The Chubsters and me: how my fat girl gang queered activism

An edited extract from Charlotte Cooper's new book Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement.

Charlotte Cooper
8 January 2016
Chubster tattoos. Credit: Charlotte Cooper.

Chubster tattoos. Credit: Charlotte Cooper.

Queer means different things to different people. To queer activism is to connect with that which is subversive and breaks rules. To queer fat activism is also to relinquish the desire to be normal, respectable and polite. Queering fat activism could be about creating a non-conformist social movement where there is space for people to be different to each other and for things to emerge from that difference.

This idea inspired The Chubsters, a queer fat girl gang I established in 2003.

The Chubsters began as a silly idea, but developed into a model for doing fat activism that I was able to apply elsewhere. It became my prototype for fat activism that played with identity politics, humour, imagination and a sense of the unreal, the anti-social, and multi-directional activities. The Chubsters illustrated how fat activists can reinvigorate queer theory with the energy of everyday people and everyday life.

The project was formulated after watching Katrina Del Mar’s low budget short film Gang Girls 2000, which created an imaginary world of queer gangs in New York. I imagined The Chubsters as existing in a similar universe where fat people take no shit and I hoped that this could bleed into real life. I enjoyed the blurring of fiction and reality. I used the gang to play with ideas of comic aggression and anti-social behaviour, yet was explicit in my pacifism and welcomed all to take part: Chubsters did not have to be fat, queer, a girl or even remotely vicious. On reflection I suspect this approach stemmed from my own experiences of queer exclusion from lesbian feminist spaces in the 1980s. 

The Chubsters operated through a website, a magazine photo-story, articles, workshops, talks and film-shows, a theme song, a short film and objects and ideas. These included a symbol, called The Screaming C, a snarling fat letter C with blood-dripping fangs, designed by two Chubsters, Yeti and Big Blu in 2004. The symbol became a useful manifestation of the gang. Other people adopted it, one person made me a hoodie decorated with The Screaming C, another is a stonemason and carved it into a plaque. In addition, The Chubsters produced hand signs, special terminology, a call and response; downloads for calling cards; and gang colours stitched onto torn denim waistcoats and worn in public. Another member made some Chubster embroidery.

The project sprawled all over the place, I did not try to control this because I enjoyed the random strangeness that the idea sparked in people. The gang existed in real spaces but its power was in the way it used the immaterial and the imagination. It enabled people to conceptualise fat people as brilliant, creative, nonsensical, eye-popping, sublime, intimidating, strong and as a group that cared for each other and welcomed sympathisers.

As a gang, The Chubsters valued anti-social unruliness; we did not want to be nice, respectable girls. We revelled in the margins. This was a powerful experience for many of those who encountered the project because, in the early days of obesity epidemic rhetoric around 2000, the idea of fat as utterly worthless had become widespread.

The Chubsters deflated the pomposity of that rhetoric by treating it as unimportant. We refused to be drawn to the debate being instilled because it did not reflect our reality, an important queer tactic. Rather than being intelligible to agents of power it was more important to speak to and recognise each other on our own terms and to make our own culture, no matter how bizarre. Besides, we had an arsenal of spud guns (toy guns that shoot pellets of potato with compressed air, a satirical and nonviolent nod to the question of whether or not activists should bear arms, and also the carbohydrate ruination of dieters) and plenty of members with itchy trigger fingers.

Queer and fat embodiment was important in The Chubsters. Members would encourage each other to be daring and wild, and to enjoy the forbidden thrills of being fat. In workshops extraordinary scenes would unfold, for example the superfat Apple Hard turned a cartwheel, El-Assessino did astonishing martial arts kicking, spontaneous dancing would break out, a mass group of fat queers simultaneously belly-smashed an initiate.

Chubster embodiment was happily grotesque. Spitting, wobbling, sneering, glaring were acts employed to undermine the worship of normativity within obesity discourse. At its height The Chubsters had over 100 members, though I often lied about this and implied that there were many more. 

I didn’t think being a member mattered, but I thought people might like having a badge and a card. To become a member involved asking to join via email or attending a workshop where people would be jumped-in. This usually meant shouting and group belly-smashes. For some time I stipulated that prospective members do something Chubster-worthy, but people were either too intimidated to act or did things for which I did not want to be responsible, so that requirement ended. New members were given a badge, a membership card with a drawing of their face, and they would be encouraged to invent a persona and have a profile on the website. No money changed hands, I paid for badges, postage and web space myself, a negligible amount. When a beloved fat activist and Chubster Heather MacAllister, aka Beelzebubba, died in 2007, her membership card was returned to me by her partner for safe-keeping. 

The Chubsters became something I talked about rather than actively pursued around 2010. When a second Chubster died in tragic circumstances I felt too sad to go on. Social media was also changing, my web development skills were limited and the website remained rather static. I left it up for a while and then took it down.

But the main problem was that as it became more popular, fat activists from the US started expecting the group to operate like a democratic organisation, as if that was the only way that the world of the Chubster imagination could be made real or useful. They were disappointed that I didn’t use the gang to pursue political process goals, they thought that the project would only be worthwhile if it was as serious and focussed as they imagined activism to be.

On the one hand these responses enabled me to think about the pigeonholing of fat activism and when interviewed about the gang I would make up fictitious stories for journalists as a strategy for handling their inevitable misrecognition. But on the other it seemed unbearably restrictive, I was being pressured into conforming to a dominant mode of activism in order to be legible to other people in the US, and not for the first time. This felt oppressive, I was expected to do what I was told and I felt unable to handle other people’s need for propriety. The outcome might have been different if the critics had come forward to act, but those who proposed projects never followed them through and emails I sent remained unanswered.

Fat activism is habitually overlooked, assumed and dismissed, even by people within the movement, which is outrageous given how powerful it can be. I continue to draw on fat queer feminist activism through my cultural work and make platforms from which things can develop. In 2010 I co-founded a band called Homosexual Death Drive which plays with queer death drive theory and obscenity through music, objects, videos, performances and the production of discomfort, feelings and memories. I am part of a dance project called SWAGGA, which started in 2014, working with Alexandrina Hemsley and Jamila Johnson-Small as Project O. 

I feel most free as a fat activist when I am producing work on my own terms or collectively with other marginal people. I am sure I am not alone. This suggests that the self-determination of all people is central to activism.

Who gets to know and speak about fat is a key idea explored in Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement. I urge you to reject the idea that fat activism is about following a prescribed set of rules, aims and activities and invite you to be excited about its limitless possibilities for social and personal transformation.

Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement is available to buy from the HammerOn website in paperback and EPUB formats, and all the usual online places.

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