Fat activists fight back

AQUAPORKO: You're going to stare? Well that's fabulous, say these aqua-ladies.
AQUAPORKO: You're going to stare? Well that's fabulous, say these aqua-ladies.

Memphis photographer Haley Morris-Cafiero has long noticed the stares she gets when she walks down the street. Setting up a camera on timer, she started photographing people's reaction to her.  In public spaces around the world, her 'wait watcher' photos show familiar signs - shock, snickering and scorn from strangers. All because she is fat, an F-word society won't accept.

It's curious that this sort of public derision is considered acceptable in society. Swap a person's weight for any other physical attribute - age, height, race or ability - and such behaviour would be criticised. Instead, we make entertainment from our hostility to fat - from the (often short-lived) transformations on the Biggest Loser to aggressively demanding to know what fat people eat, such as a recent special about weight on SBS's Insight.

This hostility doesn't end on TV. Many report their lives are continually forced under scrutiny wherever they are - from grocery shopping, eating out, at work, socialising or exercising. All have stories about someone commenting on their choices based purely on their size or, as Morris-Cafiero noticed, they just laugh behind their backs, tilling a hostile environment to become even more aggressive.

Fat activism: Aquaporko! celebrates larger ladies. Photo: Anne Helme

Perhaps, you might argue, the behaviour arises from true concern, a desire to make an overweight person's life easier. When you consider the overwhelming academic and statistical research shows how fat people are discriminated against in every aspect of work and society in ways completely unrelated to their health, perhaps we're not admitting the true benefit of weight loss: where a smaller waistline results in less discrimination and hostility.

In light of this discrimination, many are beginning to stand up as fat activists. Incorporating art and academia, fat activism seeks to bring greater acceptance, less hostility and equal opportunity for people of differing sizes.

According to Melbourne fat activist and academic Jackie Wykes, the work "challenges assumptions about fat bodies and fat people - whether that be the idea that fat is necessarily unhealthy, or that fat people are ugly and unlovable, or that we're morally inferior and deserve to be treated badly and shamed 'for our own good'." Wykes is currently working on a PhD that focuses on how popular culture represents fat people and sexuality, which she believes "is typically denied, mocked, and made to seem abnormal".

Marrickville artist and filmmaker Kelli Jean Drinkwater uses her work towards these goals. It's "crucial for myself as an artist and filmmaker to make work that reclaims space for fat people to not only exist but to flourish, to be complex human beings and to be critical of society's obsession with having the so-called perfect body", Drinkwater says. 

Wykes agrees, "It's ironic that fat bodies literally take up more space, but there is so little space - material or symbolic - which is welcoming and comfortable for fat bodies."

It's an obsession that can force fat people out of public spaces, according to Drinkwater. One such location is the pool, a place of body-related anxiety for many. To combat this, Drinkwater created Aquaporko! - a synchronised swimming group with branches in Sydney and Melbourne and the subject of an award-winning documentary - out of  "a love of camp spectacle and all things aquatic".

Response has been overwhelmingly positive. Drinkwater says "it's a concept that instantly resonates with so many people because when you tell folks about Aquaporko! - the Fat Femmes Syncronised Swim Team, the image that creates is unapologetic and fabulous."

Back from the US and Canada promoting the documentary, Drinkwater has found enthusiastic audiences, "I have been blown away by how the film has profoundly impacted people, but especially how the film has positively impacted people of all sizes" but, in particular, "the reaction from people who have never engaged with body politics before". 

Fat activism: Aquaporko! celebrates larger ladies. Photo: Anne Helme

Wykes is also a member of Aquaporko! and fat burlesque group Va Va Boombah performing under the name Chubby Vagine. For her,  "it's about "create[ing] spaces where fat people can enjoy their physicality, and engage with other bodies that look and feel and move like theirs. They're both places where fat bodies are welcomed, wanted and valued, and that is a rare thing in contemporary Western culture! "

It's a performance that mixes powerful message with positivity, says Wykes, "when a whole range of fat bodies come out on stage and perform their sexuality in ways that are hot, funny, smart, excessive, challenging, that's pretty incredible."