I’ve never been one to shy away from who I am or how I am perceived. Granted I haven’t always been so loud or owned my identity in the way I do now, but I wear my ‘stuff’ with pride – I am a working class, femme, uneducated, dyslexic, queer, poly, fatty.
Most people are fine with me calling myself ‘common’ or ‘faggy’ but when I proclaim or own my fatness as an identity, people often try to convince me otherwise.
We live in a culture where to identity as ‘fat’ means we supposedly pity ourselves, that we inhabit a body of self-loathing. ‘Fat’ is something you are supposed to have shouted at you from vans – it is not something to be proud of, it is not a badge of honour. We fear the word, it’s loaded, it’s rooted in infantile bullying, it’s something you shouldn’t want to be because to admit it is to admit failure.
Fat to me, a child of Irish migrants is welcoming, familiar, homely. In my family my body symbolises strength, sturdiness and care – definitions of fatness that never hit the headlines. It’s correlated to being less poor than we once were and so class, specifically my working class identity, is wrapped up closely with it.
Being fat and visible (and by that I mean not wearing black smocks, keeping my head down and complying to social perceptions of insecure fatness) has meant I’ve rolled with the punches. I’ve been mocked, shunned, shoved and berated by everyone from groups of lads to GPs and even police officers.
Coming into the arts I thought I’d find a softer world of body autonomy – folk allowed to express themselves as they wish, to be the people they want to be. I thought it was all kaftans and edgy haircuts but unfortunately I found something quite different – a world that amplified the fat shaming I have become accustomed to in public space.
I’m an artist, a performer, a show off – because when you’re fat and onstage you are on show. But those who write about our practices, careers and roles think this means it’s fair game to give the reader an insight into your BMI. This fact was perfectly, painfully highlighted when Derry Girls star Nicola Coughlan this year who called out a critic for mentioning her weight in not one but two reviews in two different productions when her size had nothing to do with the work she was performing.
I’ve had my fair share of writers creatively talking about or around my body. In the last 10 years I’ve been called every euphemism under the sun by culture and art rags. I’m always ‘larger than life’, ‘bubbly’, ‘a big personality’, ‘cherubic’, ‘jolly’ – if you’ve seen my work it’s anything but.
Writers ignoring my size, my body, my shape is hardly ever a luxury I experience – even if I’m making work about stuff like isolation or homonationalism they find a way of stating the obvious. To ignore it means they miss out on a cheap gag, a low punch, a naff quip. Most of these slurs have come from cis male writers too. This is the realm of the male gaze, one directed at queer fat bodies that are often ignored. One that desexualises and assumes those of us living in queer fat bodies have let the side down.
My beef with being fat in the arts isn’t all parked with those who write about it. Those who write the casting notes can also get in the bin. ‘Fat’ in a character synopsis is often used as a shorthand denoting lazy, unkempt, depressed, slobbish, dirty, weird and sometimes even depressed. Fat friends tell me about yet another casting for yet another sad fatty, yet another cliché they play to pay the bills. I was recently used as a reference point for a new BBC Three comedy that wanted someone a bit like Scottee; fat, goth, a bit out there.
Writers and directors are not getting away here either – they can also throw themselves on the ‘to blame’ pile. In their eyes, us fatties could never be the leading lady, never the one with sexual capital, never the love interest. Our parts are firmly written as either the one to pity or the baddie with no inbetween. We fatties are only ever shown as 2D – damaged, broken, the outcast or playing for laughs – the clown, the funny guy, the fool.
It’s not just the critics, the writers, the casting agents and directors who I want to have a go at, who are to blame for fat folk being stereotyped, mocked, belittled or fetishised in the sector. The buildings can also do one!
We fatties literally don’t fit into the chairs. We squeeze our fat arses into seats that were designed for bodies in the 1960s. My mates and I often share experiences of where the roomy seats in the house are – Selina Thompson is even threatening to start a zine. I have friends who, because of this embarrassment, buy two seats next to each other to minimise pain to their bodies.
Then there’s the audiences – if I had a pound for every time a thin person has huffed at having to sit next to me I’d have enough dollar to see Heathers the Musical in the stalls.
So, with all this pushing, prodding and mocking of fatness in the arts, where does that leave those of us who don’t want to play the sad fatty? Those of us who want to be seen for our skill but not necessarily our body shape, those of us who don’t want to leave the theatre with bruised hips from narrow seats?
Part of me doesn’t know how we might move forward and derail this idea that fatness means failure, to show why we shouldn’t be portrayed as broken, and why we shouldn’t be kept out of the space to teach us a lesson. To do this we need to tackle giant, massive, intangible ideas that sit outside of the art space …and I don’t know if I have the skills, energy or language to start to chip away at them.
My gut instinct is to be a bit Judy Garland about the whole affair and …put on a show. I guess it’s the only thing I know how to do, and it’s the only way I know how to occupy space.
Next month, in retaliation I’ve asked anyone who fancies it, anyone with a BMI over I-don’t-care to come with me and Sofie Hagen to reclaim space, to take over one of the biggest art spaces in East London for a night and share our fat rage in the framework of the fourth edition of Hamburger Queen, a sort of talent show for chubsters.
Who knows if it’ll work, who knows what liberation will come from those in it and those watching it – but what I do know is by doing it I’m able to rant and rave on pedestals for long enough to catch your attention and make you think how complicit you are in anti-fat culture.
Hamburger Queen is at Shoreditch Town Hall on Saturday 8th December, more info here. More info at Scottee.co.uk