Fierce fafine at the opening of the exhibition FAT, wearing gowns by fashion label Infamy Apparel. (Photo: Raymond Sagapolutele)

Fat activism in Aotearoa is having a moment

Yes, lockdown might make you fatter – but that’s okay, writes Elizabeth Heritage.

My favourite place to be fat is in the moana. I bob around in the water, idly windmilling my fat limbs and thinking subversive, sea-flavoured thoughts. The fat on my body helps with both insulation and buoyancy, and I thank it. Ka pai, tummy. Ngā mihi nui.

The fact that I’m able to now think this way is entirely due to fat activism. This is a social movement that challenges the fatphobia (or fatism) inherent in our medical systems, built environment, society, and even our laws. And here in Aotearoa in 2020, fat activism is blossoming, a welcome ray of light and hope in these stressful times.

A couple of months aka ten million years ago, you may have seen the hashtag #FatFeb doing the rounds on social media. This was a series of events celebrating fat bodies – especially fat brown bodies – throughout February, coordinated by fat activists Ema Tavola and Lissy Cole in South Auckland. Tavola called the experience “transformative”. The jewel in the crown was the Fat Babe Pool Party. 

Look at all those awesome fatties in togs being relaxed and happy. If you are having trouble seeing the beauty in fat people, ask yourself: why is that? Where did I learn those ideas? Who benefits from them?

One of the people who studies those questions in an academic context is Kaupapa Māori researcher and fat studies scholar Ashlea Gillon (Ngāti Awa). She is a PhD candidate at Te Whare Wānanga o Tāmaki Makaurau, the University of Auckland. Gillon sees the mahi of fat activism as being connected to the mahi of decolonisation. “The words for fat in Māori also mean bountiful, plentiful – they are positive terms.” 

Gillon proposes mana tinana as the way forward. Mana tinana does not have a direct English translation but means something akin to agency or authority over one’s body, and can be conceived of at individual, collective and systemic levels. For her PhD, Gillon is looking for fat Māori women to have a one-on-one kōrero about what mana tinana means to them. (If you are interested in participating, email her at a.gillon@auckland.ac.nz.) Once it is complete she hopes to present her research as a photographic exhibition as well as written text. 

Proudly displaying images of the beauty of fat people is an important part of fat activism. Tavola runs Vunilagi Vou, a gallery in Ōtāhuhu that centres Pasifika art and community. In February the gallery hosted the exhibition FAT, featuring the work of Cole, Louisa Afoa, Riki Tipu Anderson, Jessica Hansell, Infamy Apparel, Meagan Kerr, and Elyssia Wilson-Heti with Jermaine Dean. In her review of FAT Lana Lopesi writes: “These artists alongside Tavola are simultaneously celebrating themselves while forcing those of us looking to confront fatism as a system of power, which we as individuals uphold. It’s a bold and brave exhibition to start 2020 with.” 

Louisa Afoa in front of ‘Blue Clam’ (2018), at the FAT exhibition. (Photo: Raymond Sagapolutele)

Boldness and bravery are also key aspects of the mahi of fat activist and performance artist Ria Hiroki. She was inspired by Sonya Renee Taylor’s seminal pukapuka The Body Is Not An Apology: The Power of Radical Self-Love. Taylor sets out to counter “the devastating impacts of hating our bodies and having others hate our bodies”, both through individual trauma and through systems of oppression such as transphobia, ableism, and fatphobia.

Hiroki was part of the collective that created the show Reclamation that ran at Auckland’s Basement Theatre in 2019 and that will hopefully be touring the motu later this year. “Reclamation looked at Polynesian women and our sexuality and individuality from a place of joy. We got our clothes off and it was a 360-stage, so I was observed from all angles! Elyssia [Wilson-Heti] and I did monologues about being unapologetically fat and we had women in the audience screaming ‘yes!'”

Hiroki says being naked in front of people is scary, “but scared is not a reason not to do something.” She is now working on a two-woman show about fatness and decolonising our mindsets.

The Reclamation of Ria Hiroki (Photo: Pati Tyrell)

Fashion designer Amy Lautogo is also coming at fat activism through decolonisation. “The systems of oppression have Stockholm Syndrome’d us – fat brown people – into thinking we’re the problem. But we are never going to look like Taylor Swift. It’s not your fault.

“I’m half-caste Samoan/Palagi. When I think about what white supremacy has done to us I get really fucking mad. I’ve been pissed about this stuff since I was in high school. I was six feet tall and played rugby. There was absolutely nothing wrong with me – but I was put into diet programmes by doctors.” 

Lautogo now runs Infamy Apparel, described as the fashion house for fat people who don’t want to play it safe. “It’s for people who want to collaborate with me and say ‘fuck yeah, let’s do this!’”

Lissy Cole (Ngāti Hine, Ngāti Kahu), one of the coordinators of #FatFeb, is another brown artist who has had to unlearn a lot of fat shaming. “If fat activism had been around when I was 15, my life would be so different,” she says. “It’s crazy the lie we’ve been sold. Māori and Pasifika people, we are people of size. We celebrate food and we celebrate with food. Here in South Auckland my body shape is not out of the norm. I look like my community.”

Cole sees fat activism as being particularly important for the next generation. “The radical act is living your own life hardcore and letting that radiate out to everyone you encounter, especially kids. It’s a lifelong journey.”

The Fat Babe Pool Party, an event coinciding with the FAT exhibition in February. (Photo: Pati Solomona Tyrell)

Regan Spencer, an American now living in Tāmaki Makaurau, launched the Body Recovery Group to help people on that journey. It’s a facilitated online peer support group for anyone wanting to heal their relationship with food, body, or exercise (meeting every Wednesday at 6pm via Zoom – all welcome). The group’s kaupapa asks: “What if we saw more people who looked like us in advertisements, magazines, movies, music videos, gyms, businesses, even political office? What if we had been taught that we can trust, celebrate, and love our bodies just as they are?”

Spencer was motivated to set up the group partly through the insufficiency of the medical treatment she received for her eating disorder. “When I was engaging solely in the clinical world my recovery only went so far. I never felt fully seen. It was very top-down, very blame-the-patient. Peer support is a beautiful, pure decolonisation of that stuff. Smash the healing patriarchy!”

Spencer says there are two axes of change: internally healing your own relationship with your body, and externally dismantling the systems of power that created fatphobia (and other oppressions) in the first place. “I don’t believe you can separate individual healing from communal healing. You’ve gotta do both.”

Joanna McLeod, a Pākehā Wellingtonian who runs House of Boom,an ethical clothing range in sizes 16 to 30, is also keen to help create fat community. “It’s an exhausting existence when your body is the thing people most fear becoming. So one of my goals for House of Boom this year is to run a fat camp, probably in October or November 2020. It will be a weekend of dancing, cupcake decorating, clothes swapping – just generally fat babes hanging out. I’m scouting accessible locations now.

“It’s important to bring people together so we can realise we’re not alone in our struggles – and that it doesn’t have to be a struggle!”

Joanna McLeod was so frustrated by the lack of affordable, ethical clothing options that she launched her own ‘fatshion’ label in six months. (Photo: House of Boom.)

No discussion of fat activism in Aotearoa would be complete without a mihi to Dr Cat Pausé. An internationally renowned fat studies scholar, Pausé has been doing the hard yards of fat activism here for more than a decade. Her fat-friendly podcast Friend of Marilyn recently hit its 300th episode, and in June of this year she is organising the international Fat Studies Conference for the third time. Pausé’s academic mahi currently focuses on changing the law of Aotearoa to make it illegal to discriminate against fat people.

Pausé reflects on the changes she has seen over the years since she moved to Aotearoa from the US. “When I hosted the first Fat Studies Conference in 2012, the media lost their minds. Now, the general language that we have as a country around fatness has broadened.” She is thrilled to see the blossoming of fat activism here in 2020, across all sectors of society. “I’m always aware that I’m tauiwi so I’m really excited to see indigenous New Zealanders taking up the mantle.”

Fat bodies are ‘othered’ by fatphobia – considered abnormal – and it’s no coincidence that many of the movers and shakers of fat activism in Aotearoa are queer, including McLeod, Lautogo and Hiroki (and me). As a general rule of thumb, I feel that if a movement has lots of brown people and queers in it, that’s a movement you want to be part of. Your fatness is nothing to be ashamed of. Kia kaha te mōmonatanga!



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