Episode 8

Published on:

18th Mar 2020

Imogen Fox - The most dangerous message I've ever received - 008

In this episode of Queers & Co., I’m joined by Imogen Fox, a queer Disabled femme who serves up radical body politics, anti-diet talk and non-judgemental compassion.

We chat about Imogen’s first foray into disability rights activism as a teen, the trauma of eating rice cakes and cottage cheese and being indoctrinated into diet culture by those closest to us. We also talk about radical Disability politics, the co-opting and white-washing of movements and whether it’s really possible to use your privilege for good.

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Podcast Artwork by Gemma D’Souza


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Read Imogen’s self-proclaimed ‘dusty’ blog here

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Full Transcription

Gem: Hi Imogen.

Imogen: Hello my lovely! Yeah, I’m not too bad, thank you. I was just saying to you I’ve got a really bad tummy ache, so I’m like in a massive jumper with a big hot water bottle… and a kitten actually, just curled up on the sofa, nursing myself.

Gem: I’m sorry that you’re not well. But that sounds like a really lovely place to be in to recover.

Imogen: It’s not not wellness. The annoying bit about it is that it can be quite a regular occurrence. It’s just that my tummy is part of my impairment. So, things like this are kind of, sort of normal. And my go-to coping strategy is to—especially when it’s cold. Just to huddle up and nest myself a little bit…

Gem: Yeah, absolutely. Well, I think I came across your work maybe a couple of years ago. I’ve definitely been following you for quite a while…

Imogen: We’ve been in touch for a while.

Gem: Yeah! And we met at Body Kind last year.

Imogen: Yeah, yeah…

Gem: So, I’m really excited to get the chance to ask you all my questions. And I guess what I generally start off with when I’m chatting to people is just asking them to introduce how they identify, and I guess what different intersections play a role in them as a person.

Imogen: Yeah, okay. I would say I’m a queer disabled femme. I haven’t really kind of started using the term non-binary, but I don’t really identify as being part of a gender binary particularly. I still use the pronouns she/her although they’re not particularly comfortable. But then I don’t find they/them any more comfortable. So, I tend to use a mixture of both of those things.

I live in Bristol in the UK. And I have been a disability rights activist for most of my life actually. But I found an online community through Instagram a few years ago. So, I’ve just been writing and sharing stuff there for a while.

Gem: Yeah. And I’m really interested in how that came about. You talk about radical body politics which is really powerful and obviously has so many different sides to it. I know you say that you’re anti-diet as well. And sort of your relationship with the medical industry and all those kinds of different aspects… So, it will be amazing to start maybe at the beginning. You say you’ve been involved with disability rights activism for a really long time. How did that come about?

Imogen: Okay! Well, I went to into an integrated school. So, I went to school with other disabled children. And whilst my impairment hadn’t been diagnosed, I was already having symptoms. So, I had some learning support needs.

It was integrated to a point because we still had this designated building. Maybe now, it might be different. There might be accessible toilets in the toilets. But back then, we had to go back to the pavilion, it was called, in the middle of the school grounds. There was like bathtubs and physio rooms and there was like the little mini flat where you could learn cooking skills and that kind of stuff.

So, I was part of that little community. And so, I already had a reasonable experience of difference.

So, when I came out as queer, I was like, “This is an absolute nightmare! I couldn't be more different if I tried.” But back then, there was no Tinder or dating stuff. So, when I finally got the internet in my house—which I was nearly 17—I found a pen pal website where you could pen pal with people because that was a thing.  And I met this incredible woman who is still one of my absolute best friends today.  And she was a woman with an impairment. She’s 10 years older than me. And she was working for the Disability Rights Commission. They don’t even exist anymore, the DRC. And we just hit it off straightaway. There was never anything romantic. We were just really good friends. And we started spending loads of time together.

Well, she was part of the Direct Action Network. And so, when they were doing demonstrations, she’d just be like, “Right! We’re going!” So, I just started going to all these demonstrations. We did some in Birmingham over social care. We did some in Manchester. Actually, we did the Disability Rights Commission. But she did quit her job before we did that one. She didn’t just rock up and be like, “I’m not working today. I’m tying myself to my desk. Please still pay me.”

Yeah, we did loads of demos and stuff. But this was pre-18, so still quite kind of formative. I was forming all my political and identities. I was like, “This is what the social model of disability is.” And I was like, “Yes!” I was completely indoctrinated from the minute I heard it. I totally got it!

So, many of your listeners may well already be aware of what that means. But in society, we live in the medical model of disability which implies that our bodies are to blame for the situation that we find ourselves. However, the social model of disability flips that completely and says that society is to blame for the situations that we find ourselves in.

So, for example, the fact that we don’t have physical access to things isn’t our fault because we can’t physically access them. It’s society’s problem because they don’t make it accessible to us. And obviously, that stretches way beyond physical access, but also financial access or attitudinal access even, all the ways in which disabled people are marginalised by society. It is essentially society’s fault.

Gem: Yeah, and it’s just a completely different way of looking at things, isn’t it? I mean I’ve been lucky enough to work with one in particular disability rights activist who takes legal cases. And starting to work with her… it just shows my privilege. I didn’t realise that that is what people experienced. And yeah, it was really eye-opening.

Imogen: Yeah, I think when you live as a disabled person, you don’t realise either. I guess, in some ways, we’re so genuinely caught up in the belief that we’re to blame, that we just have a problem that is our fault—that we are too big and ask for too much and have too many needs. You don’t realise that you’re worthy of better than that.

And to be clear, I really lost my way in the middle. During my twenties, despite the fact that my impairment was probably—I was probably the most obviously physically impaired I’d ever been in my life, I started dieting. Funnily enough, that’s how I started my Instagram account. I was just doing little posts, but it very quickly turned into this is what I’ve eaten and all that kind of bullshit.

And I really didn’t realise until I clicked with anti-diet that the social model of disability stretches way, way, way beyond disabled people in the way that we might kind of assume disability to mean, that actually encompasses all queerness of bodies in general. It’s about a general societal attitude towards others that is the problem.

And when I finally realised that by thinning myself and dieting and restricting, I was actually suddenly part of the society that was so harmful. It all kind of clicked back into place. And it really reignited my politics. And that’s when my Instagram really took off, because I was angry again and mad about being sucked into something that I was so anti. But you don’t realise how desperate you feel to assimilate when you are already asking so much of the world around you.

So, I had 24-hour care needs. I had a host of medical things that needed doing absolutely every day. And I also wore a dress size 28. I was a full-time power chair user. And I guess a massive part of me just felt like if I can just look different, if I could just be more socially acceptable in my wheelchair with my 24-hour carer and everything else that comes with me, maybe that would make it more bearable? Maybe society would make more room for me? Maybe I could take a little bit more of what I need? And actually, in reality, that is so never the case. It’s never what happens. You just end up killing yourself for no good fucking reason.

Gem: Yeah… and be miserable in the process.

Imogen: Yeah! Yeah, absolutely. And the bastards will never, ever, ever change how they feel because as soon as you tick one box, they’re like, “Yeah, but babes, here are all the other boxes you don’t tick LOL. I’m still going to fuck you over.” So, I knocked that on the head pretty quickly—well, not quickly enough to not have to quite a raging eating disorder in the process, but quickly enough that I didn’t do any horrific long-term damage hopefully.

Gem: Yeah! And what was your experience of being around diet culture as a young person. On the one hand, when you were 17 and 18, you were really active. And you were all about making these changes with these different organisations and different actions. Was diet culture something that was there in the background at the time? Or was it not part of your life then? Obviously, I know it’s like, in a way, part of all of our lives, unfortunately.

Imogen: Yeah… obviously, you just don’t realise. I think probably primarily, I’ve been brought up with a very kind of average baby boomer. So, my mum was born just after the World War II. They were very, very working class and had lived without food. But as a baby boomer, she just hit the right times and my parents were eventually middle class. And there was a lot of pressure—or she felt a lot of pressure certainly amongst that white, middle class, little village-y…

We lived just outside of Cambridge. So, it was incredibly white and well-spoken.

Do you know what I mean? So yeah, I think she felt a lot of pressure to look different despite the fact that she, from memory, dieted almost constantly and never really looked any different…

So, I guess it wasn’t overtly conversational. I don’t remember her saying things to me specifically. But I remember eating Ryvita’s for lunch and thinking, “Nobody enjoys a Ryvita. What the fuck is this?”

I mean maybe you might! If you enjoy a Ryvita, you crack on babe! But I know for a fact my mom doesn’t love a Ryvita. Do you know what I mean? Or maybe like if it was smuggled… you know the sweet ones with the raisins in? If you cover those with jam and peanut butter, maybe I could get onboard with that. But the other ones, it’s a no from me. Thanks!

Gem: Yeah, same here. I think it’s the idea of being forced to—I’m not saying your mum forced you, but with diet culture, expecting you to eat something. It just takes away all its enjoyment. It’s something you have to eat.

Imogen: Yeah, absolutely, yeah. Actually, my nieces and nephews, they go for rice crackers. They smash rice crackers. Oh, my God! They fucking love a rice cracker. I’m so traumatised from eating rice crackers with cottage cheese on.

Gem: Oh my God! Me too.

Imogen: But do you know what I mean? Literally, I’m like, “Oh, God! Get that rice cracker away from me.” I’d be karate chopping a 4-year-old, “Get it out of my face! I don’t want your fucking rice cracker, dude.” Yeah, no… ugh! No, thank you.

But yes, I remember the first time my mum said the word “calories” to me. We bought some Pick & Mix. And I think my grandma was probably down. And she was a notorious northern grandma. She bought us lots of sweets. She took us to the bakery every day. We were allowed to pick a doughnut. And she always bought these amazing rolls from Marks & Spencer’s. Oh, my God! They were so good. I don’t know whether those rolls do exist. But if they do, I might actually walk there later!

Gem: …just to see!

Imogen: Yeah, those were so good! And I remember she had bought us a big bag of Pick & Mix each when Woolworth’s still existed… remember that?

Gem: Oh yeah… good times!

Imogen: Yeah! And I remember my mum saying, “You know, you shouldn't eat all of them now. You can have some more later” and her saying sweeties have got a lot of calories in; and me just being like, “a) what is that?” I didn’t really understand it as a thing. And b) I remember thinking, “Well, if I’m going to eat them later, the calories are still the same? So, what difference does ‘later’ make in terms of calories?” It didn’t make any sense to me at all.

But I guess she was probably trying to educate me in a world that she was indoctrinated in because I was already… I look back now, I would say I was a chubby kid. I was definitely a fat teenager. And I think my two much, much thinner, much more naturally sporty and active sisters, I think my mum probably felt like she owed me an education in order to prevent me from probably being her. Do you know what I mean a little bit? She didn’t want me to have to experience what she did.

But in reality, we share a body type. So, I’m going to have those experiences. What would’ve been better, would’ve been maybe fuck the patriarchy.

Gem: Yeah, that’s always better within pretty much everything. I think that’s really common though. That’s certainly my experience, that the reason a lot of people end up with issues around food or being very indoctrinated into diet culture is they’ve kind of had someone be like, “Hello, welcome! In order to keep you safe, this is what we need to do.” And like you said, it’s not from a place of unkindness or anything. it’s just simply like, “I want you to be able to survive as best you can in the world. And this is what you need to do to assimilate.”

Imogen: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Yes, it’s really frightening, isn’t it, that those come from the closest people that we ought to be the safest with, and yet I think it’s the most dangerous message I think I’ve ever received in my life.

Probably the only other message has come from medics, that I’m not worthy of treatment, of life, of medicines, of all the things that they provide. But actually, to some extent, their messages make a lot more sense than the diet culture ones do.

Interestingly, when I started hanging around with lots more disabled people from the Diet Action Network, diet culture took on a really different kind of twist. They as a community are probably quite anti-diet really because they’re quite “fuck you”—certainly, the radical crips definitely.

But kind of quickly as my impairment progressed and changed, I moved into a much more chronic health rather than a capital D Disabled people movement. And I find that I still actually—

Actually, I’ve never written about this. I’ve got to be quite careful how I talk about it because I don’t want anybody to feel like I’m personally attacking or offending. But the chronic health community actually have a really different approach to the world than the kind of capital D Disabled community. And I think that’s because they’re very indoctrinated into the medical model, into medicine, but also incredibly invested in health. And actually, disabled people— And I’m using the word “capital D” and saying that specifically because lots and lots and lots of people would say that they are disabled, but they wouldn't share the kind of radical politics that I do. I am a capital D disabled person because I am invested very specifically in a certain type of radical politics. And those two things have to be separated out because I don’t want to lump in a load of disabled people who think, “Well, I don’t feel like that.”

So yeah, the kind of more radical progressive group of disabled people aren’t particularly invested in health because they’re like, “Well, LOL… that’s funny. That’s not really attainable. We’ve known from the beginning that that wasn’t ever a thing that was going to be a privilege that we experience. We don’t go out of our way to make life any worse for ourselves. But we also don’t go around trying to kill ourselves in order to be #fitspo,” do you know what I mean?

Whereas the chronic health community are very different. They have often experienced health privilege for big chunks of their lives, and then all of a sudden are now experiencing quite a sudden spin of like deprivation on that front and want to get back to healthy. So, they do all these—I don’t want to say ridiculous diets, but also a little bit ridiculous diets to regain health.

It’s so hard though, isn’t it? If you’re properly lactose intolerant, if you’ve got Coeliac disease, what are you going to do? It’s such a minefield. I just have no idea how you’re going to have those conversations. But I find that the chronic health community is really difficult to be part of. And it definitely fuelled my orthorexia and restrictive eating patterns because I was so desperate to eat myself well, like food was some kind of medicine that I had been… And equally, that food had been some kind of poison the previous couple of decades. Obviously, I don’t really subscribe to those feelings now. I think that bodies react differently to food based on your body rather than the food itself. It’s much more about working with your body to make food manageable rather than demonising certain food groups and being super restrictive and on diets and stuff.

But I found that was really challenging. And I’ve definitely kind of moved away back into that radical disability politics rather than being part of that chronic health community.

Gem: And you mentioned that, during your twenties, you kind of lost your way a bit with being involved with that more radical body politics. What kickstarted or facilitated you moving back into it do you think?

Imogen: It was definitely discovering anti-diet. I was like, “Oh, yeah, fatness is a fucking access issue, duh.” All of a sudden, it kind of clicked in. It’s about being socially acceptable. And all those years, I’ve been really caught up with it, about being impaired very specifically. And actually, now I realise that it encompasses queerness in the broadest sense of the...

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About the Podcast

Queers and Co.
A podcast for queer folks and allies on self-empowerment, body liberation and activism.
Hi, I'm Gem! Join me as I chat to queer folks and allies about self-empowerment, body liberation and activism. My guests are at the forefront of change-making, working in areas like fat activism, sex positivity, intersectional feminism, drag/cabaret, LGBTQ+ activism and children's rights.

I'm a transformational coach, activist and founder of the Queers & Co. zine, podcast and community. Through my work, I support LGBTQ+ folks and allies to reclaim their personal power and take up space so that they can impact the world in ways they have only dreamt of.

Find out more about my work: www.gemkennedy.com
Find out more about Queers & Co.: www.gemkennedy.com/queersandco

About your host

Profile picture for Gem Kennedy

Gem Kennedy

I’m Gem. I'm the founder of the Queers & Co. zine, community and podcast, as well as a transformational coach and activist. I’m also queer, fat positive, an intersectional feminist and Mum to two free-range children.

I help LGBTQ+ folks and allies to reclaim their personal power and take up space so that they can impact the world in ways they have only dreamt of.