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New York City Dyke March
“FAT DYKES RULE” at the New York City Dyke March, June 2000

The radical history of the queer fat liberation movement

If you think fat liberation began in 2011 with Tumblr feminism and fat fashion blogs, you’re wrong

“Don’t assume… I don’t like my body,” begins a manifesto shared at a 1989 Fat Women’s conference in London. Known as the “Fat Dykes Statement”, it contained a list of 29 assumptions, from serious points (“Don’t assume… I think your body is better than mine”) alongside more playful ones, which emphasise the ludicrousy of assuming anything about a person based on their body shape (“Don’t assume… I want a Diet Coke”). 

If you think fat liberation began in 2011 with Tumblr feminism and fat fashion blogs, you’ve never had the pleasure of interacting with Carlie Pendleton’s work. The scholar focuses on the history of fat activism in modern Britain, with particular attention to the queer histories of the movement – like the incendiary Fat Dyke Statement.

Pendleton is part of a growing effort to document and record the fat liberation movement for posterity. The recently created Fat Liberation Archive, for example, is a digital collection of the ephemera of the cultural and organising history of fat liberation activism, including zines, flyers, articles, audio recordings. Providing evidence of over 50 years of radical fat activism, you can learn about fat liberation leaders from history like poet Sharon Bas Hannah, Fat GiRL zine editors and activist Judith Stein. 

Speaking to The Fat Zine founder Gina Tonic, Pendleton discusses how fatness and queerness intersect, the intricacies of fat lib activism over the decades, and their own personal stake in fat politics.

Dr Charlotte Cooper wrote in her book, “What I am presenting is not the history of fat activism, there can never be one history.” What do you think this statement means?

Carlie Pendleton: So full disclosure: I adore Charlotte, and I count her as a friend and inspiration for my work. I’ve interviewed her for my thesis as well. That being said, I do agree that there is no one, universal history of anything. It’s why I have entitled by PhD thesis “Riots Not Diets: A Queer History of Fat Activism in 20th-Century Britain.” Histories often conflict in complicated and fascinating ways, and I believe it’s important to acknowledge this in my work. The fat histories I am researching are part of the story, not the full story.  

Although many within our community are aware that fat lib owes a huge debt to Black queer people, it’s especially harder to find evidence or reference to this work. Do you think this is because of whitewashing or just poor documentation?

Carlie Pendleton: This is something that I am definitely experiencing in my current research. While a few prominent Black activists and artists, such as Barbara Burford, Rita Keegan, and Grace Nichols, show up in primary sources on UK fat liberation, the majority of the people who hold space in the archives are white and middle-class.

The Glasgow Women’s Library actually has a sizable collection on Barbara Burford’s life which is something I hope to access this summer. And while groups like the London Fat Women’s Group acknowledged that Black fat women were subjected to both racism and anti-fatness, an intersectionality that was unique for the 1980s, the reality was that white voices were amplified the most. So yes, I think whitewashing more than poor documentation is to blame.

I found a duality in researching fat lib history: I felt empowered and legitimised that this struggle has been ongoing for so many decades, but also disillusioned that so little has changed for fat people in that time. Did you feel this? 

Carlie Pendleton: Oh my god I feel this so hard! You have summed it up perfectly, this dichotomy of  feeling empowered by history and also frustrated at the lack of systemic change for fat people. My advice for overcoming this feeling is, perhaps selfishly, to keep digging into and learning about fat histories, art, literature etc. Fat, queer zines especially like Fat Girl and The Fat Zine. Also, seek out fat communities wherever you can find them. Capitalism and commercial body positivity have diluted radical, fat liberation with individualised self-love. And while your relationship with yourself is important, it cannot develop and thrive, in my opinion, without a wider critique of how fat is political.

Also in my research, I found so much of fat liberation work in the 70s onwards was aligned with specifically lesbian and queer female movements, why do you think this is?

Carlie Pendleton: There’s a great quote by US fat activist Vivian Mayer in Shadow on Tightrope: Writings by Women on Fat Oppression (1983) which says: “In theory, then, lesbian feminism offered a haven wherein a fat woman could affirm her beleaguered sense of womanhood and could almost forget she was fat. The expectation was satisfied up to a point. That point came when fat women sought lovers among other women.”

Lesbian feminism offered fat women both a homosocial framework to explore their identities and a respite from heteronormative beauty standards, or so they thought. What a lot of fat women found in lesbian spaces were the same thin-centric beauty ideals that they were trying to escape. When it comes to queer spaces in later decades, I think the acts of defiance against heteronormativity allowed for more space to be taken up by fat women. It was more punk, disruptive, and underpinned by a sense of “fuck you!”

Queerness and fatness has been aligned for many years, but how does queerness and fatness intersect today?

Carlie Pendleton: Speaking from my own personal fat, queer perspective, queerness has offered me not only an academic way of viewing myself, my identities and my environment, but a path to creating a more liveable world for everyone. To queer, as a verb, means to disrupt, to defy the binary. It shows you that it’s not about fat/thin, healthy/unhealthy, cis/trans, but about the mechanics of oppression that trap us into binary structures in the first place. Thus queer can and does extend beyond sexuality and becomes a, not the, way to liberate oneself from being regulated and disciplined by heteronormativity. 

In a similar vein, how do you see the intersection of gender and fatness? I’ve seen arguments explaining how fatness can impede gender expression and how it can liberate – which side do you fall on? 

Carlie Pendleton: The intersection of fat and gender is something else I explore in my research and was discussed by many fat activists in the past i.e. how does fatness change the way your gender is read? For example, the title of my upcoming talk, “Don’t assume I’m a Failed Heterosexual” comes from the Fat Dykes Statement written in 1989 at the National Fat Women’s Conference in London. It explored how fatness, in some ways, masculinised women, sometimes causing them to be read as butch or a “diesel dyke” even if that was not how they identified. 

I don’t think fat itself impedes gender expression, but rather there is a lack of access to clothing and material goods which allow fat people to play with and express their gender. There are also significant medical barriers for fat trans people seeking gender affirming care such as BMI limits for surgery. Having the privilege to explore my gender identity while doing this degree helped me to realise that I am genderqueer/trans. So much of how I expressed my gender outwardly in the past was in an effort to hide or apologise for my fatness, like having long hair and covering my stomach. I am also a medium fat (size UK 20) which means that I have many more clothing options compared to super and infinifats. 

Going back to historical moments in fat liberation, what are your personal favourite stand out moments you discovered in your research?

Carlie Pendleton: I think the creation of the Fat Dykes Statement in 1989 is still one of my all time favourites. It’s such a rich resource which covers loads of angles on fatness like gender, sexuality, race, disability, age. Also discovering the EXACT issues of the Leeds Women’s Liberation Newsletter in the Feminist Library in London was like finding buried gold. The July 1982 issue is still the earliest example I’ve been able to find on fat liberation in the UK. 

Finally, there’s a great quote from Carmel Lough, a fat activist from Hull in the 1980s and 1990s, in the September 1994 issue of Fat News. Writing about her disappointment at how fat women were being exploited by expensive, plus-size brands, and how capitalism was distracting fat women from more vital issues, she said: “Now beat me with a bar of Bournville if I’m wrong, but how does this further the cause of fat acceptance?” And I don’t know, it just made me laugh! It still does. She is just so done, and it’s extremely relatable.