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Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Fat Activism in One Volume: A Review of Fat Activism

Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement by Dr. Charlotte Cooper is being published today, January 4, 2016! In honor of this important publication, Laurie and Debbie, who usually greet the new year with a post of their own, are delighted to publish Lynne Murray’s review today.

Bright-colored cover of FAT ACTIVISM
Lynne Murray says:

This book addresses many issues that I personally have struggled with for 30 years of trying to live a fat activist life. Such as, why does each new generation of fat activists seem to have to reinvent the wheel?

True, in 2016 the internet provides a treasure trove of resources for those who search. But you have to know a thing exists before you can even start to look for it. Many people who desperately need fat positive information, inspiration and supportive communities will not even have an idea of what they are missing.

This is part of what inspired Dr. Cooper to write her book:

I was interested in how fat activist histories might be transmitted through communities because I was dismayed by how little fat activists seemed to know about the movement of which they were a part. I also felt that fat activism is under-documented and wanted to create a paper trail for others to use.

Fat Activism is an essential reference for those who want to know where the movement started and to get some ideas on where it can go from here. The breadth of Cooper’s research is amazing. Fat Activism is worth owning simply as a resource and a history of the movement. She seems to have studied and in most cases assessed almost every fat-related group, book or article created over the past 46 years. The 59-page bibliography alone is a Who’s Who and a What Happened When of fat activism.

Cooper deserves a medal for even reading the most condescending, smugly pseudoscientific “fat panic” materials. Examining these works of socially acceptable prejudice exacts a perilous price, as Cooper explains:

My own emotional response to such work encompasses feelings of powerlessness, anger that ranges from disgruntlement to rage and bewilderment at the flattening of the complexities of my life. Physiological effects are congruent with stress: shallow breathing, a tight chest, a sinking feeling. These are encounters with systemic sanctioned hatred. Reading this work as a fat person requires a certain steeliness, it can be physically and emotionally depleting.

Fat Activism doesn’t shy away from discussing internal tensions and stumbles inside groups and specific events. Cooper interviews activists to get individual reports on just what fat activism is and what it means to those who do it. She herself has been involved in a number of groundbreaking activism projects such as The Chubsters.

The project was formulated as a queer fat girl gang I established in 2003 after watching Katrina Del Mar’s low budget short film Gang Girls 2000, which created an imaginary world of queer gangs in New York. I imagined The Chubsters as existing in a similar universe where fat people take no shit and I hoped that this could bleed into real life. I enjoyed the blurring of fiction and reality. I used the gang to play with ideas of comic aggression and anti-social behaviour yet was explicit in my pacifism and welcomed all to take part; Chubsters did not have to be fat, queer, a girl or even remotely vicious. On reflection I suspect this approach stemmed from my own experiences of queer exclusion from lesbian feminist spaces in the 1980s.

The Chubsters operated through a website, a magazine photo-story, articles, workshops, talks and film-shows, a theme song, a short film and objects and ideas. These included a symbol, called The Screaming C, a snarling fat letter C with blood-dripping fangs, designed by two Chubsters, Yeti and Big Blu in 2004. The symbol became a useful manifestation of the gang. Other people adopted it, one person made me a hoodie decorated with The Screaming C, another is a stonemason and carved it into a plaque. In addition, The Chubsters produced hand signs, special terminology, a call and response; downloads for calling cards; and gang colours stitched onto torn denim waistcoats and worn in public. Another member made some Chubster embroidery.

This book began as a doctoral dissertation, so it starts with an appetizer of sociological terms and concepts. If these are not your treats, you can easily skip to the next course, which is tasty, juicy and mentally satisfying. Cooper provides insights and history enough to nourish any reader seeking understanding and inspiration.

Fat activism is habitually overlooked, assumed and dismissed, even by people within the movement, which is outrageous given how powerful it can be.  …

[T]here is no doubt that fat activism based on the lived experience, cultures and histories of fat people, which incorporates anti-oppressive values, feminist and queer tactics is able to offer a richer and more sophisticated vision for understanding fat than the proponents of obesity who remain intent on ignoring or belittling us.

So how might people know about fat? Through a disease model or through rolling down a hill together? Through bariatric surgery or poetry? Through terrible clinical encounters or a fat clothes swap? Through weight loss drugs that cause heart attacks and anal leakage or by reading Fat Liberator Publications? Through Very Low Calorie Diets or by visiting or working at a volunteer fat queer brothel? Through a conviction that something must be done about the problem of fat people or through getting tattooed with a Screaming C? Through a pernicious fantasy of slenderness or through a wink or a rebellious thought?

This book asks the hard questions and provides some encouraging answers. Highly recommended!