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Charlotte Cooper’s Fat Activism explores a long-standing social movement, revealing complex relationships with feminism, class and capitalism, argues Elaine Graham-Leigh

Charlotte Cooper, Fat Activism. A Radical Social Movement (HammerOn Press 2016), 296pp.

If you’re reading this on Counterfire, there’s a good chance that you consider yourself as an activist, but what does that mean? What is activism? If the personal is political, does that mean that everything we do counts? In Fat Activism, Cooper provides both an account of a radical social movement and a consideration of how we might come to a broad but useful understanding of the nature of activism, through an examination of one of the less-prominent struggles of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

The movement by and for fat people against stigmatisation and oppression has an often amorphous history, of which much has already been lost. In the course of her research in archives of zines, leaflets, and references to protests and events, Cooper has been able to reconstruct a picture of the movement, but there are many instances where the fate of particular campaigns or initiatives has already become unclear. These lacunae emphasise the importance of reconstructing the stories that can be told about the movement before the entire history disappears, but this is not only a historical exercise. Alongside her archival research, Cooper also brings her own experience as a fat activist since the 1990s, an account of particular importance given how frequently fat people have to put up with non-fat academics theorising about their bodies and their experiences.

Fat hatred has been a feature of Western society since at least the nineteenth century and there are a number of possible starting points for the fat activist movement. Rather than tracing these older antecedents, Cooper begins with the origins of modern fat activism in the radical feminist, and specifically the radical lesbian feminist movement of 1960s and 1970s. Although there is little ongoing connection, fat activism’s radical feminist roots mean that it originates in a feminism which is ‘problematic, maligned, unfashionable and obscure’ (p.145). This was not a start which was going to allow fat activism an easy ride.

In the history of fat activism, 1967 was clearly an important year. It saw the first fat-activist event, a New York fat-in as a protest against fat hatred, and also was the year of the foundation of the now venerable fat-rights organisation NAAFA (the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance). The latter development was however not ideal for the fat-feminist movement, since the organisation was founded and run by male ‘fat admirers’. Members of the feminist Fat Underground, which split off from NAAFA, were later to liken their experience in it to that of the Black Panthers in the NAACP. (p.111)

If the location of fat activism within the mainstream fat-acceptance movement was difficult, it is clear that the relationship with mainstream feminism was also problematic. Fat Underground members recall the difficulties with working with ‘women who were looking for the radical feminist way to be forever slim’ (p.125). Susie Orbach’s Fat is a Feminist Issue is often held up by those how know only the title as a sign of mainstream feminism’s fat-inclusivity, but in fact the core of Orbach’s argument is that fat women are fat because of emotional overeating and that one of the gains of feminism is that it would make them slim. More recently, fat activism has been marginalised in the mainstream by body-positive campaigning, the project of encouraging women not to hate their bodies, which is becoming the acceptable face of fat activism, or at least activism for those up to a certain size. Body positivity campaigns have well known difficulties with including genuine diversity of fat women, as well as issues with including women of colour.

The relationship of body positivity and fat activism also points up another way in which modern fat activism has been ‘gentrified’ - in Cooper’s expressive term - that is, into ‘fatshion’. Fatshion began as efforts to campaign for fat women’s access to decent clothes, in the face of retailers’ active determination not to associate their brands with fatness by carrying larger sizes. The success of these campaigns has been such that fatshion is now the underpinning of a plus-size industry, highlighting one of the contradictions inherent in activism in capitalist society. The greater availability of clothes in range of sizes, particularly online, is a significant change for the better in the lives of some fat women in the last decade, but it also represents the turn of part of the movement into a consumer activity, for which the gateway to participation is purchasing power.

The gentrification of fat activism, mirroring developments both within mainstream feminism and LGBT culture, clearly has a profound effect, both in terms of practical ways in which to participate and in ways in which fat women are seen. As Cooper points out, ‘a fat dyke is a heroic figure within a queer space but within an assimilationist and gentrified LGBT culture identified with dominant cultural values she becomes just another woman with a weight problem’ (p.171).

The desire on the part of many in fat activism to be acceptable to the mainstream has clearly led the movement in particular directions, not necessarily helpfully. Cooper highlights as an example the healthism underlying much fat activism, where in response to criticisms of fat that it is simply unhealthy, and that fat people are and should be discriminated against for their health, activists cite their own healthy practices and perfect numbers (blood pressure, glucose, etc). This may be an immediately-effective strategy for dealing with the sort of crude attacks which blame fat people for destroying the NHS with their too-expensive bodies, but it has the effect of dividing fat people into ‘good fatties’ and ‘bad fatties’ based on their health status and the extent to which they are able to comply with the prime health-promoting behaviours du jour.

Given the time and financial commitments such compliance often involves, this in turn presents barriers to entry for working-class women who are unable to afford it, as well as to older and poorer women who are more likely to have acquired health conditions, whether or not these are related to their fat. As Cooper comments, the fat-activist movement can seem calcified, unable to move beyond the simplest issues and deal with ‘ongoing pain, illness or frailty within its rhetoric, or bodies in a state of perpetual change’ (p.160).

The white, middle-class nature of much of the fat activist movement has also led to some significant missteps, in particular over issues of racism. Cooper cites an example from her own experience when activists in Berlin’s Alexanderplatz, handing out snacks to passersby for No Diet Day, refused to give any to the Roma women and children who make their living begging in the square (p.181). She also points to activist Marilyn Wann’s 1,000 Fat Cranes project. In this, Wann proposed to respond to a report that Japanese companies were planning to monitor the waist sizes of their employees by sending one thousand fat paper cranes to Japan. This was a reference the mythology of Sadako Sasaki, a girl who died as a result of the Hiroshima atom bomb and who set out to fold 1,000 paper cranes for peace, and was planned for Hiroshima Day 2008. In the end it was abandoned and Wann later issued an apology, but it remains an example of the potential insensitivity of this sort of single-issue campaigning to structural issues of racism and imperialism (pp.156-7).

The problems inherent the gentrified version of fat activism, divorced from and unsympathetic to wider struggles and based not in an understanding of the structures of oppression but in a narrower campaign for ‘rights’ are evident. If this makes Cooper’s work sound pessimistic about fat activism and its place in the wider movement, it is not. Drawing on interviews with a number of activists, with varying definitions of the term, Cooper is able to locate a fat activism which persists, despite the gentrification it faces, in its radical politics. As one of her interviewees put it, ‘I don’t want, you know, fatties to just be on Vogue magazine, or whatever, I want it to be much more broad than that … Like, not a piece of the pie, the pie is rotten, let’s get rid of the pie, or something, so’ (p.59).

For Cooper, fat activism encompasses a wide range of activity, from involvement in political processes, through community-building and cultural work to individual actions. Cooper is firm that micro activism, such as calling out problematic language and behaviour by people around you, is legitimate and a useful strategy in fighting for social change. Indeed, one of her interviewees commented that in the face of the stigmatisation fat people experience, fat activism ‘just means this simple act of allowing yourself to be a valid person and taking other people with you when possible’ (p.66).

Cooper’s queer fat activism is, she recognises, contentious: another potential divide in the movement between those who want to embrace their ‘freakhood’ as ‘fat queers who are large and in charge in their bodies and in themselves, and are taking up space in the world’ (p.195), and those whose fat activism is more of ‘a crusade towards wholesome happiness’ (p.199). Despite the divisiveness of the theory, in practice the examples here of queered fat activism, from the fat bloc on the TUC March for the Alternative in 2011 to the Fattylympics in 2012, demonstrate the potential for fat activism as part of the struggle against structural oppression through opposing austerity, imperialism and the war on terror. The Fattylympics, an alternative Olympic event put on in East London during the London Olympics in 2012, was clearly an effective response not just for fat people but for the whole community affected by the Olympic security theatre, and is still remembered fondly locally. Fat activism is often overlooked, but as Cooper says, it can be powerful.

Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and Marx and the Climate CrisisHer sci-fi novel, The Caduca, is out now from The Conrad Press. 

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