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What Is Fat Activism? An Interview with Dr. Charlotte Cooper

By Dr. Cookie Woolner

Dr. Charlotte Cooper is a British fat activist and para-academic with 30 years experience in this field. She is the author of a new book, Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement. In her book, Cooper debunks various assumptions about fat activism, such as that it is about “body positivity” and “self-love,” or merely focused on issues of obesity and health. Through interviews with fat activists and her own experiences, Cooper charts the rich history of fat activism since its emergence in the 1960s amidst many other social movements for justice and equity. She argues that fat activism is a strategy to help fat people live better lives, which can take on any form, from working at the policy level to create anti-discrimination laws to hosting fat clothing swaps, protesting the diet industry, creating embodied performances and community events

Why is fat activism needed? How are fat people oppressed in Western society?
Let me start by saying that I don’t necessarily think that fat activism is always a response to oppression, though this is a very important way that people understand it and is one of the reasons that people started doing fat activism in the late 1960s in the U.S. Some people think that one day there will be no need for fat activism because people of all sizes will be equal to each other; there will be no more hatred, discrimination, or fatphobia.

I have sympathy for that position but I think of fat activism differently. I think of it as a strategy for building really good lives, for making things, connecting with people, developing exciting ideas about what it’s like to be human, to be embodied. It’s a lens that I use to understand things and enact agency. It’s a method of thinking about politics and power, and for me, though not all fat activists, part of the work of manifesting freedom and peace for all beings. Fat oppression is real—it must end—but fat activism does not have to be limited by the terms and concerns of hatred.

Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement, Charlotte Cooper, book cover
Provided by: Cookie Woolner

What did early fat activism look like and how has the face of fat activism changed over the last few decades?
There are many histories and strands of fat activism. I write about fat feminist origins in my book, which emerged from radical lesbian feminist involvement with the Radical Therapy movement in Los Angeles in the 1970s. But it also has earlier roots in the civil rights activism that politicized many of these early movers and shakers. It looked a lot like research, consciousness-raising, public protest, some cultural work, a lot of community publishing. In some ways little has changed—the provocations these early feminists posed around weight loss and oppression are still current. But technology, neoliberalism, and gentrification have obscured these beginnings. Most people now think that fat activism is entirely about clothes shopping, selfies, and loving your body, for example. Earlier critiques of the medical-industrial-complex have been overlooked, and the idea that fat activism is part of a broader move towards liberation for all beings is sidelined.

How did you personally come to self-identify with the word “fat”? Was it a long or difficult process to reclaim this word that women in particular are taught to fear from a young age?
The fact that some people have trouble saying the word fat says so much about how much work fat activists have to do. Euphemisms and language that attempts to make the concept respectable or medicalized just make everything worse, they enshrine shame, invisibility and powerlessness. How can you have any political thoughts about fat if you can’t even say the most basic word? It’s really not such a big deal to use this word.

I started using fat to describe myself around puberty, first in a self-hating sort of way and then as a politicized word in my mid-teens. I wasn’t taught to fear the word fat, though the loathing of fatness was entrenched in me from very young, around 6 or 7 years old. It was a relief when I was able to use it to describe myself; at last I had a word that enabled me to articulate a great many discomfiting and bewildering life experiences. Then it became a word that had a lot of power attached to it; I liked that, and still do.

Do you think fat activism has been a female-dominated movement because of the disproportionate social pressure on Western women to be thin? Or have issues of gender and power in the movement been more complicated than that?
The kind of fat activism I talk about in my book is dominated by women because it was developed by feminists. But there are many genealogies of fat activism, and not all of them are feminist. It would be harder to say how gender operates in fat activism built on the heterosexual fetishizing of fat women, for example. What does gendered power look like in a straight relationship between a normative-sized guy and a superfat woman that is built on a consensual fat fetish arrangement? What if she’s a feminist? What if she isn’t? I imagine that as fat activism becomes more professionalized and respectable, the straight white guys will assume power and appropriate the hidden labor of fat feminist activists; I have already seen this start to happen in academia.

Do you think LGBT activism and fat activism have had a similar trajectory? Both movements had politically radical roots that you argue have been “gentrified” and made more palatable to mainstream society, via gay marriage and corporate Pride events for the former and a focus on the plus-size “fatshion” industry and generic feel-good calls for “body positivity” for the latter.
Yes, it’s very similar. But I think gay life has splintered into a million different identity groups whereas fat activism is overwhelmingly framed as only one thing, usually body positivity but also Health At Every Size. I don’t think this is good. It would be better if many fat activisms could be acknowledged, if we weren’t tyrannized by the idea that we all have to be the same (i.e., bland, respectable, orientated towards the U.S. mainstream) in order to be a viable political movement, if we valued critical thought and were more able to raise and tolerate tensions within the movement.
Why do you think queer fat activism in particular has been so vibrant? Is it in part because queers subvert “the male gaze” and thus feel more empowered to play with transgressive embodiment?

Dr Charlotte Cooper sitting on the floor with books and magazines around her
Dr. Charlotte Cooper. Photo credit: Sara Davidmann

Why do you think queer fat activism in particular has been so vibrant? Is it in part because queers subvert “the male gaze” and thus feel more empowered to play with transgressive embodiment?
By queer I mean non-normative, anti-assimilationist culture and identity. It’s not necessarily the same as LGBT and not always to do with sexual desire. I’m also thinking about the earlier fat feminists who did not think of themselves as queer, who pre-dated the emergence of queer theory in the early 1990s, and who were more generally allied to radical lesbian feminism. I don’t think subverting the male gaze has much to do with it. I think fat queer feminists have been such a powerful force in fat activism because they tend not to value the mainstream. Within this group you are also talking about pioneers of the trans movement, people of the Left, working class people, people of color, minority ethnic people, people who are chronically ill or disabled. People who navigate these intersections are often people who will never be let in, so we make our own lives instead. This requires a lot of imagination—it requires politics. It’s not something you can buy off a shelf. It is hard fought for and emerges through risk-taking, sharing ideas, believing in the value of your own weird and wild experience.

How have some fat activists made their own lives and imagined or re-imagined self and community?
I have many examples of this in the book. Fat activism manifests in countless ways, but some of my favorites involve civil disobedience and little refusals, those moments when fat people refute our assumed social positioning. I love the immediacy of micro-fat activism, for example through having a conversation, sharing a look. This is activism that requires very little in the way of material resources and mobilization. My own fat activism veers towards cultural work; I have been working on dance pieces recently and performing with my band Homosexual Death Drive. I also value ambiguous activisms; I don’t always need hammering over the head with a message. I much prefer space within fat activism for grey areas and the irrational.

How do you see British and American fat activism as divergent?
I don’t know that there is a British fat activism, if it has a national flavor, or if it can be contained in that way. The National Health Service makes fat and health quite different to the U.S. The class system and histories of racism are also different, and these things affect how people think about fat identity and activism.

I argue in the book against what I see and experience as U.S. cultural imperialism in general and as something that affects fat activism pretty profoundly. This is the idea that the U.S. is always the source of power, progressive ideas and innovation, that other places are illegible and inadequate. The U.S. dominates fat activism; people elsewhere let it. At the moment, doing fat activism requires people everywhere to engage with the superpower of the U.S., and I don’t think this is a good thing. I think local fat activisms need to emerge to address specific concerns for there to be many fat activisms.

It’s not like the U.S. is the only proponent of imperialism and colonialism either, so I feel cautious in talking about British fat activism because I feel that this too is about a colonial valuing of the West above others. I would very much like to see global, independent, indigenous fat activisms take root and take power.

What is your vision for this global, independent, indigenous fat activist movement?
I hope for non-violent revolutions big and small, for the peaceful emancipation of all beings, for humor and weirdness, and for a movement that helps engender a sense of power and optimism for marginalized people.

To read more by Dr. Charlotte Cooper, check out her blog.

Dr. Cookie Woolner, 2015-16 Arcus Center Postdoctoral Fellow, interviewed Dr. Cooper recently about her new book on fat activism. Dr. Woolner has researched and published in the field of Fat Studies and wanted to bring this important activist history to the readers of Praxis Center. She too unabashedly identifies as “fat.”

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