I like to call myself and be called fat. I think fat is a political subject, and as such it feels powerful to reclaim words that are frequently used pejoratively
There are lots of words used to describe people such as me. Medics and their allies will use some Latin or Greek to make their language appear authoritative and scientific. According to them I am obese, or someone requiring bariatric intervention. By extension, in newspapers I am part of an anonymous population blob known as the obese.
If I go shopping for clothes I might be called plus size. If I meet someone who finds someone with a body like mine shameful, I might be euphemistically described as big or large. Others might try to spin this shame into something more positive and pretty, like curvy. If someone tries to translate my work, they might use words such as gordo, dicke, grasso, grande. In some places there might not be words for me, either because no language exists, or because some people relate to me through a lexicon of disapproving looks and disgusted sounds.
I like to call myself, and be called, fat. This is simple and descriptive and it feels powerful to reclaim a word that is frequently used pejoratively. I am a fat activist, which is a term that can mean many things, but for me it means that I think fat is a political subject.
Fat is typically framed as a health problem but health is not apolitical, as bodies of work in the social sciences have come to reveal. Debates about the NHS, and fat people being held responsible for funding crises, are just one area in which fat is a political subject. The social hatred and scapegoating of fat people can also be seen as political.
In my most recent book, Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement, I argue that fat activism can be anything done by anyone for any reason. It is not necessarily about self-acceptance, improving health, developing self-love or addressing stigma though that can be part of it. It can be as much about joining organisations as tweeting; as going to a fat clothes-swap as writing and sharing a poem; as having a conversation with someone as presenting a paper at a conference. It can be weird, illegible, ambiguous and antisocial. There is no singular way of being a fat activist.
In calling myself fat I am drawing on a feminist practice of naming things in order to bring them into being. This means naming myself, on my own terms, and using language to define the world around me as I experience it. I do this because I think the experience of being fat is valuable. This is heresy to those who think fat people should not exist. But the view from the margins illuminates a lot about the shadow side of conformity, norms, and fears concerning embodiment and difference, and how these are manipulated for power and profit.
Earlier this year I published a homemade dictionary of fat activist words and concepts. I wanted to subvert the language of medicine and public health to give readers a playful glimpse of a subculture. Here are some examples.
A literary device that is irresistible to people writing about fat, especially journalists: piling on the pounds, fat fighters, weight watchers, and so on. Maybe they do this because fat is intrinsically funny to write about, not like serious stories or hard news.
The part of your body thats under your tits and above your privates. Can be any size, shape, texture, colour, levels of hairiness, sweatiness. A place where fat accumulates on some people. Sometimes flops around, sometimes is bold and stout. Sometimes makes gurgling noises. Sometimes has creases and stretch marks. Sometimes has a mind of its own and will not behave. A delightful, gorgeous thing, a source of physical power much maligned and fretted over. Important resource in gut-barging competitions.
A way of talking about energy that you get through eating food. An obsession. A pretty name for a girl child.
A fat athlete.
A person who is not fat. A person who is better-looking, healthier, more intelligent, more likely to succeed in life, sexier, more lovable and better to be with than any fat person. A very good and virtuous and normal person.
Fat upper arms that get more wobbly and loose with age. Source of power.
I created A Fat Activist Vernacular because I am interested in language and power in relation to fat people. The weight-loss industry is worth a fortune, and there is a lot of money and status riding on the question of who gets to define fat experience generally public health politicians and their friends and allies in the weight-loss industry and medicine. My preference would be that this is a subject for fat people to work out for ourselves by valuing and sharing our own experiences. But there are many others with vested interests in owning and wielding this information.
The language of fat activism, frequently raw and emotive when people talk about being objects of hate, is being appropriated and gentrified by academics and professionals, tidied up and made respectable, while ousting the originators. You can see this in the transformation of the activist term fatphobia into the blandly inoffensive weight bias, which is sure to make its way into policy sometime soon.
My own term, headless fatty referring to media images of fat people whose heads have been cropped out of the frame was also cleaned up by a prominent academic at Yale as headless stomach. What happens more often is that fat activist originators of language and concepts are not cited, and their ideas become appropriated and made respectable without anyone being the wiser.
Meanwhile, at the age of 46, I have found other ways of speaking about this subject. After embarking a few years ago on a lifelong ambition of becoming a contemporary dancer, in November I will be dancing a piece called But Is it Healthy? in the Wellcome Collections Obesity gallery. I get asked the question all the time and it is impossible to answer it in words, not least because fat people are a diverse group, health is constructed in myriad ways, and expert science is not incontrovertible. So I will dance the answer instead! This will be performed as a duet by Kay Hyatt and me to a soundtrack I have made based on archival recordings by fat feminist activists made in 1980 by Karen Stimson at the New Haven Fat Womens Health Conference. The speakers are Diane Denne, Judy Freespirit, Aldebaran and Judith Stein; a recording of Marcia Duvall, also present on the panel, has unfortunately been lost. These women are founders of many of the ideas circulating in fat activism today, but they have been neglected historically. I would love more people to know about their work.
The dance emerged from a period of research in which Hyatt and I explored what it is like to be continually asked: But is it healthy?; it brings together years of activism, explaining, patient listening and deep frustration in response to this question.
Through dance I am developing a different kind of language, using my body expressively and encountering audiences who have been worn down by the rhetoric of the obesity epidemic for the past decade and a half, and want something different.
I hope that by watching us dance in the Obesity display at the Wellcome Collection, audiences will understand that there are other ways of talking and thinking about fat than those which have been dominant in recent years. It is unbelievable that fat people like me have to lobby so very hard to be seen simply as human. I hope the dancing, and its soundtrack, helps people recognise that fat people have community, histories, cultures, agency, thoughts and lives all of our own.
Charlotte Cooper and Kay Hyatt are performing on 4 November 2016 as part of the Friday Late Spectacular: Body Language at the Wellcome Collection