The rhetoric around obesity is toxic. So I generated a new language for fat people | Charlotte Cooper


    I like to call myself and be called fat. I believe fat is a political subject, and as such it feels powerful to reclaim terms that are frequently used pejoratively

    There are lots of words used to describe people such as me. Medics and their friends will use some Latin or Greek to make their language appear authoritative and scientific. According to them I am obese, or someone requiring bariatric intervention. By extension, in newspapers I am part of an anonymous population blob known as the obese.

    If I go shopping for clothes I might be called plus sizing. If I satisfy someone who determines someone with a body like mine shameful, I might be euphemistically was regarded as big or big. Others might try to spin this dishonor into something more positive and pretty, like curvy. If someone tries to translate my work, they might utilize terms such as gordo , dicke , grasso , grande . In some places there might not be terms for me, either because no speech exists, or because some people be attributed to me through a vocabulary of disapproving appears and disgusted sounds.

    I like to call myself, and be called, fat. This is simple and descriptive and it feels powerful to reclaim a word that is frequently used pejoratively. I am a fat activist, which is a term that can mean many things, but for me it means that I think fat is a political subject.

    Fat is typically framed as a health problem but health is not apolitical, as bodies of work in the social sciences have come to uncover. Debates about the NHS, and fat people being held responsible for funding crisis, are just one region in which fat is a political topic. The social hatred and scapegoating of fat people can also be seen as political.

    In my most recent book, Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement, I argue that fat activism can be anything done by anyone for any reason. It is not inevitably about self-acceptance, improving health, developing self-love or addressing stigma though that can be part of it. It can be as much about joining organisations as tweeting; as going to a fat clothes-swap as writing and sharing a lyric; as having a dialogue with person as presenting a newspaper at a seminar. It can be weird, illegible, ambiguous and antisocial. “Were not receiving” singular way of being a fat activist.

    In calling myself fat I am describing on a feminist practice of naming things in order to bring them into being. This means naming myself, on my own terms, and using language to define the world around me as I experience it. I do this because I think the experience of being fat is valuable. This is heresy to the persons who suppose fat people should not exist. But the opinion from the margins illuminates a lot about the shadow side of conformity , norms, and anxieties concerning embodiment and difference, and how such is manipulated for power and profit.

    Earlier this year I published a homemade dictionary of fat activist words and notions. I wanted to subvert the language of medicine and public health to give readers a playful glimpse of a subculture. Here are some examples.


    A literary device that is irresistible to people used to describe fat, especially journalists: piling on the pounds, fat fighters, weight watchers, and so on. Perhaps they do this because fat is intrinsically funny to write about , not like serious tales or hard news.


    The part of your body thats under your tits and above your privates. Can be any size, shape, texture, colour, high levels of hairiness, sweatiness. A place where fat accumulates on some people. Sometimes flops around, sometimes is bold and stout. Sometimes attains gurgling noises. Sometimes has creases and stretching marks. Sometimes has a intellect of its own and will not behave. A delightful, gorgeous thing, information sources of physical power much maligned and fretted over. Important resource in gut-barging competitions.


    A way of talking about energy that you get through feeing food. An preoccupation. A pretty name for a girl child.


    A fat athlete.


    A person who is not fat. A person who is better-looking, healthier, more intelligent, more likely to succeed in life, sexier, more lovable and better to be with than any fat person. A very good and virtuous and normal person.


    Fat upper arms that get more wobbly and loose with age. Source of power.

    I generated A Fat Activist Vernacular because I am interested in speech and power in its relationship with fat people. The weight-loss industry is worth a luck, and there is a lot of money and status riding on the question of who gets to define fat experience generally public health politicians and their friends and allies in the weight-loss industry and medicine. My predilection would be that this is a subject for fat people to work out for ourselves by valuing and sharing our own experiences. But there are many others with vested interests in owning and wielding this information.

    The language of fat activism, frequently raw and emotive when people talk about being objects of detest, is being appropriated and gentrified by academics and professionals, tidied up and made respectable, while deposing the originators. You can see this in the transformation of the activist word fatphobia into the blandly inoffensive weight bias, which is sure to make its way into policy sometime soon.

    My own word, headless fatty referring to media images of fat people whose heads have been cropped out of the frame was also cleaned up by a prominent academic at Yale as headless belly. What happens more often is that fat activist originators of language and theories are not quoth, and their ideas become appropriated and attained respectable without anyone being the wiser.

    Meanwhile, at persons under the age of 46, I have found other ways of to talk about this subject. After embarking a few years ago on a lifelong ambition of becoming a contemporary dancer, in November I will be dancing a piece called But Is it Healthy? in the Wellcome Collections Obesity gallery. I get asked the question all the time and it is impossible to answer it in words , not least because fat people are a diverse group, health is constructed in myriad styles, and expert science is not incontrovertible. So I will dance the answer instead! This will be performed as a duo by Kay Hyatt and me to a soundtrack I have built based on archival records by fat feminist activists built in 1980 by Karen Stimson at the New Haven Fat Womens Health Conference. The speakers are Diane Denne, Judy Freespirit, Aldebaran and Judith Stein; a recording of Marcia Duvall, also present on the panel, has unfortunately been lost. These girls are founders of many of the ideas circulating in fat activism today, but they have been neglected historically. I would love more people to know about their work.

    The dance emerged from a period of research in which Hyatt and I explored what it is like to be continually asked: But is it healthy?; it brings together years of activism, explaining, patient listening and deep annoyance in response to this question.

    Through dance I am developing a different kind of language, utilizing my body expressively and encountering audiences who have been worn down by the rhetoric of the obesity epidemic for the past few decades and a half, and want something different.

    I hope that by watching us dance in the Obesity showing at the Wellcome Collection, audiences will understand that there are other ways of talking and thinking about fat than those which have been dominant in recent years. It is unbelievable that fat people like me have to lobbies so very hard to be seen simply as human. I hope the dancing, and its soundtrack, helps people recognise that fat people have community, histories, cultures, bureau, thoughts and lives all of our own.

    Charlotte Cooper and Kay Hyatt are performing on 4 November 2016 as part of the Friday Late Spectacular: Body Speech at the Wellcome Collection

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