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Fat is a feminist issue, but whose feminism?

fatForget Susie Orbach and her cohorts, whose ideas of fat are based in the pathology of eating disorders and body dysmorphia – it was radical lesbians who fostered the most progressive analyses of fat from a feminist perspective, writes Charlotte Cooper.

12 September 2010

When I tell people I’m a fat activist, I often encounter a flicker of recognition. “Aha!” they say, and I know it's coming: “Fat is a feminist issue!” My heart sinks and I sigh at the mention of Susie Orbach's 1970s bestseller.

Popular debates about dieting, size zero, self-acceptance, and eating disorders have arisen through feminist discourse, largely because of their impact on women.

These positions are well worn and a part of the fabric of daily discussion . People weave in and out of academia through the much-cited work of Orbach, Kim Chernin and Susan Bordo.

There is a sense that, because of the work of this holy trinity a couple of decades ago, feminism has dealt with the question of fat and that there's nothing more to say. This is it, folks, done and dusted.

This is not the feminism I'm talking about.

Orbach, Chernin and Bordo's hallowed works are problematic to a fat activist like me. Their ideas are based in the pathology of eating disorders and body dysmorphia, and thus pathologises fatness too.

Compulsive eating and exercising, dieting, weight loss, the pressures on normative-sized female bodies to remain thin: all become proxies for fat without being about fat.

None of the authors identify as fat; indeed Bordo includes a long passage in the 10th anniversary edition of Unbearable Weight about her own adherence to weight loss body projects.

Orbach has long been challenged by fat activists on her fatphobia yet continues to downplay these critiques, which is easy enough for her to do because she has the spotlight and her detractors are out in the dark.

These are not women or feminists that represent me and my kind at all.

Instead of being illuminating, their pseudo accounts of fat have created a confusing, ineffective and murky feminist politics of fat which, whilst amazingly popular, have been incredibly disruptive.

This has resulted in a situation where, as well as trying to challenge dominant obesity discourse – that is, a mainstream idea of what fat is, usually a medical model, or one which abjects fat people and transforms us into this abstract concept of "the obese", I am also required to refute these feminist works that are allegedly working for me yet actually undermine me as a fat person and make my experiences invisible.

Not surprisingly, many fat activists spend a lot of time refuting and challenging, it takes precious energy that could otherwise be spent building fat culture and community.

A different kind of feminism

Fat as I understand it has political roots in feminism; there's no denying that, but the roots I'm talking about are a different feminism.

I want to tell you about a history of fat activism which illustrates this claim.

Fat activism stretches back at least to the early 1970s when a group of women in Los Angeles, many of whom were lesbians, formed The Fat Underground.

The Fat Underground were interested in power, specifically medicalised power and the way that it impacted negatively on fat women. Their feminism included analyses of gender and sexuality, disability and race.

But a more abstract notion of power was their main concern: systemic power and individual agency in the face of oppression; the personal is political.

They brought this feminist understanding to fat by various means: they did research and published position papers in English and Spanish on clothing, encounters with doctors, weight loss, and more; they organised direct action protests against various agents of fatphobia; they maintained support groups; they brought their messages to the media and worked with other political groups – for example they had links to what was then known as the radical psychiatry movement.

They created a way of understanding what it is to be fat within cultures that seek the symbolic and material annihilation of fat people. This involved adopting a social model similar to disability activism, which asserted that it's not the individual who should change to fit the world, but the world that should be more able to accommodate difference.

More importantly, they also found ways of creating meaning, resistance, pride and community based on fat identity and experience.

The Fat Underground no longer exist, but their influence is considerable.

Networks of lesbian feminists in the US helped spread their ideas. At first this happened within the US, through small press journals and groups, and later these ideas became disseminated through second wave feminist cultures in the West.

For example, in Britain, the London Fat Women's Group, organised a conference in 1989 which produced The Fat Dykes Statement, and undertook many activist projects along the lines of the Fat Underground.

This influence didn't stop with the second wave. Third wave, sex-positive queers, many of whom started out in earlier feminisms, ran with these ideas throughout the 1990s, incorporating new technologies.

FaT GiRL, a zine "For Fat Dykes and The Women Who Want Them" brought a punk sensibility to the development of defiant fat community and culture, and used nascent publishing networks to do that, online and in print.

Within the last decade, grassroots queer and feminist DIY cultures, such as Ladyfest and Queeruption, have also attempted to support fat politics through workshops and performances.

Canadian artist and scholar Allyson Mitchell, who teaches classes on the third wave and co-founded the fat activist group, Pretty Porky and Pissed Off, draws explicit links with second wave lesbian feminism through her ongoing Deep Lez project, and recently paid homage to the Fat Underground by re-staging their iconic protest against the fatphobic media reporting of singer Mama Cass Elliott's death in 1974, whose passing they claimed was a result of fat-hating medical negligence.

Given that fat feminist activism offers us many clues for surviving and fighting fatphobia, how come this other, rich, diverse fat activist history isn't as well known or discussed as Fat is a Feminist Issue, or Chernin or Bordo's work? Why isn't it as comprehensively cited in the academy? Indeed, why is it more or less invisible to the wider culture?

Part of the problem is that fat activism is rarely documented, and fat activism is often undertaken by people who do not have the privilege to disseminate ideas easily, or access to the academy.

The fatosphere and beyond

The lack of documentation is changing with the rise of the Fatosphere, a network of radical fat blogs, which is slowly creating a mass digital archive of activism upon which future scholars might draw.

Second wave lesbian feminism is not currently a sexy research area, this is perhaps due to its historical sledgehammer approach to trans rights and some areas of sexual experience.

But by, rightly, rejecting some areas of earlier feminist doctrine, researchers – and anyone else interested in developing a feminist politics of fat – are throwing out the baby with the bathwater and missing the chance to engage with a rich history and culture.

Thankfully new groups of fat activists and scholars are emerging through the interdisciplinary Fat Studies community.

Sydney has just hosted Fat Studies: A Critical Dialogue at Macquarie University, for example, and Dr Samantha Murray of that institution's Somatechnics Research Centre has recently launched the Fat Dialogue website, where people can start to develop discussions around scholarship and activism in Australia and beyond.

I think this offers one of the best opportunities yet for people to get to grips with fat feminism, rather than relying on out of date and problematic authors as proxies for a deeper analysis, and start to push new ideas out into the world.

Suggestions for further reading on fat and feminism

  • Lisa Schoenfielder and Barb Wieser (1983) Shadow on a Tightrope: Writings By Women on Fat Oppression. San Francisco, Aunt Lute.
  • Charlotte Cooper (1998) Fat & Proud: The Politics of Size. London, The Women's Press.
  • Corinna Tomrley and Ann Kaloski Naylor (2009) Fat Studies in the UK. York, Raw Nerve Books.
  • Esther Rothblum and Sondra Solovay (2009) The Fat Studies Reader. New York, New York University Press.

Back issues of FaT GiRL zine are available from Max Airborne's Etsy shop.

Charlotte ‘The Beefer’ Cooper is a queer fat activist and Fat Studies researcher based in London. She is currently a Government of Ireland Ph.D scholar at the University of Limerick, courtesy of the Irish Social Sciences Platform. She is also a Visiting Scholar at Macquarie University, Spring 2010.

Charlotte's background is in DIY and zine culture, and queer journalism. Her writing is all over the internet. She published the fat rights manifesto Fat and Proud: The Politics of Size (1998) whilst her award-winning dyke porn novel, Cherry (2002), was busted for obscenity by Canada Customs.

Charlotte is the originator of The Chubsters. Her short films have screened at festivals around the world. Charlotte is a full Member of the British Association of Counsellors and Psychotherapists.

She co-organised The Fat of The Land: A Queer Chub Harvest Festival in London 2009 and was Minister for Propaganda for Big Bum Jumble in 2010. In January 2010 Charlotte delivered the keynote presentation at the inaugural ESRC Fat Studies and Health At Every Size seminar, funded by the UK government. Her queercore bands include The Lesbian and Gay Community, The 123s, and Homosexual Death Drive.

Find out more about Charlotte at her website. She blogs about fat at Obesity Timebomb and about sex at Kink Zine.


0 #6 emma 2011-04-09 10:59
Is it me or is being a fat woman seemingly always associated with being a lesbian? I am not criticizing lesbianism, but part of being fat seems to center around being fat and being gay and I don't know why people seem to assume that if you are fat you: are stupid, not healthy and choose eating over having sex or are gay. We have lots of stereotypes we need to address around "fat" and I hope to be a part of the re-education process. Good article!
0 #5 Health 2011-03-24 14:10
Thank you for sharing this! I really loved and enjoyed reading it! Keep it up! You have a great talent! Awesome!

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0 #4 William 2010-11-17 06:42
I love how the Fat Underground although a early Fat Feminist Group was more inclusive of all Fat People than the Fat Bloggers today.

0 #3 diana 2010-09-16 16:49
So, I'm guessing that my hope for a feminist fat activism that combines the best of Sheila Jeffreys's insights with Aldebaran's ... is not in the offing, eh? Many of us took what began in the Fat Underground forward: SAFFIR (Seattle Area Fat Feminist Inspiration & Rage) did guerilla theater and entertained/cha llenged mainstream feminist thought at gatherings, and did presentations at high schools and colleges, in the early 90s. I'm still a fat activist, still adamantly pro-lesbian ... and I still share Jeffreys's take on how 'queer' killed 'Lesbian' to the detriment of all. And I still hide Orbach's book when I find it.
-1 #2 Mary Putana 2010-09-13 12:27
A good dinner conversation at McDonald's.
0 #1 Natalie 2010-09-13 01:59
I really suggest grabbing copies of the FaT GiRL zines, they are AMAZING. My involvement with fat activism has only a fragmented decade of history, but reading the zines helped me a LOT!

Thanks for this post Charlotte, and it was fantastic to meet you at the conference. Your contribution to fat culture and activism is so valuable to me.

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