Learn about the history of a few fat lesbians getting together on one day in the past, who never described themselves as ‘queer‘ …
The blurby bit
A workshop exploring the past, present, and future of fat, queer activism and community in the UK.
What does it mean to be queer and fat?
Join us as we explore the past, present, and future of fat, queer activism and community in the UK.
We’ll start with a whistle-stop tour of some fat, queer history.
Then, inspired by our fat, queer ancestors, we will have a chill roundtable discussion about our thoughts and our lived experiences of being fat and LGBTQIA+. For example, how has being fat affected us in our respective queer communities? Do we feel welcome?
Finally, we will look to the future and contemplate what we can do to create a more liveable world for fat queers.
About the facilitator:
Carlie Pendleton (they/she) is a history PhD student at Goldsmiths UniversityFrom Eventbrite’s website
‘Cool fat queer history’
Pendleton introduced herself to us. ‘They/she’ is a PhD candidate at Goldsmiths and what she would be talking to us today was what she was basing her PhD on. She was focussing on fat queer activism in the 80s and 90s and wanted to share some of her early findings.
The London Fat Women’s Group (LFWG)
The first and only conference
On 18 March 1989 the London Fat Women’s Group held their first ‘national conference’ in London. Pendleton informed us that 170 attended and that workshops explored how ‘fat phobia’ manifested itself in British culture. There were three workshops specifically for fat lesbians.
Organised fat liberation
Although the US had already had a ‘fat liberation’ movement since the 60s, it was only in the 80s that British fatties started to organise. Pendleton tried to persuade us that the meeting which had been organised in March 1989 was the birth of a real movement towards the ‘liberation’ of fat people, but as further details were given it really sounded more like a novel one-off conference, attended by hardcore feminists and therefore had a core lesbian attendance. Those who were fat and lesbian could claim a double oppression and therefore likely found the conference affirming. The organising group, Pendleton claimed, viewed being overweight as a political identity, but my money would be on women simply wanting to discuss how sexist stereotypes of waif-like women affected their self-esteem.
In 1987 Spare Rib magazine featured the new fat liberation group, the LFWG, on its cover and in its pages. I searched the archive and it appears they haven’t made it into the selected highlights. The authors of the Spare Rib article, Tina Jenkins and Heather Smith, appear not to have been feminist writers of any significance, save for this one article they co-wrote. According to them, fat oppression was ‘the fear and hatred of fat which leads to institutional discrimination’. Fat oppression also limited fat women’s sexual possibilities and pigeonholed them alternately as asexual or sexual desperadoes.
Shadow on a Tightrope
An anthology called Shadow on a Tightrope offered a reprieve from these narratives, laying a path for fat liberationists in the US. (The contents list has chapter titles like ‘Goddess is Fat’ and pseudonyms like ‘Judy Freespirit’ and ‘Elana Dykewomon’.)
Nascent incel thinking
Pendleton told us the fat liberationists felt that linking fatness to undesirability was integrally linked to misogyny and that feminists needed to correct their thinking, especially in lesbian spaces. The Leeds Women’s Liberation Newsletter had addressed the issue of why ‘thin dykes’ regarded ‘fat dykes’ as unviable sexual partners in 1982. Sound familiar?
An anti-transsexual lesbian feminist magazine
Gossip: A journal of lesbian feminist ethics, which had a six issue run starting in 1986, had been reviewed by Pendleton at the British Library. She warned us that it had a lot of ‘anti-transsexual speak’ in its pages and told us if we were going to look at the magazines ‘be prepared for some terrible shit’. In Issue 3* of the Gossip journal, an Amanda Hayman had written about the failure of lesbians to address fat oppression because they were worried about the fat ‘rubbing off’ on them, and apparently argued that thinner women should accept fatter women as dating options. (*Thanks to Alice for the correction.)
According to Pendleton, the LWFG went from strength to strength, appearing on TV including Wogan (according to IMDb, Sue Lawley was guest hosting and we can just imagine the short shrift she would have given such a guest). In fact, the appearance on Wogan preceded the conference itself, which makes it sound like it was cynically driven and rather explains how the conference managed to enrol so many attendees.
Predictably then, given the press coverage the group had sought prior to the conference, the tabloids had gotten interested in covering the event. Pendleton had interviewed an attendee who said that tabloid photographers had tried to sneak into the conference trying to photograph the yoga session.
These had focussed on the themes of image, sexuality and being a fat lesbian. There was a chance to bemoan that lesbians valued ‘lean hard bodies over soft abundant flesh’. Pendleton claimed that fat women were dubbed as ‘butch’, regardless of how the woman identified. She gave us detailed information about what happened at these workshops, all irrelevant given its utter uniqueness restricted to just a handful of women. Though I must admit ‘don’t assume you’re not responsible for my fat oppression’ jumped out at me and that fat women who eschewed other fat women as partners were described as ‘internalising fat phobia’.
Outcomes from workshops
Lobby the NHS for a ‘more weight neutral approach to care’, lobby employers and trade unions about fat discrimination, lobby the fashion industry and have specific groups for BAME and lesbian women to ruminate over their own intersectional oppressions.
Interestingly though, at the end of the day, it had been noted that although ‘equality and respect could be demanded, desire cannot’, which sounds to me as if there were a number of attendees disturbed by the incel-like talk.
Do you feel fat or are you fat?
Some of the fat women objected to the presence of thinner women at the conference. (How utterly predictable.) Conference organiser, Heather Smith, told delegates it was impossible to give a fixed definition of fat, whilst also maintaining that only fat women knew what it was like to be body shamed.
Following the conference
Things fell apart as personal enmities and burnout destroyed the plans to roll out groups across the UK, claimed Pendleton, though it seem far more likely the women just weren’t that bothered about ‘fat liberation’ and realised it was a stupid idea to organise along the lines of unhealthy weight gain.
The 90s group
AKA Charlotte Cooper, who performs as Homosexual Death Drive
Charlotte Cooper, a fat activist, decided to reinstitute the non-group several years later.
If you don’t know who Charlotte Cooper is, let me explain: I was once going to attend one of Cooper’s fat activism talks, just after she published a ‘fat positive dictionary’. Whilst researching her I found one video of her crawling and another where she pretended to eat shit, and that was me out.
In the 90s Cooper published a newsletter called Fat News and it survived 17 issues. Pendleton didn’t mention anything about circulation but I’m thinking it’s circulation was very poor, probably much like its author.
The Fat News newsletter
The newsletter discussed who actually counted as fat, conclusions reached included ‘when your thighs rub’, ‘not being able to buy clothes in an M&S’ and worrying about having to go through turnstiles. In other words, anyone who scored over 40 on the Body Mass Index. It also likened ‘fatness to disability’ and that it ‘was not our problem, but society’s’.
Cooper nonsensically divided women into lesbians and fat dykes and wrote an article ‘How you can end the oppression of fat dykes’ for the London-based sadomasochist group called the Lesbian & Gay Freedom Movement.
I also found Cooper’s article, note point 13: ‘It’s not an accident if you’ve *never* been attracted to a fat lesbian’.
It was, apparently, a ‘feminist’ issue that lesbians should eschew ‘heteronormative’ ideals of beauty, in favour of finding clinically obese women attractive. The LFWG had also argued that having sexual fantasies about the same would help end oppression.
Cooper promoted the US zine ‘FaT GiRL, A Zine for Fat Dykes and the Women Who Want Them’ in her newsletter and a London club night for fat gays and lesbians called Bulk, held every third Saturday.
In the mid 1990s other ‘fat advocacy organisations’ in Europe reached out to Fat News aka Cooper, which was around the time internet chatrooms came into general existence. One writer in the Fat News newsletter took aim at Dawn French from profiteering from a plus size clothing range, as the low waged couldn’t afford the clothes and thus involved the oppression of fat women by other fat women.
Pendleton finished her talk bigging up (if that’s possible) Charlotte Cooper and her Fat News newsletter.
Quasi group therapy section
Participants were then invited to free associate with the word ‘fat’, how we might want to reclaim the word, to reflect on a negative experience we had had with regards to weight, the first time we had questioned the thin is healthy narrative and finally how we felt about the ‘O word’, writing our answers down on a piece of paper. I won’t repeat any personal anecdotes but there were zero surprises – families were described as ‘fat phobic’ if they had criticised, complaints at the lack of famous fat icons, that the NHS should be lobbied to extend surgeries to the clinically obese (especially those seeking ‘transition’ surgeries), and facile insights like a ‘fat pride flag’ could help. Everyone took it deadly seriously.
Gender identity over sex
The group was comprised of almost all women, several of whom had taken testosterone and had had masculinising surgeries, and others who appeared to be thinking about it. None of them, I suspect, were serious about being ‘fat queer activists’, just slightly lonely outcast people seeking human connection. The elephants in the room were biological sex and health rendering the ensuing discussion redundant. You cannot have a serious discussion about ‘fatness’ without referring to the differences between the sexes and acknowledging that it is women who experience more pressure.
No mention of the importance of health
The body mass index (BMI) might be an imperfect tool but its basic premise is sound, i.e. a person’s weight in kilograms divided by the square of height in meters. If you completely ignore biological sex and healthy living, as Pendleton and the group happily did, you end up in a situation where the body ceases to hold any importance whatsoever. And if that’s the case, why bother putting any effort into ‘fat pride’? Operating on a person who is morbidly obese is surgically inadvisable, yet Pendleton said several times that surgeries should not be restricted, appearing not to understand the clinical rationale behind this.
Lies chews the cud
Yet again, what it really boils down to is a few privileged people gaining the ear of the right institutions to promote a world view which is so narrow it could be fairly described as idiosyncratic. Back in 2016, the Wellcome Collection hosted Charlotte Cooper’s fat activism. She danced (or possibly rolled) to piece called ‘But Is it Healthy?’, claiming it took place in the ‘Wellcome Collection’s Obesity display’.
The soundtrack to Cooper’s dance was ‘based on archival recordings by fat feminist activists made in 1980’. It seems like as long as you stick a reference in, regardless of its obscurity, you can build a narrative and at some point the institutions will repeat these political slogans back to a larger audience.
Which brings us to where we are now. Pendleton just briefly addressed the present state of fat activism, naming only her beloved Charlotte Cooper, and also name checked Stephanie Yeboah. (Yeboah’s blog is concerned with lifestyle issues for fat rich people and on Twitter her main interest appears to be #loveisland.) It’s clear that present day fat activism/body positivity is very comfortable with capitalism and its message clear: buy more food, outsize-clothes, specialist furniture and seek weight loss surgeries over diet and exercise. There really is nothing radical or intellectual about it and thousands of people are dying because of it.
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Thanks for this post – amazing what can be appropriated by Goldsmiths people in their promotion of certain ideologies! Just to let you know there were six editions of Gossip – I have all six – and the Amanda Hayman article is in issue 3.
All the best
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