Being fat is nothing to be proud of, argues Jennie Bristow
The 'fat rights' lobby is out to lunch
Janice Bhend, editor of Yes! magazine, is angry. Yes!, the fashion magazine for people who are 'larger' than the norm, is, she tells meabout to go into receivership because it cannot afford to continue publishing. 'At the very time when I'm being phoned up every day to go on telly and for interviews and God knows what - at the very moment when this is all bloody taking off - we can't keep going.'
I am not surprised at Janice's frustration. The increasingly prominent American movement for 'fat rights' has finally made it over to Britain. At the end of November 1996 Diana Pollard and Tracey Jannaway of the London Fat Women's Group founded a pressure group called Size which aims, according to Yes!, to form a 'National Size Acceptance Coalition challenging the prejudiced attitudes of society to fat people in Britain'. The American model for this is the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA), now a large and formidable pressure group. This year The Women's Press published Fat and Proud: The Politics of Size by Charlotte Cooper. The cover blurb claims that it is 'a book that will bring about major change', one which 'represents a coming to power of the fat rights movement'.
The mainstream media has jumped on the fatwagon too, with the kind of story designed to shock. Christina Corrigan, a 13-year old Californian schoolgirl, died last year weighing 48 stone. Her mother was prosecuted for child abuse, and eventually found guilty of child neglect. An unusual and newsworthy story, no doubt. But on the back of Christina Corrigan came a host of programmes and news articles dealing with the problems faced by all overweight people - certainly not dead, and certainly nowhere near 48 stone. The Guardian and the BBC documentary series Heart of the Matter ran features called 'Fat! So?' - pinched from the name of a radical fat rights amateur publication in the States - on the plight of the overweight. In a Sunday Telegraph article entitled, uncompromisingly, 'It is We who are the Abusers' (8 February), 21-stone barrister Helen Jackson used the Christina Corrigan case to promote her own campaign for a British law to 'outlaw size discrimination'.
Janice Bhend explains that the purpose of Yes! as a glossy fashion magazine is to promote images of fat women looking good, to increase the readers' self-confidence and give them information about where to buy clothes that will fit. 'The whole ethos behind the magazine is that there are so many wasted lives out there', she says. Larger people spend so much time worrying about the need to be thinner that they prevent themselves from getting on and living life, from swimming to buying nice clothes. 'They won't spend money on themselves because they hate themselves, and that is a miserable way to live. We're saying whatever size you are, right now, make the best of it.'
This positive approach is particularly important, argues Bhend, because of the tendency large women have to make excuses for why they let themselves go. 'Large women are very good at what I call the "yes but" syndrome': they don't make any clothes for me, here are some beautiful clothes, yes but I can't afford them, here's some on special offer, yes but I don't like the colour. There's always some other reason why they can't go out and make themselves look good.'
'I was doing a programme', says Bhend, 'and this woman stands up and says, "I want to buy some yellow dungarees in my size". I'd think okay, I know somewhere where you can go and buy yellow dungarees but why haven't you had your hair done? Why haven't you done your makeup? Why haven't you made an effort?'. She sighs: 'It's like it's always easier to blame someone else for why they can't look good.'
Well fair enough. If 'the politics of size' was no more than an admonition to put your lippy on and get a life, you would be inclined to think it was a good thing for those who are overweight and underconfident and certainly not a problem for the rest of us. But the message of the fat rights movement is nothing like so straightforward or positive as that displayed by mannequins in the windows of Evans shops, or argued by Janice Bhend. The 'politics of size', as a campaign, is about the opposite. Size rights activists are not encouraged to 'make the effort'; they are instructed to wallow in their misery and inadequacy - and make the rest of us dwell on it too.
'Fat and proud', as synthesised in Charlotte Cooper's book, goes way beyond the straightforward business of reassuring fat people that they can still have a life. The book sets 'being fat' up as a political movement in and of itself.
'Fat oppression', 'fatphobia', 'size positive' and 'looksism' typify the kind of American jargon used throughout Fat and Proud to make obesity into some kind of political statement about what is wrong with the world. Cooper states in her introduction that 'being fat signifies being different, being stigmatised and discredited, being hated, feared because we are fat, and being falsely represented as fat people'; she also claims that, 'as a group that is marginalised as "other", fat people have relevancy and value' (p13). When you hear that kind of language, you know this is no self-help guide. It seems that to be fat is, in itself, to be a human rights campaigner fighting against world injustice. Those who are unhappy with their weight and want to lose a few pounds, meanwhile, are simply dupes of the system, incapable of anything more than wanting to conform.
The key argument put forward in Fat and Proud is that the only problem with fatness is society's attitudes towards it. 'In the end, it is society that needs to change, not us', Cooper writes on page 126. Why? Because, 'like racism or homophobia, fat hatred is part of a complex web of social power relations and hierarchies, where particular social groups are marginalised, stigmatised and discredited' (p32).
In other words, fat people cannot help what they are, and so should not be looked down upon. Not only is fatness like oppression, argues Cooper, it should be compared with disability. 'Fat and disabled people experience many things in common', she writes, and although 'identifying ourselves as fat people as "impaired" and "disabled" requires sensitivity', she cites discrimination cases in the USA that have been won by fat people whose fatness was defined as a disability as a reason why the fat rights movement should not reject an alliance with disabled people. 'We would be foolish to let our prejudice interfere with real chances for justice and equality.' (pp123-4)
Fat people, according to Cooper, are not just disadvantaged, they are the worst-off group in society. They suffer from social discrimination (like black South Africans) and physical impairment (like somebody born with cerebral palsy). It's a bit cheeky, isn't it? After all, trying to squeeze your bum on to a seat on a central line train (an example she cites of society's 'fatphobia') is hardly comparable to the experience of somebody physically bound to a wheelchair trying to use any form of public transport. Nor is it at all the same thing as the political discrimination which created 'white only' spaces under apartheid. But you can see why she has chosen to use this mode of argument, and why it has become so popular.
To be fat, in Cooper's world, is to be the ultimate victim. Fat people cannot buy clothes, get operations, walk down the street without being stared at. It is a pretty miserable existence. But conversely, Cooper rejoices in her downtrodden, marginalised status. 'Today I feel lucky to be fat', she writes. 'I am very proud of my difference, I feel like a survivor, and I think my perspective as a fat person is a benefaction that has made me special.' Self-esteem, according to this argument, does not mean taking steps to make yourself comfortable with your body, whether that be by losing weight or dressing nicely. It means wrapping yourself in your flab while cherishing the fact that society does not accept you. Precisely the negative experience of being fat in a world that likes slim people is what forms the basis of 'fat and proud'.
The argument that 'fat people are victims but it is good to be a victim' (as in 'I feel lucky to be fat') reveals just how miserable the fat rights movement is. The 'politics of size' is not only a demand for sympathy, which would be bad enough, but an exaltation of the fat person's marginalisation. Fat rights activists set themselves up as the martyrs of modern society, somehow made spiritually superior by being rejected. In this context an unfortunate teenager like Christina Corrigan, who suffered the most extreme anguish of obesity, can be hailed as a modern Joan of Arc. That is fine for the Charlotte Coopers of this world, but my guess is that Christina Corrigan would prefer to be alive and normal-sized than occupying an outsize grave.
The irony of all this is that there are some genuine problems which fat people face which could, and should, be tackled. The judgemental attitude towards fat people and healthcare held by many professionals - that fat people make all their own illnesses and therefore should not have full access to treatment - is wrong and dangerous. Mild obesity certainly is not proven to be necessarily unhealthy, and some surgeons' refusal to operate on overweight people is more indicative of their own laziness than of real medical risks.
All the wondrous 'miracle diets' on the market do not provide a magical solution to excess weight and simplistic instructions to go on a diet are not always helpful. There is no reason why fat people cannot look good, as the models in Yes! magazine show. But a fat rights lobby which claims that the only problem is the way others see fat people, and that there is nothing that overweight people can or should do about the way they look, is doing nothing to improve the everyday lives of the overweight. If campaigners for 'fat rights' get their way, all that will happen is that the rest of us are forced to 'recognise' the fact that fat people are, indeed, victims.
Because the fat rights lobby believes that the only problem with being fat is that society sees fatness as a negative thing, it is hardly surprising that they want a change in the law to make 'size discrimination' illegal. As Janice Bhend says, 'They made it illegal to discriminate against people on the grounds of their race, their sex and their religion. They never made it illegal to discriminate against people on the grounds of their size or their age'. Of course, if such a thing as size discrimination was made an offence of the same nature as sexual discrimination, there would be chaos. Anybody failing to get a job at an interview could argue that the decision was made because they were too fat, too thin, too short, too tall: as most people invariably are. But the unworkable nature of such regulation does not seem to bother the fat rights lobby too much; what matters is just that they have some legislation of their own.
There are many sad aspects to the fat rights movement, from the 'we can't help it' whingeing to the notion that wanting to lose weight and fit in is a bad thing, an act of betrayal to the cause. But the most pathetic thing of all is the very fact that it has defined itself as 'a movement', as opposed to a coffee morning or fashion magazine. In claiming to be a movement, the most oppressed of the oppressed, Charlotte Cooper et al are simply buying into the grubby 'me too' pleading, the kind of politics in which people line up to show how they are more badly treated by society than the person in front.
Reading Fat and Proud, it is almost as though the 'fat community' is made up of people who really wanted to be born literally as black one-legged lesbians but were lucky enough to have an extra few inches on their waistline, and have spent many years wondering how to make this into as big a barrier as possible to getting on with their lives. Now, thanks to the 48-stone 13-year old, it looks like they might succeed. It is the only thing that has ever made me see Weight Watchers in a positive light.
Reproduced from LM issue 109, April 1998