A conversation about fat activism among activists in community with Nolose (2021)

Title (as given to the record by the creator): A conversation about fat activism among activists in community with Nolose
Date(s) of creation: April 27, 2021
Creator / author / publisher: Sarah Doherty, Shana McDavis-Conway, Adrienne Hill, Elaine Lee, Sydney Lewis, Aaminah Shakur, Cicely Smith, Fat Studies Journal
Location: Grand Rapids, Michigan; Big Rapids, Michigan; Sacramento, California; Buffalo, New York; Daly City, California; Baltimore, Maryland; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, US
Physical description: article
Source: Fat Studies An Interdisciplinary Journal of Body Weight and Society
Reference #: FatStudies-Doherty2021


A conversation about fat activism among activists in community with Nolose

Sarah Dohertya,b, Shana McDavis-Conwayc, Adrienne Hilld, Elaine Leee, Sydney Lewisf, Aaminah Shakura, and Cicely Smithg

aGrand Rapids, Michigan; bBig Rapids, Michigan; cSacramento, California; dBuffalo, New York; eDaly City, California; fBaltimore, Maryland; gPhiladelphia, Pennsylvania


Fat liberation; Nolose; fat activism; queer; transgender

This piece was conceived as a conversation, informed and inspired by the FaTGiRL Roundtables in the first and subsequent issues of FaT GiRL: A Zine for Fat Dykes and the Women Who Want Them – roundtables of diverse fat queer women and nonbinary people who covered topics of fatness and age, sexuality, butchness, and more (FaT GiRL Collective 1994–1997). This con- versation serves as a snapshot of some of the challenges and opportunities North American fat activists face in the current social environment. The conversation originated with members of the Nolose board. Nolose is a volunteer-run organization dedicated to ending the oppression of fat people and creating a vibrant fat queer culture. Nolose centers Black and Indigenous people and people of color, superfat people, disabled people, and other people historically marginalized in fat activism; our conversations about what that centering means in philosophical and practical terms is ongoing.

Nolose, founded in 1998, has historically held and funded fat queer and trans conferences and community events, and currently employs a diversity of tactics and strategies to empower fat queer and trans people to pursue projects, including conferences, workshops, coalition, community-informed funding of regional projects, and writing in the service of broad and deep fat liberation. At the time of this conversation, the Nolose Board included President Shana McDavis-Conway, Treasurer Sally Smith, Secretary Cicely Smith, Sarah Doherty, and SmuttyQueer. The board includes Black people and people of color, white people, disabled and superfat people, neurodiverse people, parenting and nonparenting people, and geographically diverse people living on both coasts of the US as well as the Midwest; we are diverse in age and class background and have wide-ranging experience with fat activism/organizing in our local contexts as fat queer and trans people. Shana, Cicely, and Sarah participated in this conversation with select former board members, volunteers, and people in the larger Nolose community who think and write and organize for fat justice, who are a small selection of the people doing this kind of work.

The Nolose board started the conversation with questions about what kind of fat activism each participant engages in and their analysis of fat activist practices and possible futures, and the participants had the power to determine where the conversation went as well as opportunities to approve the edits to the transcript. The conversation below occurred in January – February 2020 in a shared online document, as well as over a phone conversation between Adrienne Hill and Sarah Doherty, and two phone conversations between Cicely Smith and Sarah Doherty. Sarah live- transcribed what Adrienne, Cicely, and Sarah said over the course of the conversation, read back the transcript for Adrienne and Cicely’s clarification and approval, and wove their spoken conversation into the evolving written conversation, which occurred live over time. The authors made feminist editing choices to preserve individual voice, to value feminized and working-class patterns of expression, and to uphold language based in Black and Indigenous and people of color communities.

Activists’ introductions and activism lineages Shana

I’m on the board of Nolose, a nonprofit that works to end the oppression of fat people and promotes vibrant fat queer and trans culture (Nolose 2020a). I also review romantic fiction with fat characters for Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. I’ve been a social justice activist for over 20 years. I initially got involved with fat activism through online organizing and fat activist blogs. Those early educational experiences gave me the language to understand my own personal experiences as a fat Black queer woman. I eventually connected in-person at events like Abundia, a Midwestern fat women’s retreat (Abundia, Inc 2018), and Nolose conferences for fat queer and trans folks. As I became involved in the fat liberation movement, I started to weave those learnings into my food justice, racial equity, and economic justice work – linking challenging fat oppression to other types of oppression.


I’m also on the board of Nolose, and I work primarily in relationships with people to share my understanding of fat liberatory politics/analysis. I run a university LGBTQ+ center, which puts me in ongoing conversation with students, and I have brought my analysis and some basic practical strategies for welcoming fat and crip bodies and wisdom into local organizing work. I’m the person in all the meetings asking if there are armless high weight limit chairs and I try to figure out ways to weave rad fat crip stuff into my everyday professional and personal lives as an activist. I have done political education and hosted or facilitated a number of conversations on embodiment and oppression and resistance.

I name fat oppression where I see it. In the past few years of living in West Michigan, I have been showing up in lefty spaces just as a fat disabled queer white person, modeling how I do the kind of radical accessible welcome, working in crip time1 and making space for other people to work at the pace of their own bodies. When I have a programming budget, I try to find ways to pay fat queer and trans people. My work revolves around trying to show how fabulous fat activist futures and presents can be: to this end, I bring together radical queer trans fat activist thought, and rad people. And I make fat art in celebration of fat bodies and fat queer and trans people.

When I started out in the late 90s/early 2000s as a queer fat activist, I did some anonymous flyering on my undergrad campus, street theater with the Boston Lesbian Avengers,2 and had read everything I could get my hands on written by other fat queer people. I learned so much from the ways that fat people were showing up online. I took to heart the model of robust, rigorous, center-the-most-marginalized, listen-to-people-talk-about-their-experiences, online community building. I especially learned from the example set by trans dykes running the Avengers, and in Strap-On,3 and working class queer femmes of color in Fatshionista!,4 and have used that kind of celebration-of- loving-accountability approach to my fat liberation work ever since.

When I was in Portland, Oregon, I had access to in-person fat community where I lived for the first time. While I was really sick and having a hard time accessing in- person fat activities, I mostly did activism online in a neighborhood-based Facebook group, and modeled how to make the case for fat liberation. I am one of a long line of queer people to run the Chunky Dunk (2010), fat liberation community swims, for a summer. I did some work making plus-sized clothes available in the Portland homeless youth continuum. I worked with Teukie Wallaroo and Firecat Stef to start a support/ political education/discussion space, first at a Nolose conference, and then in a Facebook group, for fat diabetics to push back on ableism and healthism,5 and share tips and tricks to navigate medical systems. The year I lived in Arkansas, I organized some community gatherings to explore embodiment and racist disabling medical systems, and I spoke on panels in Michigan about my fat crip white queer embodiment fitting into larger systems of oppression and communities with embodied resistance to oppression.


I am a former co-president of the board of Nolose, and have been involved in the past with Wild Abundance (Wild Abundance Expeditions 2020), a group which promotes outdoor activities for fat people. I have also served on the coordinating committee for Making Waves, a radical fat liberation swim event for fat people located in the San Francisco Bay Area where fat people have been swimming for nearly 40 years completely free of diet and weight loss talk (Making Waves Fat Swim 2018).

I initially got involved with fat activism through fat activist blogs and books, such as Great Shape by Deb Burgard and Pat Lyons (Lyons and Burgard 1988). I learned that fat people can and do move because, hey, it’s fun, without that all-consuming burden of chasing thinness and restricting food. I joined a group of radical fat women called the Bumblebees, who trained to complete the Bay to Breakers race across San Francisco, rejecting negative diet and weight loss messaging with every step.

Eventually, I found my way to fat activism connecting in person with other radical fat folks at Nolose conferences and NAAFA (National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance 2020) gatherings, going to Making Waves Swim, and participating in radical fat and queer community gatherings in the San Francisco Bay Area.


I am a master’s level student in Visual and Critical Studies, and finished my bachelor’s degree in Art History with a Museum Studies minor in 2019. My fat activism is multi-level. It is in my research, writing, and cultural critique both in relation to art and broader media/culture, including the ethics of representation; it is also particular to my work in the school gallery where I focus heavily on issues of accessibility and inclusion in the broadest sense of those

terms that explicitly includes fatness; I make fat art in my own studio practice and I do advocacy on campus with professors and administrators, as well as students. My aim is to self-advocate/offer support around the intersections of fatness, disability, race/ethnic/cultural issues, etc.

I also would say that my fat activism permeates my other activism; for example, I am on the TGNC (Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming) Advisory Committee (Grand Rapids Pride Center 2020), a partnership between two local organizations, and on the local Pride Center’s Pride Fest planning committee and the inaugural Accessibility Coordinator for 2020’s Pride Fest. In each of these roles I also address fatness as a related issue.


I am a women’s studies professor and semi-retired burlesque performer. My fat activism occurs in my women’s studies classes where fat texts and fat politics permeate every course. I also guest lecture on the lineage of and differences between fat politics and body positivity. In my burlesque life, it’s fairly radical in itself to be a fat stripper, but I also intentionally create acts that showcase fatness in all its sexy glory.

I initially got into fat activism through Fatshion on LiveJournal. From there I attended Nolose for multiple years and briefly served on the board. I’ve been a part of multiple fat burlesque shows such as Curvaceous Cabaret and Eat Your Hart Out,6 and have performed at every Nolose since 2008.


I have been a member of the Nolose community for about a decade. About four years ago I joined the board, and I also help to moderate several fat Facebook groups that are focused on fat acceptance. Also, on the fuckin’ regular, I tell people to stop giving me their opinions about what food I’m putting in my mouth right now. In particular, I said this to an eight-year-old, this past week. Mmhmm. Get ‘em while they’re young.

Kids are curious and feel freer to comment on my body in public than adults do. They’re free of their families’ censure, and they’re free of our culture’s censure. Ninety-four percent of the time I get made fun of for being fat, it comes from children. Being a fat activist doesn’t reduce the number of negative experiences I have; being able to talk about setting this boundary after yet another of these common experiences is a big part of my activism in my daily life.


In my city, we have a local group called Fat Positive Sacramento (circa 2015) that plans community events like Chunky Dunk swimming parties with the drag group Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, fat dance classes, and fundraisers for allied groups like Black Lives Matter. We also have a monthly Fat Positive Book Club, which I’m an active member of. Last year, the group organized an educational session for all of the teachers at one of the larger yoga schools in Sacramento. I spoke about my experiences as a yoga student, how my fat body engages in movement, and the actions teachers can take to offer fat-affirming modifications and adjustments in a respectful way.

Organizing visible fat activism Aaminah

Nolose and people affiliated with Nolose is most of the activism I “see.” I have other friends/colleagues who bring it into their own work in terms of cultural critique or fat studies in an academic way as well.


My experience is similar to Aaminah in terms of Nolose being the most visible activism I see. In academia I am the only fat faculty in my department, and, as far as I know, the only person consistently engaging with fat politics in my classes. Most of my academic work around fatness is about fat Black femmes7 and fat Black women because I firmly believe that fat is a Black feminist issue. I am especially indebted to the labor of Hunter Ashleigh Shackelford (Shackelford 2020) and Vanessa Lewis (see, for example, Lewis 2019), whose works I often teach in my classroom.

In 2019 I was sitting in an auditorium in the little fold-down theater chairs at a Queer Studies Conference. I was trying to sit on the edge of the seat because the arms were pinching my thighs. At the same time I was trying to pay attention to the speakers but kept getting distracted by the bruising on my thighs and how much they didn’t talk about sex. For a queer studies con- ference, no one was really engaging with sex. So I wrote this piece, “Imposter Syndrome,” meditating on queerness, fatness, sexiness, and respectability in academia. I think all those things overlap, especially as a fat Black femme whose body is always overdetermined by sexual availability.

Imposter Syndrome

Sydney Lewis

The auditorium seats pinch my wide hips.

I don’t fit

so I sit on the edge

hoping no one will notice. My lips too pink covered with gloss and grease

because I ate too much fried chicken at lunch. Where my colleagues performed respectable Queer Intellectual

over falafel and wilted salad with vegan dressing.

I don’t write

poetry, essays, books, articles. I READ

poetry, essays, books, people. Like my hips

I don’t fit

at this academic conference amongst the queers, “my people.”

I don’t write like them

and my queer reading is inadequate in this space. Not enough.

Yet too much for my chair.

I want to disappear.

My erasure begins at my glossy lips meanders to my breasts.

In a room of printed buttoned ups, regardless of gender,

I have too much cleavage.

Sex spills out of my black bra even as the keynote repeats queer 23 times

Sexuality without fucking.


In Buffalo there’s not an established fat activist movement. There are a few activists. It’s been hard to build a movement because of the way the city works. It’s a Rust Belt city. We have few resources. A friend of mine says it’s a great place to be a volunteer, to have a gig, but not a great place to have a job. There’s not a lot of financial resources, so you have many really dedicated people working really hard all the time to make all of the awesome happen. Several of the people who I know who are interested in fat activism here are also doing other things – like I am doing a queer history project. Or people are putting on shows. Fat activism gets put on the back burner. So we haven’t gotten as far as I would like to. We’re doing a lot of really simple things, like clothing swaps. I have a friend who’s working on putting together the first fat positive pool party . . . It’s trying to get people together – and trying to get people to think about fatness as a reason that people could get together – as a precursor to doing anything more challenging to the status quo.


Some of what Adrienne is saying resonates with my experience in rural places, where it can sometimes feel like just getting queer and trans folks, or fat folks, in a space together is brand new and exhilarating. In Grand Rapids much of the economy is controlled by the notorious DeVos family,8 which shapes what organizing does or does not happen. In my higher ed work over the years there are more conversations about “body image” than about fat liberation. Although Aaminah and I did a panel on disability where we both talked extensively about, like, hot fat crip sexuality, which was great.

I’m proud of Nolose funding projects by fat queer and trans people to build capacity in their local communities, or to make connections among people who are often left out of more established fat cultural spaces, prioritizing putting resources into projects led and directly benefiting superfat9 people of color, disabled fat people, specifically trans folks, having a hardcore social justice lens on what kinds of projects to prioritize, and making the grantmaking process something that’s participatory and seeks and supports the leader- ship of Nolose community members, especially fat people of color.


I love several Facebook pages that are explicitly dedicated to showing either photographs of real-life fat people, or artistic representations of fat people, sometimes with mermaid tails. More and more often, when I go to doctors’ waiting rooms, there are chairs with no arms, or benches. And I certainly see fat activist work from Nolose, and I participate in some of it – specifically the SPAL (Small Projects Across the Land) grants (Smith 2020; Nolose 2020b).

Challenges with fat activism and the need for multi-issue fat activism


I recently answered a query in an academic fat studies group that was seeking how to talk about fat studies as a legitimate field/theory(ies) of its own. This was my answer: “I don’t believe in silos or single-issue lives (Audre Lorde),10 and I interrogate theory that does seem to think it has to be single minded. I have also noticed that some old-school academics are struggling to accept that fat theory, queer theory, and crip theory are not merely minor subsections of feminist theory but their own fully formed theories and fields. Any of them can be viewed together and in conjunction with each other and/or with

feminist theory, critical race theory, postcolonial theory, futurisms the- ories, etc.”


I totally want to talk about the binary default in the trans community, and how fat bodies are seen as feminine – regardless of who’s carrying that body. I’m like . . . what is it going to take for you to see me as NOT a girl, and still have boobs? Also: I know my boobs are awesome, please stop asking me for them. This dynamic is happening in trans spaces, not necessarily happening in “fat activism.” There are not *fat* trans spaces, at least not in my experience. Because I spent ten years organizing and operating in “fat activism,” I was uniquely able to respond to the body hatred I encountered when I joined the trans community. If I had not had ten years of experience with learning to accept, but not reaching the point of loving, the body I have, then the body hatred I encountered in trans spaces would have broken me completely. I just realized that is why we don’t have a lot of trans fat organizing. Society has agreements that our fat bodies are horrible. And it’s so hard to pull back from that societal narrative about fat bodies being horrible if you, as a trans person, actually don’t want the body you have and associate fatness with gender dysphoria, or assume all fat trans people all experience dysphoria because of our fat bodies.


The fragmentation of fat activism efforts can be a challenge. Our lack of coordination limits our power and means that local wins – like an ordinance outlawing discrimination based on body size – don’t necessarily spread to other places. I think fat activists have yet to solve the way the theoretical mutability of body size makes it difficult for people to organize around fatness as an identity marker. What strategies are most effective at organizing people who are deeply invested in becoming not-fat, despite overwhelming evidence that they will not succeed.

I also think organized fat queer community tends to be dominated by white fat cisgender women, people who have the luxury of fatness being their primary barrier to privilege. This can lead us to focus on the politics of desirability in queer community, which, while important, ignores the life-and-death impact of fat oppression on our most marginalized community members, including superfat folks.


I agree wholeheartedly with Shana.


I agree with Shana and Sydney. I am also thinking about something I heard Alex Gino (a former Nolose board member) say to a big group at a Nolose conference about how fat cis people need to stop conflating WLS (weight loss surgery) with gender- affirming medical care, because trans folks being able to access medical care as part of body autonomy is really different than your general practitioner pushing you to lose weight. I’m also thinking about how many of the trans folks I know are making hard choices about IWL (intentional weight loss) because that’s the gatekeeping they have to deal with to get access to gender-affirming medical care, and how cis fat folks can be super judgmental about that reality, in part because of pain over the fallout from the effects of superfat people who have WLS on other superfat people, in part because of cissexism and transmisogyny.11


I had the opportunity to be a healthcare buddy to a trans friend who was seeking top surgery. And in that doctor’s office I felt brave enough to ask that doctor how they approached fat bodies. Because breast tissue is the only thing that person talked about removing, but if you don’t focus on the rest of that fat person’s torso, then the results you get can be unintended. If the fat trans person isn’t able to talk about their entire torso, then the top surgery doctor is also not gonna talk about their entire torso, they’re just gonna talk about breast tissue. And that is really not ok. And when I brought this up to that doctor, the doctor said, “Oh, that’s just fat. That’s not my problem.”

Community building as a fat activist project Shana

I have seen an increased comfort with the word “fat” in Californian movement spaces, which I think is largely due to the efforts of fat activists. Fat activism in this state feels decentralized, its seeds spread from the Cupcakes and Muffintops clothing swap in Oakland12 to the L.A.-based She’s All Fat Podcast (2020). This rapid spread of fat liberation work allows people to enter where they are and take a leadership role to organize without needing to know anyone else who is actively engaged in fat lib work.

The barriers to entry with fat activism are very low, because most (fat) people have deeply internalized oppressive ideas about body size, and even small acts of resistance can feel powerful.


My understanding of fat activism is directly tied to my work with disability activism, queer activism, and race-related activism. They all hinge on each other. I hope for a world where bodies are allowed to exist without censure, shame, and demands to change, and in which the world makes space for us. I want to stop having conversations about fat as anathema to health. Fat liberation isn’t just being positive about one’s body – it’s ok to have feelings to work through, especially as bodies change – but genuinely to be working to accept one’s body is valid, whole, not always healthy, not always “beautiful,” but still valid. Liberation means that we are not limited in where we can go and whether we can access the resources we need. It means freedom from judgement, assumptions, shame, and respectful/competent access/resources.


So the things that are powerful for me, in Philadelphia, are the number of online groups focused around queer, trans people of color, and queer fat people. I haven’t yet been able to find or create a queer trans fat people of color group. But there are many, many options for a small number of those identity labels to intersect in one group. But those intersectional groups are powerful. Having so many options that I don’t have to do everything! That’s fuckin’ powerful and never existed before now.

What I see that is working in Philadelphia, are fundraising events that support a really wide and amazing range of both organizations and individuals. Those are very well publicized, and I’m gonna say that I have the option probably three times a month to participate in that way. They’re queer and trans events – they’re less often fat. I don’t see much specifically fat organizing in Philadelphia that I don’t create. In Philadelphia there’s a wonderful Facebook group that’s called FLUF (Feminists [who] Love Unapologetic Fat) FLUF Philly (2015), and that is a great resource for finding local businesses and physicians and, like, literally tights for fat people, and bras. Like, clothes. Specific underclothes that you can find going to a large section of a department store.

There are several wonderful Facebook groups that are focused on support for fat people, and a less active set of groups that have the intersectionality of fat, queer, trans people of color.

And Nolose is amazing. We do stuff! One of the resources that is great is the Fatlandia Facebook group (Cavanaugh 2019). It’s not run by Nolose but is connected to Nolose by its members. That page is universally available for support for issues about being a fat person. And that page is also fiercely feminist and intersectional. The members of that group are dedicated to holding that space, for all types of people, and not letting any marginalized groups get shouted down. The Flying While Fat Facebook group (2012) is also very helpful to many. There are people who have posted very detailed information, right down to the model of the plane and the number of inches of the seat, so that you can drill down to an unprecedented level to find out how YOUR fat body will fit in that particular plane.

The thing I love about Nolose, the organization itself, is that the organization has a wide reach nationally, and is also careful to make sure that they’re holding space for the multiple marginalized identities that fat people have. One of the things I got to work on for several years in a row when I was on the board was the SPAL program, which stands for Small Projects Across the Land. I loved this program because national conferences are really fuckin’ hard to create, and also very hard for Cicely to attend. I love this program because having local fat events is the basis of fat community. I’m feeling very sappy and so happy about that. And also, that program is perfect for my activist energy. I am multiply disabled and I have limited physical mobility, so being able to organize and be effective online is rare. There aren’t a lot of spaces where I can help make an event happen without physically attending the event. The excellent thing about SPAL: since that review team itself is national, there is no expectation that any of the team will be co-located in person. We will work online. So it’s actually the only time I don’t have to say, “Oh, by the way, can you make an online option possible for my event, just for li’l ol’ me?” I don’t have to struggle to make that happen. With a SPAL grant, that’s already built in – woohoo!

What I think queer trans fat organizing looks like is literally more queer trans fat humans being able to be in the room for discussion. Being welcomed into the room.

Because the minute we’re invited, we ask questions that no one else has thought of. Including, like, “Can I fit in this fuckin’ chair?” or “How many steps are there?” Whereas if you’re an able-bodied thin person, you do not have to think about that because everything works for you.

I think that having all of my communities accept all of my body is the ideal. That’s why I go to so many individual community events where that event does not embrace more than two of my labels at any given time. I go ‘cause I’m the physical representation of the other labels. And I do think that having a group focused on an issue that they don’t experience can be helpful to those organizers. But it’s sometimes tricky with inexperienced members building community; they would like to help, but the rocky start of trying – that’s what I want to say as an activist. The experience of trying is invaluable. And that is why I’m an activist as well as a community member, because it gives me a broader view than just the shitty program that was put on without having invested proper thought and care in organizing it.


I’ve had some conversation with people in Buffalo about what fat activism could look like, if we had resources and time. There’s a friend of mine who is trying to finish a degree and she’s a mother, so no time there. But her child goes to this very, like, working class daycare with many children of color and refugee children. And what happens when you get a group of people of color and refugees together? White rich “do-gooders” come in. So a lot of white rich people are coming in with really condescending pamphlets explaining to refugee families how to cook proper food.

Because that’s their problem. Not racism, not xenophobia, not lack of access to resources, not exploitation: they don’t know how to cook, so their kids are going to get fat. So we’ve been talking about counter-programming. Like, there’s considerable use of public transit, and many posters that are “anti- obesity,” and if we had time we’d love to do some counter-programming just pointing out how racist assumptions about how people should spend their time and money, concern trolling about childhood obesity, is standing in for dealing with actual inequality.

Also, we’re wanting to put together some sort of advocacy buddy system for people in the medical system to help people find others who are affirming to them, to find people who would go to the doctor’s with them to make sure they’re getting actually taken care of and not abused in medical settings. Even when you have these material resources to get health care, you’re afraid to use them because you’re afraid you won’t be seen.

As a longtime fat activist, I get really frustrated by the ways that fat activism gets reduced to body positivity, but in some ways – body positivity is a phase we have to go through, because we don’t have the critical mass to do anything else. We have to start at a place of, “It’s ok to be fat.”


I find myself starting at the level of, let’s make sure that fat people can be in a space and have a place to sit. Are there armless chairs that have a high enough weight limit? Can I write basic access stuff about what it takes to make sure superfatties can enter a space, in enough event notices or posters that other people start to do it too? I’m in the Midwest where there are a lot of fat people, but it’s rare to find people who are thinking intentionally and systemically about fat justice.


Theoretically the internet should make these spaces easier to navigate. But being on the internet is not enough. The internet is not giving us the tools to advocate for ourselves in our everyday lives. I’ve been stepping away from it. I looked to it a lot when I was 19 and I needed to be told I was ok. But now I know I’m ok. And internet activism is not answering “now what?” What you said about the Midwest is right, there are plenty of fat people, but the presence of fat people does not imply the existence of resources or robust conversation [about fat activism]. And the presence of online conversation or activism doesn’t necessarily bridge that gap.


It’s interesting because I’ve been hearing a lot about the way people think about time for queer stuff in West Michigan – people talk about the conversa- tion being “ten years behind” or “twenty years behind.”


My friend Carol Speser, who’s a lesbian activist – I think she would say lesbian rather than queer, she’s in her 70s – says, “Big city activism is constituent based. Small town activism is relationship based.” In big cities you’re trying to get people together on the basis of ideology, shared understanding. In a small town you might not have that critical mass, but you can play on relationships. When my friend Camille, who is a trans woman, wanted to pass a housing nondiscrimination ordinance, she played on those local relationships. People would be like, “I don’t understand why Camille wants to wear women’s clothes, but I’ve known her for years, and I don’t want to see her get kicked out of her house.” Camille used her community relationships to make things better for all trans people. Sometimes people talk about small towns as being behind, whereas I think that they’re qualitatively different. So we use tools that were developed in big cities for mass movements and we say that small towns are behind, when what we need is actually different tools.

Trans and queer fat activist futures Elaine

The San Francisco Bay Area has been a hotbed of fat activism. Long-running fat activist spaces such as the 40-year-old Making Waves Swim, and the Big Moves/emFATic Dance troupe (Big Moves 2013) are still going strong and serving and delighting all generations of fat activists, from elders to younger folks, including students and those new to fat activism. Several Nolose and NAAFA conferences have taken place here. Radical fat performers regularly

grace Bay Area dance, burlesque and music performances. New activities such as the All Bodies Centered Soul Dance classes taught by Ifasina T.L. Clear,13 and the UGLY conference organized by Vanessa Rochelle Lewis (McEwan 2019) are bringing much-needed diversity to historically white and middle- class-dominated fat activist and queer and trans spaces and focusing attention on folks with multiply marginalized identities.


I’m super excited by Queer and Trans Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (QTBIPOC) thought leadership from places like Wear Your Voice (2020), Sonya Renee Taylor’s collective QTBIPOC centered project The Body Is Not An Apology (2020), the places where the Healing Justice Movement overlaps with Fat Liberation overlaps with Disability Justice. Also the way that so many people resonated with the pool party episode of “Shrill,” the ways that so many people had pool party stories and the ways that I saw folks be super clear that Sam Irby as the writer of that episode didn’t “steal” that pool party story from anyone, that her fat Black queer disabled authorship was important to recognize,14 says to me both that in-person pool parties are still a powerful mode of people sharing space together in joyful and fully embodied ways, and, that there’s some traction to some conversations about the ways that anti- Blackness shows up in fat cultural and activist spaces.

And the DJ (Disability Justice; see Berne with Sins Invalid 2015) conversation about care work is exciting, since some of the most enduring and useful and powerful cultural spaces are these resource sites, collective skills-sharing spaces on Facebook or in-person, secret groups that are run by mostly femmes of color and truly centering superfat people of color, or the groups Billie Rain founded for sick and disabled queer and trans people, or the conversations Fat Rose is having right now about mutual aid and the community care work of the Black Panthers (Fat Rose 2020) – that’s great and important and I think that that kind of emphasis on building community capacity for care along with rigorous political/social analysis of what’s keeping people down, has a ton of promise.

If the world isn’t going to treat us well, if the same old oppressive structures are in place, let’s figure out how to hold each other up and help each other survive in a way that centers the folks who are the most harmed by the current systems. I think there’s some opportunity in the work that folks are doing with transfor- mative justice, with holding an abolitionist mindset, holding people accountable to the community when there’s harm but also not disposing of people and not letting white feelings take up so much space, and working to dismantle the institutions that kill Black and Brown folks, with the kind of community care work that fat femmes of color have shown such leadership around – care, and pleasure, and justice. I think that could change all of our lives, and has.


I feel like body positivity has become a household phrase and I see it used often in multiple facets of queer community. While body positivity isn’t the same as fat activism, it can definitely be a gateway toward engagement with fat liberation. 

   I want fat activism in the hood. Seriously, though I see so many fat Black femmes around my neighborhood with weaves down to their asses, glittery nails like talons, tight jeans and timbs15 whose FINE-NESS (both esthetically Fine and Fine with themselves) radiates. And though they may not use the term fat activist, that is what is happening in that moment. So I want fat activism to be done with critiques of classism, racism, and respectability politics in mind, and to center the needs of fat Black femmes.


I am very excited about fat liberation work that celebrates queer and trans femininity. I think it has the potential to target assumptions about gender, class, race and ethnicity in our organizing work.


  1. For more on “crip time,” or the ways that time works differently in disabled people’s lives than in abled productive workers in capitalism or heterosexuality, see Piepzna-Samarasinha (2018) and Samuels (2017).
  2. The Lesbian Avengers was a direct action group founded in 1992 in New York City by lesbians active in ACT-UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power) and feminist organizing, that had chapters in multiple cities, including a chapter in Boston that was active from 1993 until the early 2000s. Although some chapters focused only on cisgender lesbian issues, the Boston chapter had trans feminist, disabled, reproductive justice, and anti-racist commitments.
  3. Strap-On was a messageboard, hosted at strap-on.org, that was a hotbed of transfeminist, working class, and queer and trans people of color anti-oppressive thought and community building as well as transfeminist activism in the late 1990s – early 2000s that had grown out of the punk label Chainsaw Records’ message boards. See Paulska (2015) for an interview about moderating another queer online community for Ariel Speed Wagon’s description of strap-on, situating it as a precursor to other queer message- board/community spaces.
  4. Fatshionista! (2016), was and is a LiveJournal community that was conceived of and moderated by mostly working-class femmes of color and superfat white working class femmes, described on the site as “We are a diverse fat-positive, anti-racist, disabled-friendly, multi-gendered, queer-flavored, politically-engaged community, open to everyone,” with a rigorous set of behavior standards and very active moderation.
  5. .Healthism is a system of oppression that constructs “health” as both a medicalized bodily state that can be objectively known, and an individualistic and moralistic pursuit. In the case of diabetes, diabetics are simultaneously imagined under healthism as both failures at achieving “health” and “avoiding” the chronic illness, and are pressured to demonstrate to others that they are the “right kind” of diabetics by performing behaviors meant to “prove” health-seeking, including but not limited to weight loss, a rigid “proper” nutrition including strict limitation or elimination of carbohydrates, specific kinds of exercise, and more. Robert Crawford coined the term in 1980, writing “Healthism is “the preoccupation with personal health as a primary – often the primary – focus for the definition and achievement of well-being; a goal which is to be attained primarily through the modification of life styles” (Crawford 1980, 368).
  1. Eat Your Hart Out is an annual fat burlesque show in the Washington, D.C. area; see Cooper (2018).
  2. Femme is queer community-specific identity term that has evolved from working class gay and lesbian bar culture in New York in the mid to late 20th century. Femme is used by people who identify with and have political commitments to femininity, some to disrupting masculinity, some with no investment in or relationship to masculinity at all. Some queer people identify as F/femme as well as having other sexuality and/or gender identities; some queer people’s gender identity is F/femme.
  3. The DeVos family is a family of white, wealthy, Dutch-American, Dutch Christian Reform Church members who, with the Van Andel family, made their fortunes as the head of the Amway corporation, which is a financial center of gravity in the Grand Rapids, MI and to a lesser extent the entire West Michigan economy. The family contributes significant money to local, statewide, and national politics through financial donations to the Republican party and notably to anti-choice, anti-gay, anti-transgender candidates; money controlled by the DeVos family is extraordinarily influential in the Grand Rapids education, nonprofit, and corporate sectors as well as in local and national electoral politics. The recently late patriarch of the family, Richard DeVos, was a close friend of President Gerald Ford, also from Grand Rapids, MI. Betsy DeVos, who married into the family, was the 11th United States Secretary of Education, 2017-January 2021. See Smith (2018).
  4. Although there is a meme chart that defines “superfat” by body size as measured by US-based women’s clothing sizes, specifically Torrid sizes 4–6, a meme that was created and circulated based on the size categories articulated by Ash of the Fat Lip Podcast (Ash 2016), “Superfat” as we’re using it in this piece reflects the definition as coined and understood by superfat people at Nolose conferences, particularly since the early 2000s, which is a political designation to name and build community around a particular experience of oppression. Superfat describes the social and physical experience of being excluded even from fat clothing stores, of not having the privilege to assume seating sturdy or wide enough to accommodate one’s body, of being viewed as a threat or as monstrous or unthinkable by dominant cultures and decentered in fat cultures and activist projects. The word “superfat” is viewed with some fondness because of its politics and playful association with superheroes.
  5. “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle, because we do not live single-issue lives” (Lorde [1984] 2007, 138).
  6. Mira Bellwether has posted extensively about the difficulties of navigating both dehumanizing medical systems and dehumanizing ciscentric fat spaces, and her intellectual work on twitter is important, in addition to her singular work on trans women’s sexuality; see Bellwether (2020).
  7. “Cupcakes and Muffintops: An annual Oakland, CA clothing and bake sale ‘where only the prices are small!’ Cupcakes & Muffintops takes inspiration from an earlier fundraiser by former Nolose board members Sondra Solovay and Joe Libin, along with Timnah Steinman and Heather MacAllister, focused on raising money to bring the Bay Area play ‘Fat Fuck’ to the Nolose 2003 conference. The successful event was reimagined several years later as a joint project in partnership with the Bay Area fat dance troupe, Big Moves, to create fat community while raising money for national and local fat-positive and social-justice-focused organizations and projects.” Sondra Solovay, Facebook messages to author Doherty, July 12 and 16, 2020.
  1. All Bodies Centered (ABC) Soul Dance class (Clear 2020). “The All Bodies Centered (ABC) Soul Dance class started in Feb 2016 as a dance space to center big bodied, curvy, plus size, BBW/BHM, fat* and all ranges of larger body sizes, people with disabilities and people with chronic illness, pain, and other bodily challenges that make movement spaces difficult and often, unsafe. This class has seated modifications and modifications for varying ranges of motion for current Soul Line Dances, Afro Beat Inspired Moves and a range of other movement and dance styles!”
  2. See, for example, Margitte Leah Kristjánsson’s public facebook post, in which she wrote, “hey y’all shrill ep 4 writer sam irby did *not* steal the pool party scene from virgietovar. fat babe pool parties have been happening since the 1970s. thank u for coming to my ted talk.” (Kristjánsson 2019)– a post which had 217 comments and 22 shares; or Ijeoma Oluo’s twitter thread about Irby’s authorship of the episode and the specifically anti-Black dynamics of accusing Irby of plagiarism (Oluo 2019).
  3. “Timbs” is a nickname for Timberland brand work boots.

Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author(s).

Notes on contributors

Sarah Doherty is a community organizer, agitator, and artist, originally from the northeast USA, at times based in the Pacific NW and South, and currently living and working in the Midwest. She has several decades of experience working in queer and trans, disabled and fat, and radical communities, as well as LGBTQ+ higher education. She holds an MSW from Portland State University and a B.A. in Women’s Studies and Sociology from Cornell University.

Shana McDavis-Conway has been a social and racial justice activist for 20+ years, working with organizations in California, D.C, and Connecticut. She was a founding member of CSS’s Strategy Training and Organizing Resources for Youth (STORY) program and is a trainer on using the power of narrative. Shana was previously the Co-Director of the Emerson National Fellows Program at the Congressional Hunger Center – a leadership development fellowship for people interested in ending hunger, poverty and racism. She was most recently the Program Manager for the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program at UC Davis. Shana holds a B.A. in Anthropology and Women Studies from the University of Delaware and currently chairs the Board of NOLOSE.

Adrienne Hill (she/they) is the co-founder of the Buffalo-Niagara LGBTQ History Project, a queer fat femme, a Pacific Northwesterner by birth, and a resident of the Rust Belt by choice.

Elaine Lee, JD is a longtime fat activist, recovering corporate attorney, and computer engineer. Elaine is on the Board of Directors of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance and has previously served as Co-President of the Board of Directors of NOLOSE, both of which are national nonprofit organizations committed to fat liberation and eliminating hatred, prejudice, and discrimination toward fat people.

Sydney Lewis received her doctorate in English from the University of Washington. She is currently a lecturer in The Harriet Tubman Department of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Maryland.

Aaminah Shakur is a Queer, Crip/Sick/Mad, Fat multi-racial/multi-cultural artist, historian, culture critic, editor, and poet based in the Midwest (U.S.) Their scholarship focuses on issues of accessibility in art spaces and the ethics of representation of disability in art and popular culture.

Cicely Smith “Cicely – fat. brown. crafty. kinky. poly. pagan. gender/queer.”


Abundia, Inc. 2018. Accessed February 10, 2020. http://abundia.org .

Ash. 2016. “Beyond Superfat: Rethinking the Farthest End of the Fat Spectrum.” Fat Lip Podcast, December 20. Accessed July 4, 2020. http://thefatlip.com/2016/12/20/beyond- superfat-rethinking-the-farthest-end-of-the-fat-spectrum/ .

Bellwether, Mira. “@TheeBellwether.” Accessed February 10, 2020. https://twitter.com/theaun tifa?lang=en .

Berne, Patty, with Sins Invalid. 2015. “10 Principles of Disability Justice.” Sins Invalid, September 17. Accessed January 31, 2020. https://www.sinsinvalid.org/blog/10-principles- of-disability-justice .

Big Moves. 2013. “About emFATic Dance.” Big Moves: Because Every Body Can Dance. Accessed January 11, 2021. http://www.bigmoves.org/about-emfatic/ .

The Body Is Not An Apology. 2020. “Mission, Vision, and History.” Accessed February 20, 2020. https://thebodyisnotanapology.com/about-tbinaa/history-mission-and-vision/ .

Cavanaugh, Briana. 2019. “Welcome and Read Me!” Facebook. Fatlandia group, April 25. Accessed January 11, 2021. https://www.facebook.com/groups/fatlandia/permalink/ 455637414555578/ .

Chunky Dunk. 2010. Accessed February 25, 2020. http://chunkydunk.org/ .

Clear, Ifasina T.L. 2020. “All Bodies Centered (ABC) Soul Dance Class.” Facebook, May 20. Accessed June 3, 2020. https://www.facebook.com/groups/924559280990198/permalink/ 3015286465250792/ .

Cooper, Mariah. 2018. “‘Eat Your Hart Out’ Returns.” Washington Blade, April 21. Accessed July 5, 2020. https://www.washingtonblade.com/2018/04/21/eat-your-hart-out-returns/ . Crawford, Robert. 1980. “Healthism and the Medicalization of Everyday Life.” International Journal of Health Services 10:365–388. doi: 10.2190/3H2H-3XJN-3KAY-G9NY.

Cupcakes And Muffintops. 2019. Accessed February 14, 2020. https://cupcakesandmuffintops. wordpress.com/ .

FaT GiRL Collective. 1994–1997. FaT GiRL: A Zine for Fat Dykes and the Women Who Want Them. Issues 1-7. CA, USA.

Fat Positive Sacramento. 2015. “Facebook.” May 10. Accessed February 5, 2020. https://www. facebook.com/groups/FatPosSac/ .

Fat Rose. 2020. “Fatties! Join One of Our Mutual Aid Study Groups!” January 31. Accessed February 4, 2020. https://fatrose.org/2020/01/31/fat-rose-mutual-aid-study-group/ .

Fatshionista! 2016. Accessed January 11, 2021. https://fatshionista.livejournal.com/ .

FLUF Philly. 2015. “Facebook.” May 31. Accessed February 14, 2020. https://www.facebook. com/groups/FLUFphilly/ .Flying While Fat. 2012. “Facebook.” October 13. Accessed February 5, 2020. https://www.facebook.com/groups/flyingwhilefat/about/ .

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