A Quick and Dirty Intro to Fat Activism

3rd Jul 2013

My name is Dr Charlotte Cooper and I have been talking, thinking, writing, working and organising about and around fat for the best part of 25 years.

This stuff can really get you down! There’s more to life than a bikini diet, there are alternatives to body shame, and here is a list of books by some fantastic fat activists to help you on your way.

Many of these books were produced by obscure independent publishers and are no longer in print, but all are available second hand. I’ve left out a couple of books by guys that I like because this is For Books’ Sake, but most of the work is by women anyway because the genre is based in feminism.

In an ideal world, I would not include my own work because there would be such a plethora of excellent books about fat that I’d be spoilt for choice. But publishing the writing that I want to see has been a big part of why these books are important to me.

Another omission is Fat is a Feminist Issue; this well-known book has a great title but a bloody awful analysis of fat feminism, some of the authors below explain why.


Everything begins with Shadow on a Tightrope: Writing by Women on Fat Oppression. This is the book that politicised me and many others about fat thirty years ago.

It’s extremely dated, which prompts some unintentional humour in places (parachute pants!), but this modest book offers the most comprehensive understanding of fat identity and culture that I have ever seen, including fatphobia, resistance, and the pleasures and pains of being fat.

It's totally easy to read, sometimes experimental, a truly brilliant example of second wave feminist publishing. I'd be nothing without it.It is vividly rooted in fat feminist community. It’s totally easy to read, sometimes experimental, a truly brilliant example of second wave feminist publishing. I’d be nothing without it.

Great Shape: The First Fitness Guide for Large Women is, I think, evidence of Shadow on a Tightrope’s influence in developing fat friendly resources and groups in the Bay Area in the 1990s.

Today’s readers will appreciate it not only for its straightforward advice about fat and exercise, but also for its fabulous retro fatshion, and gorgeous photographs of go-gettin’ fat gals livin’ it up. Carole Squires doing the splits is particularly memorable.

Fat and Proud: The Politics of Size is based on the research I did for my MA in 1994. I interviewed a load of fat women and developed a social model of fat, which means seeing fatphobia rather than fat people as the problem that needs fixing. Good points: it’s rad! Bad points: the publishers censored some passages about trans people and queer sex.

Susan Stinson could fill a whole article by herself, indeed her new novel, Spider in a Tree, many years in the writing, is out later this year. All of Susan’s publications contain compelling fat characters, often lesbians, written with amazing finesse.

Check out Fat Girl Dances with Rocks, Martha Moody and Venus of Chalk for some fine storytelling. Susan’s first publication was a chapbook of poetry called Belly Songs.

I don’t know if they ever knew each other but CM Donald’s The Fat Woman Measures Up is also a fabulous collection of funny and badass fat feminist poems of the period that I rate highly and which is now woefully obscure.

There’s a group of books that anyone interested in the emerging academic field of Fat Studies should devour. Revolting Bodies: The Struggle to Redefine Fat Identity by Kathleen LeBesco theorises fat as a queer phenomenon. Tipping the Scales of Justice: Fighting Weight Based Discrimination by Sondra Solovay, explores the legal implications of fat hatred.

Fat Studies in the UK, edited by Corinna Tomrley and Ann Kaloski Naylor documents a wide range of scholarship and activism; and The Fat Studies Reader, edited by Esther Rothblum and Sondra Solovay, covers the waterfront and has become the definitive text on the matter.

Fat Studies demonstrates that fat cannot be confined to debates about health or epidemiology: it’s also about culture and identity. Coal to Diamonds: A Memoir by Beth Ditto, as told to Michelle Tea, is a great example of this and shows how seemingly marginal identity politics (queer, fat, femme, working class, etc) become refracted through the prism of celebrity to reach a much bigger audience.

Beth’s fat feminism is not that far from Shadow on a Tightrope, even though they are over 40 years apart. Amazingly, she manages to make it cool and accessible to a younger generation.

Speaking of which, Virgie Tovar’s anthology Hot & Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love and Fashion is the best of a bunch of flashy, accessible, first-person books about fat that have popped up in the last few years and pay homage to Marilyn Wann’s bright and breezy Fat!So?.

What makes this book stronger than the rest is that Virgie’s corralled a fairly diverse group of writers to talk about their lives, giving the book an expansive and uplifting range. Checkitout.

So there’s my list of essential reading for anyone interested in critical feminist books about fat, what’s on yours?

Charlotte Cooper

I work primarily as a therapist and consultant with people and organisations who are interested in exploring what it is to be fat and challenging body hatred, stigma and discrimination. Drop me a line if you want to know more. My research is primarily about fat activism, I’m interested in developing fat community an culture, and I blog about fat at Obesity Timebomb. I’m part of a diverse global social movement about fat that stretches back to the mid-’60s at least.

(Image via Sasha&Tai’s Flickr photostream)