ESRC Fat Studies Conference – Building community through activism

fat communityI spoke this week in London at an ESRC-funded Fat Studies conference organized by the fantastic Bethan Evans and Charlotte Cooper. This was a largely academic seminar, but several DIY activists were also invited to speak. This made for a wonderful mix of theory and action and the radical nature of the Fat Studies topics gave me a great deal to chew on for the next few months. I was especially struck by a talk on the “Perverse practice of Social Inclusion” as well as Sondra Solovay’s keynote which described four very intense cases around fat, families and discrimination. We still have so much work to do, but sitting in a room with all of these great academics and activists, I felt hopeful and inspired.

I thought I’d share my little presentation here as well in case it’s helpful. I’ve talked a lot about building community, but I’ve never really talked at depth about why it’s important, what principles I keep in mind when doing so and whether or not there’s a method to my organizing madness. Sometimes there is, sometimes there isn’t, and sometimes there is but I don’t know it until long after. ;)


The importance of community in personal empowerment

The human animal is soft-wired towards empathy and hard-wired towards the desire to belong. While empathy can be knocked out of our natures via social conditioning/abuse/peer pressure, the desire to fit in remains a cornerstone. Empathy combined with the desire to belong to something bigger is a beautiful reality — this is the mad rush to help in times of crisis, volunteerism and activism. But when the biological need for acceptance overrides our more malleable empathic natures, this creates judgment, shaming, oppression and exclusion.

Most individuals, if not given the tools to see this for what it is, will simply accept and internalize these experiences of shaming and exclusion. This creates self-loathing, compulsion, shame and depression. Creating community that affirms, supports and welcomes marginalized individuals is one step towards aiding them in regaining the strength and empowerment required to reject these arbitrary judgments and begin to heal.

Focused community creates the opportunity for topical conversation and bonding. It is in these conversations that individuals begin to recognize shared experiences. While common sense may seem to dictate that no experience is truly unique, we all know that logic is rarely at the forefront in our emotional selves. For this reason, it is common for people to believe that they are alone in some of their most painful circumstances. Social isolation only reinforces this fiction. When people have the opportunity to hear that others share their same struggles, this is an unburdening experience. Shared experience reduces shame and aids in combatting the reflex to internalize oppression.

I took a two month road trip in 2006 and interviewed 42 fat women about their experiences in the world, from childhood to present-day. There were many common themes that emerged, but one of the most valuable was this: Around the age of 7 or 8, when children begin noticing and assigning values to their differences, more intensive teasing/bullying begins. For the children who felt loved and supported at home, often the bullying was met with questioning — “Why are they so angry? Why are they so mean? Is that person having a bad day today?” Children who were affirmed did not immediately experience shame, whereas those without support had no reflex to fight it and simply accepted the judgments of others as truth. With nothing to combat it, this reflex becomes habit and self-loathing can become a slow, steady undercurrent in someone’s life. Through building fat-positive community, we have the ability to provide that long-overdue affirmation for one another and to help each other begin to ask those important questions now.

The distinction between radicalizing the already-political and introducing introducing Fat Activism to those who may be skeptical.

I have been torn on and off throughout my activist career regarding direction. I am queer and, as any of you who are also queer likely know, coming out is an inherently political process. Starting out as a queer activist and then moving into fat activism from there gave me a much more radicalized approach than someone who had not been politicized in this way may have had. I was already familiar with questioning the basic assumptions of the larger society. I was already familiar with the internal debates inside queer culture regarding wanting to ‘fit in’ to garner faster acceptance vs. being loudly and proudly different and demanding acceptance anyway. I was also already familiar with the concept of reclaiming words to remove their power to harm. For all of these reasons, I gave the finger to the middle ground, avoided pandering euphemisms and went straight for the F word — FAT — in the title of my first large-scale event, FatGirl Speaks.

Thankfully, a steady stream of press coverage and interviews gave me a chance to explain that choice, and our audience was far larger and more mixed than it would have been otherwise. However, in some senses, by using a wince-inducing word like Fat in the title, I immediately placed a barrier between the event and a large percentage of the folks who could have benefited from it. This attracted an audience which, while vast, was largely queer and highly political. That wasn’t a bad thing, but it did find me pondering the gap between mainstream “body image” activism and more radical “fat activism” and wondering what a bridge between the two would look like.

The Dove Beauty campaign, for example, reaches professional women, housewives, church ladies; all the women who likely would have been put off by our more aggressively named event. It raises awareness and begins to plant seeds of skepticism about what the range of ‘normal’ bodies actually is and also takes issue with marketing practices which dig holes in women’s self-esteem in order to sell product. However, it is produced by a beauty company, and thus is commercial by nature. As well, the range of so-called normalcy within less radical body image activism is still very slim, is marred by troublesome healthist, racist and ableist tenets and only marginally addresses and disrupts the underlying assumptions of the status quo.

I like to think of activism as non-linear – meaning, an activist’s path can take them back and forth between radicalized and non-radicalized groups. However, the progression of the target individual towards greater empowerment is naturally more linear and, for that reason, events at all empowerment levels are important in order to both provide multiple entrance points into fat activism and to help those already involved to continue to move forward. It’s not, of course, the job of each individual activist to provide resources at all levels, but staying mindful of who we’re not reaching is as important as focusing on who we are. This helps to aid in collaboration across movements and, ideally, to avoid gaps in accessibility.

It’s Not About You, or The importance of ongoing, interaction-based events to establish peer support community.

The loudest feedback we received after the first FatGirl Speaks was that audience members felt excited and inspired by the event, but felt they had nowhere to put that energy once the event was over. Many had never been in a room where fat was a focus in such a positive way before, had never been with so many fat people at the same time before, and had never felt so at home or accepted. That was certainly true of me, as the event organizer. I remember standing in the back of the venue, watching a crowd of 400 fatties and allies scream themselves hoarse as a bevvy of fat performers danced, sang, spoke, stripped and took up space unapologetically. There were so many people in the venue that we reached capacity and had to turn 100 away at the door. The joy in the room was palpable. This was a celebration, and a surprise. None of us expected everyone else to be there. We were crazed with it, and we all wanted more.

Activating a crowd like that is a wonderful experience, but in not anticipating that momentum and providing an ongoing way for those excited folks to stay connected with one another, we missed an opportunity to create community. This realization was key in the formation of some of our “in-between” events. We held a monthly dance party called Cupcake, we started a seasonal group-swim called the Chunky Dunk (which is still happening today and is in the process of expanding to other cities) and we held large clothing exchanges called FatGirl Frock Swaps — the last of which raised over 800lbs of plus-sized clothing to be donated to Hurricane Katrina victims, some of whom were being forced to wear garbage bags due to lack of clothing in their size.

From the connections people made with one another at these events, we watched the formation of a vibrant fat-positive community in Portland, especially strong within queer culture. New leadership sprung up. Folks started their own events, started new businesses catering to fat folks and started to share resources like fat-friendly healthcare providers, restaurants and venues with comfortable seating and more.

Creating ongoing, interactivity-focused events (like dances, or group swims – where the focus is not on the stage, but on the other participants) also creates community, and community supports empowerment. It’s one thing to be excited by an event, it’s entirely another to have a group of peers to walk through the world with and to continue to reinforce the positive messages within Fat Activism so that folks don’t go right back to internalizing all that shame.

Safer space as springboard and oasis vs. coddling and shielding.

As the self-confessed bleeding-heart liberal that I am, I have a bit of a hard time with the concept of ‘safer space’ as, by nature, it requires the exclusion of others in order to exist. As an activist, my ideal is an integrated but un-homogenized global society where everyone is welcome and no one is oppressed and kittens and unicorns frolic together in fields of organic cauliflower.

That said, we’re a far cry from ‘there yet’ and I haven’t decided yet if I’m too cynical to believe we ever will be. But whatever the effect on the grander scale, I’ve not yet lost faith that we can impact our own little corners of the world in positive ways. To do that, we need to begin by asking each other and ourselves hard questions. To do that we need to feel safer than we generally do going about our daily lives.

Creating focused community, and focused space, is both powerful and – without counterbalance – mildly dangerous. Safer space can increase the quality of life for those inside of it, but it also creates the process of ‘re-entry’ — back into the general world where those warm, cozy feelings rapidly dissipate against the daily barrage of consumer messages, peer pressure, inequity in pay and access to medical care. It can be tempting to isolate into fat-positive community, or to only take those steps toward empowerment within the confines of safer space.

For this reason, I like to mix safer events (like chunky dunks or dance parties) with more public events like “Beauty in Action” (a free-hugs style guerrilla takeover of a public corner where we made body-positive signs and offered non-sexualized affection to passers-by) or a “Fat Kiss-In” in New York in response to Marie Claire’s recent fat-hating article. Events like the ChunkyDunk give folks a chance to try something daunting, like putting on a swimsuit in public, and remember that it’s OK — ideally with the end result of feeling bolstered to do it in their daily lives. Events like “Beauty in Action” or the Fat Kiss-In allow folks to be rebellious and proud, to push back the boundaries of acceptability in positive ways, or to simply let off some well-deserved steam.

I believe it’s imperative that we are mindful of balancing safer space with opportunities to take that empowerment and put it into action in the larger world.

Joint events to create compassion/empathy/awareness of intersecting communities.

Many forms of activism have obvious and not-so-obvious overlaps, but bridges between activist communities are often tenuous. Partly this is due to inevitable squabbling over limited resources or public attention, part is due to the exhausting nature of activism — nearly always unpaid, often emotionally intensive — leaving little time or energy left to expand focus. However, exploring these overlaps and building bridges between movements is a powerful way to move both forward and to begin creating that more idealized integrated culture.

In example, we noticed that many trans-folk and allies were coming to our Chunky Dunks during the summer months. Creating that non-judgmental space had the welcome result of appealing to folks who were struggling with facets of their bodies unrelated to shape or size. Some were fat, some were not, but all were happily co-existing in that body-positive space.

Happy about this unexpected result, we reached out to a local trans organization and put together a joint event this summer, benefiting Portland’s Gender FreeForAll organization. This same group went on to organize a monthly Trans & Ally hot tub soak at a local wellness center and, riding the tails of their success, we are in the process of advocating for a body-positive monthly soak at the same organization.

Recognizing these overlaps allowed us to support and move forward both as separate entities and in collaboration.

In Summary:

Community building is a powerful tool in activism, and event organizing is one of the most effective ways to do so. Mindfulness of the wide variety of people at various points on their personal journey can help create a suite of resources that allow individuals to enter body positivity, release shame and progress towards empowerment at their own pace. Keeping an eye out for obvious intersections and joining forces can also be a wonderful way to pool resources and create connections that extend beyond your own communities.

  1. Bravo Stacy…

  2. Wow. Stacy, I have watched you do all this and having it outlined and studied like this is amazing. This is a brilliant and concise summary. I love how you look at all of the effects your activism has had. I am so proud of you. I have NO doubt that you will do amazing work at school. I love you so much, and I thank you from the bottom of my queer, fat heart. From one who was entirely isolated for many years, I thank you so much

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