On fat responsibility and activism

In August, I had the pleasure to attend two (very different) conferences. The first was the Competing Responsibilities conference held at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand. This conference brought together scholars from across disciplines to explore the idea of responsibility. From the CFP,

Calls to ‘be responsible’ pervade public and private life. Notions of responsibility, for example, can powerfully underpin contemporary claims for political legitimacy, evident in President Obama’s (2009) hailing of his presidency as the start of a ‘new era of responsibility’. Demands for people to ‘act responsibly’ can also shape our most intimate relations, as in Australia where the ‘Family Responsibilities Commission’ in Cape York seeks to instill norms of ‘respect and responsibility’ in local aboriginal families through welfare regulations and education initiatives. Elsewhere, responsibility can be the marker of a good worker, as in Scotland where senior nurses have been called to take more ‘responsibility and accountability’ for their workplaces (BBC News 2012). ‘Responsibility’ and the ‘responsible citizen’ have become buzzwords for the adoption and internalization of some of the core ideals of contemporary governance…In the face of these diverse political and ethical claims to be responsible, there is increasing scholarly need to systematically interrogate the social and cultural assumptions driving contemporary claims and calls to responsibility. Recently, a number of scholars have explored the increasing ubiquity of responsibilization discourses across the domains of health, public policy, and economics…In this conference we seek to examine both neoliberal framings of responsibility and the variety of counter-currents to them.

I presented my paper, FAT resistance: How an online community constructs non-responsible and non-responsive discourses, during the ‘Norms and Resistance: The responsible and irresponsible body’ panel, chaired by Tayla Hancock, with Annemarie Jutel serving as the Discussant. My paper explored the idea that a good citizen of the 21st century is one who accepts responsibility for their own personal health, well-being, and success. Individuals then, who require structural support, or refuse to (re)produce white, cis, able-bodied, and heteronormative, systems, threaten the status quo and face marginalisation. I suggested that fat people are viewed as irresponsible citizens. They consume too many resources and fail to uphold the new social contract (the moral obligation to be healthy). In modern neoliberal contexts, this results in hostile environments and the development of spoiled identities. In turn, fat individuals are monitored by their governments, their families, and their workplaces. They are regulated by friends and strangers alike; fat bodies are public property to shame and scold for the betterment of the individual. I then argued that many individuals in the Fatosphere, an online community of people who have come out as fat, are engaging in anti-assimilationist activism. They queer fat embodiment, disrupting the normative obesity discourse and rejecting the demands of the neoliberal system. They are defiant resistors, constructing their own discourses for being non-responsible and non-responsive to the dominant systems. I shared specific examples like the work of the Fat Heffalump, Red No 3’s ‘Maggie’ series, and ‘Fuck Yeah! Fat PhDs’, to illustrate these non-responsible narratives.

The conference was a great experience for me. With the exception of the presentation by Tayla Hancock, none of the other presentations explored issues similar to my own, but I still found that the focus of the papers on responsibility – how it is defined, who benefits from it, how individuals embrace or reject it, etc, was very applicable to my work on fat identity. I’m very grateful to the organisers, Catherine Trundle and Susanna Trnka, for hosting this informative and challenging conference.


The following weekend, I attended the Fat Activism Conference via teleconference. This three day event was organised by Ragen Chastain (of Dances with Fat) and Jeanette DePattie (of Fat Chick Sings). As noted on the conference homepage,

This virtual conference, on August 22-24, 2014, is for people of all sizes who are interested in creating a world that respects the diversity of body sizes. It is for people of all sizes who are interested in fighting the bullying, stigmatizing, shaming, and oppression faced by fat people, and doing that work intersectionally.

Whether you are looking for help in your personal life with family, friends, healthcare providers etc. or you’re interested in being more public with your activism with blogging, petitions, protest, projects, online activism, or something else, this conference will give you tools and perspectives to support your work, and to help you make that work intentionally intersectional and inclusive so that nobody gets left behind.

There were about 40 speakers who presented across the three days of the conference. Hand-outs were provided by many of the speakers, and there was a goody bag too! One of the best parts though, is that everything was recorded, so everyone who registered had access to the presentations that they may have missed (slept through/bathed through/etc) the first time around. I found this especially handy as many of the live presentations happened between 2am-9am for me in New Zealand.

It was such a fun way to spend a weekend – surrounded by fat activists, sharing ideas and tricks and techniques for achieving social justice. I’m not in audio spaces like that very often; usually I get my sense of community from written and visual material in the Fatosphere. To hear the delightful voices of both the hosts (Ragen & Jeanette) and the speakers, added to the experience for me.


Over two different weekends, I was able to connect with many people in two different spaces. The hallowed halls of academe was first, and I’d like to think that my presentation urged the individuals in attendance to consider how the idea of responsibility is used to situate fat individuals as failed citizens, and how fat activists are fighting back against that oppression. The activist teleconference found me among kindred spirits, and I hope my presentation on using Web 2.0 provided ideas and techniques for those who are interested in bringing their activism to the borderless realm of the Internet.  While each conference was unique it its purpose and audience, both served as venues that were meaningful for me, both as a presenter, and as a participant. Attending both in a span of a month, also made me reflect on the intersections, and tensions, between being an academic and being an activist. This is something I have been thinking about a great deal, especially as I feel pressure from both sides to ensure that I keep a firm wall between the roles. I’d like to read more on how others negotiate and manage this space, and I plan to write more about it soon!