I know, I know. It’s been over two weeks since the inaugural Australian Fat Studies Conference and my recap is long overdue. I haven’t been faffing about; I have drafted and redrafted this post many times over and I am still not much closer to organising my thoughts. Not in any coherent manner, anyway.
In a nutshell, it was an overwhelming couple of days. I’ve been trying to think of an adjective, or even a series of adjectives, that adequately describe the conference but I haven’t found any yet. The best description I’ve got is this: My heart is full. Every time I think about the people I met or the presentations and performances I saw, I feel fit to burst with love and energy and sadness. I’m thrilled to have all these stunning new friends and inspiring new ideas, but it’s such a drag knowing that I can’t be surrounded by those amazing people everyday.
Because my thoughts are in a jumbled mess, I’m stealing Charlotte Cooper’s idea of listing her stand-out moments. Here are my lasting memories of the conference:
Cat Pausé’s presentation on coming out as fat
Erving Goffman, in his 1963 work Stigma, proposed three methods for managing a stigmatised identity: passing (rendering the characteristic invisible e.g. as I am on the small end of fat, I am able to ‘pass’ as straight sized), covering (managing the characteristic e.g. a fat person explaining what they’re doing to lose weight) and withdrawing (for a fat person, this can be due to social pressures or through physical barriers, such as not being able to fit in seats). Cat introduced a fourth method: coming out.
Confession time – until I was featured in that magazine article, very few people from my real life knew about Corpulent. The Boyfriend knew, as he knows everything there is to know about me and, more selfishly, I make him take all of my outfit photos. My big sister knew, because no one keeps secrets from her. But I kept the online life I had cultivated for over a year a closely guarded secret. Once the article came out, passing wasn’t possible anymore. Basically everyone found out about Hey Fat Chick and Corpulent: my family, my best buds, my work colleagues, distant friends on facebook. Some struggled to understand why I would keep what was obviously a big part of my life a secret for so long.
It wasn’t that I was ashamed; I was scared. I was scared that my nearest and dearest would read what I had to say and would feel nothing. I was scared that they wouldn’t understand, or that they wouldn’t try to understand, or that they would think fat acceptance was pointless in comparison with all the other, more worthy social movements out there.
Cat’s presentation spoke volumes to me, because I had just come out in the most spectacular way. She came out via a facebook status – “Cat Pausé is a proud fat feminist” – and even though she was announcing it to her family and friends, it still took a lot of nerve to type those 33 little characters. She understood. She got exactly where I was coming from.
Charlotte Cooper’s keynote presentation on fat activism
I was super excited when I first learnt that Charlotte would be one of the keynote speakers at the conference. She is fiercely intelligent and just plain fierce – let’s not forget she is in a very intimidating girl gang. I just knew her presentation on fat activism would be something special. But when I saw that her presentation was titled ‘Kick Out the Jams‘, I was absolutely beside myself. Of course Charlotte Cooper is punk rock.
Charlotte’s presentation covered the dominant obesity paradigm, research, the history of fat activism and revealed her own activist projects. What I loved about it was that it made fat acceptance less scary. As Charlotte explained, activism is just “doing stuff”. It need not be a grand gesture that literally stops traffic; the deeply entrenched fat phobia in our society means that a statement can be made just by “walking down the street eating an ice cream”. When dealing with Big Social Issues, it’s easy to get bogged down in the depressing details of prejudice and discrimination. Activism gives us an outlet; a means of fighting back.
Charlotte has put her slides, notes and an audio recording of her presentation online and y’all really should check it out.
Bodies Abound was an event held on the Friday night. It was the perfect accompaniment to the conference, exploring the politics of fat and body diversity through spoken word, performances, visual representations and art. As I’m not one for art-y events I really didn’t know what to expect, but it was incredible. It felt like a proper grassroots event and there was a fantastic sense of community (it helped that the place was chockers – apparently the venue was over capacity). The performances were honest and raw - hearing the lived experiences of fat articulated so clearly was intense. Some readings made me laugh, some made me choke up and some made me cheer with all my might.
I enjoyed it so much that I’m going to another queer, size positive celebration in a couple of weeks, Fierce Flesh. If you’re in Sydney, come along! It’ll be great fun.
Oh my stars, the people. I fell in love over and over again with all the rad fatties, and rad fat positive allies, I met. I don’t have many fat friends (I had almost none before I started blogging) and it dawned on me pretty quickly that this was the first time I’d been in a fat space. It was freeing to be surrounded by fatties and allies that understood me, that didn’t need an explanation of my politics, that didn’t need an apology when my fat touched them as I walked past.
I met my blogging crew and was finally able to hug the people I’ve been friends with for months online: Sam, Kath, Natalie, Nick, Bri and Jackie. I met Stella North, who is doing an amazing PhD thesis on fashion (seriously, her theoretical framework blew my mind) and is investigating fatshion for one of her chapters. I met Jess Young, who was a bundle of energy and passion and has the sweetest Kiwi accent of all time. I met Barbara, who was radiant and said lovely things about Hey Fat Chick. I met Dani Barley, who is much much cooler than me. I met Kelli Jean Drinkwater, who was such a good sport when I fangirl-ed all over her. I met the Fat Femme Front, who have been doing spectacular fat acceptance work in my city and I had absolutely no idea. There were so many others – if I met you and I didn’t mention you, please know that I thought you were ace but my memory is like a sieve. I didn’t meet far too many people and would have been quite happy for the conference to go on for two months instead of two days.
The best part of picking all these brains is that our batteries were completely recharged. There are some cool things in the works as a result of this conference: an Australian fat podcast is being developed and, inspired by Sydney’s Aquaporko, fat femme synchronised swimming groups are being set up in Melbourne and Brisbane.
On a smaller, more personal level, I feel renewed. I feel more confident in my role as a fat acceptance advocate. I feel a greater sense of purpose and have more energy for Corpulent and Hey Fat Chick. This tingling excitement isn’t a result of me dropping a wad of cash to go to a fancy pants conference, it’s due to being surrounded by some truly amazing people.
Fat acceptance is hard work. We spend a lot of time defending, arguing, educating and activist-ing and, if we’re not careful, we can burn out. That’s why you need a support network. It can be anything – organise a fatty picnic or beach day, set up an all fatty soccer league or just go to a pub together. Whatever it is, it will remind you that you don’t need to fight fatism on your own. Find your community. Hang out with your people. And come to next year’s Australian Fat Studies Conference so I can meet you too.