, and so completely under the radar of anyone who would want to, for example, suppress legitimate protest. Many activists seek political visibility, but there are more things you can do when the people in power don't have the capacity to recognise your existence.

GM: Thank you very much for your time. Very best of luck with the July event.

CC: Thank you. Games Monitor and its supporters are really welcome to come along.

Further reading

Cooper, C (1998) Fat & Proud: The Politics of Size, London: The Women's Press

Cooper, C (2010) 'Olympics/Uhlympics: Living in the Shadow of the Beast', thirdspace, 9(2). [accessed: 11 May 2012]

LeBesco, K (2004) Revolting Bodies: The Struggle to Redefine Fat Identity, Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press

Rothblum, E and Solovay, S (2009) The Fat Studies Reader, New York: New York University Press

Schoenfielder, L and Wieser, B (1983) Shadow On A Tightrope: Writings By Women on Fat Oppression, San Francisco: Aunt Lute

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

Solovay, S (2000) Tipping the Scales of Justice: Fighting weight-based discrimination, Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books

Tomrley, C and Kaloski Naylor, A (2009) Fat Studies In The UK, York: Raw Nerve Books

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