Friday, November 26

Fat histories

My brother and I, aged around 8/9 and 10/11 respectively. (Check out our double chins and nerdy glasses!)

I've been thinking a lot lately about histories and fatties.
I work in a regional film archive, and I really love what I do and the collection I work with. I've spent nearly a year and a half working with national and regional collections, and what it's taught me is the many different histories that can be brought to life when access and interaction is encourage with objects. This doesn't have to be physical access - it could be via online availability of films (something which my archive struggles with, due to limited resources and funding) or a flickr account which encourages people to add their own histories in comments to enhance our understanding of an object.

However, inevitably, there is a huge amount of politics concerning what is made available in archives - whose histories are available, and whose remain hidden and relatively inaccessible (unless you're a seasoned archive visitor and know where to look). For instance, my archive holds home made and commercially made films of interest to the South East - however, as film making technology was largely available only to white, middle class families (and the films were largely made by men), the viewpoints we have are intensely biased, and often little understanding of what it would be like to be of a minority identity living in this region - luckily this is something that my colleagues are aware of, and as such our projects seek to target oral histories through different methods, so my hope is that as projects progress this is being actively challenged. Sadly in my role, which is technical, I have little say in what happens in this respect, which I hope one day will change!

What I wanted to talk about today was an incident that happened on my first day here. It has stuck with me ever since, and got me thinking about starting a project of my own. The record office in which our vaults are based runs regular screenings of films, and a senior member of staff remarked to my manager that he was fed up of "films of fat kids on the beach at Bognor Regis". As it was my first day I said nothing, but it got me thinking about the availability of images that I could relate to, to the wider public. When you grow up fat, you're made to feel as if you are an anomaly - that your fat alienates you from others, and that you are so different to everyone that surrounds you. Your fat is used to separate you, and dieting is held up as a way to return to this normal state - by dieting, you can fit in at last - both physically in certain spaces (through turnstiles, into the right clothes, into seats and so on).

The truth is, in my experience anyway, tons of people are fat. THERE HAVE ALWAYS BEEN FAT PEOPLE. Fat is not an invention of the obesity epidemic - it's not a contagion which is slowly causing people to expand. I have no statistics to quote here, but isn't the average size for a woman nowadays more like a 16? We're more common than you think. I grew up in a largely fat family (my dad was skinny, but now he isn't, my step-mum is a size 26/28, and my other dad has been dieting since the day I was born.) I come from a line of stocky, well built, working class women. Here's a picture of my grandmother and my birth mother, for instance:

You're NOT an anomaly. You belong in history as much as every other person. Your image, your ancestry and your heritage is just held back because it is perceived as inferior - after all, what else is the image of happiness apart from the white, middle class, thin, heterosexual nuclear family? This is what is held up as normal - and what we are all encouraged to relate and aspire to. My origins are so different from this - I grew up as a fat kid, always bigger than my friends, with a working class trans man as my parent (and often, my entire family). For my identity-forming years, we lived in a middle class suburb (but in a housing association house) and, even though we always had food on the table, were considered the pinnacle of poverty by everyone who surrounded us, because we were so oppositional to their beliefs and ideals. I'm proud of my upbringing, and the person it's made me, and I'm proud of my ancestry, and the line of people from which I was born.

Your image is not in visual culture, history and heritage, because if it were, then the concept of the obesity epidemic would have to be destabilised. If fat people existed as anything other than symbols, then dieting could not be held up as a necessity. You are made to feel different to uphold social norms - you're made to feel like the opposite of what you "should" be instead of just part of the spectrum of size and shape. The lack of visual references to aspire to, relate to and feel connected to makes it necessary to change in order to become part of society.

Anyway, to stop ranting, I've been thinking about starting an archiving project outside of work - this in my head would be a flickr group moderated by me to which people can submit photographs of their histories as fat people. This could be fat family photographs, it could be related to fat activist events, or it could be photographs or scans of fatties in notable spaces, places and positions. It could also shift exactly what is meant by fat activism - the definition could be stretched beyond those who consciously identify as an activist to include the amazing people that have influenced us, and to define activism as something which is both conscious and unconscious.

If people are without scanners or digitisation facilities, I would happily intercept pictures and scan them for people - perhaps I could coerce others in different countries to help with this too. The group would be moderated only to monitor what was being submitted and commented upon. I would have no strict guidelines as to what determines fat, as obviously this shifts across cultures. Comments would allow people to tell the story of the photograph, and for other people to interact with it also. We could tell a fat history across the fat-o-sphere. Instead of waiting for visual culture to change, we could make a new one ourselves - one founded upon DIY ethics, .

Anyway, um, I'm starting to think seriously about it, and by talking about it online and in real life, I'm hoping to kick my arse into gear and actually do it! What do you all think? I'd love some feedback, constructive comments and any willing offers of collaboration!



  1. Kirsty, you are SO inspiring! The vision you have of a revolutionary 'fat history across the fat-o-sphere" has me totally intrigued!! I really believe your onto something here, and I am so excited!! Your whole post was so engaging and really got me thinking about things I haven't before. I'd be very interested in contributing.
    Nice one!

  2. Hey Kirsty, I love this post of yours. And I think this is a great idea. Society does indeed make us feel less worthy of something great just because we are fatter than others.
    My entire family including my grandma and her 6 brothers and sisters, gradad's family) has always been bigger than your normal statistical person.
    Now when you say that today a usual woman is of size 16, in Lithuania that average size is 12. Well, we had our years in USSR with nothing in the shops to buy (and I literally mean nothing, the shelves were completely empty and my parents had to stand in the long lines to get some meat or bread) and Lithuania has been a considerably poor country so somehow people stayed thinner. So living in a size 12 country and being a size 18 is not something I've been happy about. We don't even have shops that sells bigger sizes (it ends up at size 14-16) so being a fat person in Lithuania really does suck. I still most of the time feel like a completely failure that I am not of an average Lithuanian size. And that is so not fair. But well, changes have to start from something. I might find/make/create that something.
    Best wishes ;)

  3. This is a wonderful idea!! I wasn't really a fat kid, but my husband was... unfortunately he doesn't have his childhood photos though :(

    I'm going to share this on my google reader and tumblr though, I hope people contribute.

  4. That would be an amazing project to start. I've been a big girl my entire life so I don't know any different, but I've had people telling me that I'm not right only because of the size on my jeans. Fat people are pushed to the back and ridiculed . . . for what, just because they're a bigger size or "take up too much space?" Anyway, I would contribute to this Flickr group since I have plenty photo's of my fat arse! :)


    I need caps because I am just that excited, seriously. I would love if you got this up and running and I would help in anyway.

    It's funny you posted this because I've been thinking about doing my thesis on the history of fat, or the conceptions of fat people in a historical sense, or something, and this is just right up my alley.

  6. you don't know me. i read your blog but i'm more a lurker than commenter.

    i would join you. fellow fattie. international origins (my family is from bosnia). if you need help, let me know. i'm easily reachable.

  7. I have photos of family members dating back to people born in the 1850s who were fat and from various backgrounds, Romany gypsies (obviously very working class) and Jewish (they were poor but robbed their way to the upper middle classes) mainly. I'm English and all of the people I have were born and brought up in England bar one who moved to the USA. I would love to contribute to this if you get it set up, it sounds like a brilliant idea.

  8. This is an amazing article/blog entry/rant and a brilliant idea. I completely agree with you. Plus, the term "epidemic" predicts some sort of widespread contagion, when actually obesity levels have settled. But you know, we can't be having data like that in the news. Anyway, don't get me started!

    There is one blogger, Sew Mistunderstood, who is already searching (and finding) photos of "vintage chubbies", as she calls them.

    I have tons of old photos from the 40s - 60s of my family, I'll ask if they don't mind me scanning them. My mum was big from birth, but I'm not sure she'll let me upload any pics. I'll let you know!

    Lauren xx
    Pocket Rocket

  9. I'm so late with my comments, sorry. But I want to say how beautiful this is, what a super idea. I have some pictures and would love to cotribute to it. A Flickr thing would be pretty easy to do, eh? What sort of help do you need to get this going?

  10. Thank you so much for writing this. I run a Tumblr called Fuck Yeah, Old Time Fatties (, where we post photos of vintage fatties I've found in archives. We have over 300 followers and I would love to work with another person on maintaining this archive.

    If you would be interested in collaborating, please email me at atchka at hotmail dot com.