Episode 1

Published on:

21st Jan 2020

Dr. Charlotte Cooper - A Fat Femme Tomato Lady Doing a High-Kick - 001

In this episode of Queers & Co., I’m joined by Dr. Charlotte Cooper, psychotherapist, cultural worker and the author of Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement and the newly updated Fat Activist Vernacular.

We chat about what it means to be a good ally, how climate activism is yet to get its act together around fat, what it means to be queer, punks who hate “normals”, the role of dance in exploring your body as a fat person and Charlotte’s encounter with a fat femme tomato lady doing a high-kick.

If you haven't already, be sure to join our Facebook community to connect with other like-minded queer folks and allies.

Find out more about Gem Kennedy and Queers & Co.

Podcast Artwork by Gemma D'Souza


In this episode, we mentioned the following resources:

Full Transcription

Full Transcriptions of every episode are available here.

Gem: Welcome to the Queers & Co. Podcast. I'm your host, Gem Kennedy, and I'm very excited to be recording the first ever episode. My guest today is someone whose work I've followed and loved since first hearing about her in 2016. She's a psychotherapist and cultural worker based in East London, as well as the author of books like Fat Activism and the Fat Activist Vernacular, which we're going to talk about today. I'm very excited to welcome Dr. Charlotte Cooper. Hi Charlotte.

Charlotte: Hi Gem. What a pleasure is to be here.

Gem: It's so nice to have you. Thanks for agreeing to do it.

Charlotte: My absolute pleasure.

Gem: So, I've got lists of questions. I don't want to bombard you, but it would be really cool if we can start off with hearing a bit more about your work and then we'll chat about the Fat Activist Vernacular that's coming out soon.

Charlotte: Yeah, sure. How to describe my work? I have fingers in a few pies. My main work is as a psychotherapist and I specialise in working with people who are on the edges in some way. I work with lots of queers and trans people, neurodivergent people, sex workers and also the occasional Normal comes along and I don't turn them away. I guess that's my day job, but it is a vocation as well. It's really important to me and I really love the work. I've also been making stuff for a long time so I call myself a cultural worker cause I think of making stuff as a political act. I started off making performances when I was in my teens and twenties and I have been making zines for a long time as well, probably for about 30 years cause I'm getting on a bit now.

Charlotte: Lately, I've been returning more to performance and I'm sort of exploring, making different kinds of things as well. A lot of my work is about fat and I've been doing that for about three decades or so. I started off with my own body and my own life and thinking about what it was to have grown up fat. But this turned into scholarship quite quickly. I did a Master's degree and the product of that was a book. I published a book called Fat and Proud in 1998 and then I got a bit burnt out, but then I got more involved in fat activism in the States through a zine called Fat Girl in 1994, which was this really fantastic fat queer publication that came out of San Francisco. I also started going to No Lose, which is a kind of conference that takes place in the States every now and again. I became part of that community and then as luck would have it, I met some people who knew of my work and they said that they had some funding available for a doctorate and was I interested that. So I applied for that and I got it and went to do a PhD for a few years in Limerick in Ireland. The product of that was the book Fat Activism, A Radical Social Movement. Although I'm interested in queer performance and queer publishing and DIY-zine making, I'm also really interested in fat and what that means and fat as a cultural experience. That's rather a wordy answer to a simple question, "What do you do?" but those are the main things.

Gem: That's a great answer. It's really useful to hear the background as well because there may be people listening to this who haven't come across your work before.

Charlotte: No, I'm really obscure and even though I've done a lot, people don't know much about me. One of the things that strikes me very much about the world of fat (and I guess people call it body positivity now, but it has lots of names and lots of genealogies too), younger people won't have heard of older people like me, but I wasn't the first. There were people who came before me as well and I'm interested in creating more intergenerational discussions about what it is to be fat.

Gem: Yeah. And I really love how you reference at the beginning of the Fat Activist Vernacular the people who came before you. It's something that's often forgotten in activists movements.

Charlotte: Yes, that's right. Everybody thinks they're the first, but they're not. In fact there's an entry in the Vernacular for the Rebel Wilson Effekt. It's about that feeling that you're always the first to discover something, but sorry mate, you're not the first. There are many, many people who came before us.

Gem: Yeah, absolutely. Maybe if we start with that first actually talking about the Vernacular. For me, it feels as though it's part of that having conversations with younger generations actually showing the history of the words that are used and how they've developed over time. I'm 32 now, no I'm 33. I lie. I'd say I recognise 80% of them, but there were a few references that I wasn't aware of. And so just having that kind of continuing conversation between different generations is something that's so helpful about having a vernacular available to actually continue those words and tell future people what they actually meant.

Charlotte: Oh, that's great to hear. I'm really excited to hear that there were bits that weren't familiar. I mean, there will be bits in it that aren't familiar because I've just made some of them up. I think of it as a glossary of terms that are familiar to many fat activists, possibly of my generation. And also it's got this kind of queer feminist sensibility to it as well. Some of them I just made up and they're just a product of my imagination so you won't have heard of them. I think it's important to try and instil an idea in people that there were others who came before, and not that the others who came before were stupid. These are sophisticated thinkers and activists who were organized. And I guess one of the problems is these histories get forgotten very easily and they're very ephemeral so another part of my practice that I've come to as I've got older, is thinking about archiving and how to transmit and preserve these stories. And I think the Vernacular is a part of that. It's thinking about language and how language shapes your understanding of things. It's also very irreverent, so it's taking the Mickey out of official language and the official view of what it is to be fat. I'm interested in slang as well so it's about other ways of seeing, not the the mainstream way. I think it's a survival tactic actually. I think fat people are really good at looking at things [inaudible] and I hope that's what the Vernacular does.

Gem: Yeah, absolutely. I guess now's a good time to let people know how they can get hold of it. I know that you published it as a zine a while back and I'm guessing that you had quite a few requests from people to make it available again.

Charlotte: You guessed right. It was a paper zine and I sold out of that and my practice with zines is usually I don't really do reprints so once it's gone, it's gone. But also when I thought about it, there were so many entries that I wanted to include that I didn't. So this current version, and there may be more in the future, I'm not sure, but this version has over 600 entries in it. It's quite a whopper. You can get it directly from me from my website, which is www.charlottecooper.net. I also work with the Live Art Development Agency and they have a bookshop, which is, www.thisisunbound.co.uk. You can get it from there and if you buy it from them, then a portion of the money goes towards live art in the UK or you can get it from all the usual ebook retailers online.

Gem: Amazing. Thank you. Doing my job for me. So I guess it would be useful to actually look at a couple of the entries. I've written down a few because there are loads. I highlighted all the pages! I'm just gonna pick out a couple that feel really relevant to the kinds of things that we've have discussed in the zine in the past. One of the first ones was Ally. I just want to read it out and then it would be great to hear a bit more about that...

Charlotte: Okay, cause it's such a cynical entry, but anyway go ahead Gem.

Gem: Yeah, it's a great way of thinking about it though. So it starts "Someone who's supposed to stand by you and help. Often someone who exploits and betrays you, uses you to prop up their privilege, doesn't understand and doesn't help. Maybe this model for people in social justice is not that great."

Charlotte: I guess that entry was born out of a lot of disappointment really. And around fat... I don't know, it's such a complex subject. People have so many different feelings about it. There's a lot of pressure... It's not just a pressure to be thin or normative. It's also pressure to be a really good fatty as well. I think finding supporters around that or people that you can really rely on is quite difficult because it's quite a confusing thing to talk about for a lot of people too. So there are inevitably disappointments around it. It's rather a cynical and disappointed entry, but maybe there could be other models as well.

Charlotte: One of the things that I tried to do a while back now... I had a project called the Chubsters, which was a fictitious girl gang, which was also kind of real as well. And the idea with the Chubsters was that anybody could be a Chubster, but it was a girl going for fat queer, badly behaved women, but you didn't have to be fat or queer, remotely badly behaved or a woman to be a Chubster. And if you just wanted to be a Chubster, you could be one. You'd get a little badge and a membership card by writing me an email or asking to ask me to join. Sometimes we had workshops where people would join en masse and sometimes we had little events as well. The idea of that was that it wasn't an exclusionary space. That was a much more productive way of thinking about fat and including people rather than this idea that there's a line between a fat person and an ally.

Charlotte: But I know I'm out of step with most people because the concept of ally is super mainstream and popular and that's how people think about activism at the moment.

Gem: Yeah, but it doesn't mean to say that there aren't better ways or more useful ways of doing it.

Charlotte: Yeah, there could be other ways. You're right.

Gem: Yeah. I really like the sound of the Chubsters. I'd like to join if it was still going.

Charlotte: Well, it's on hiatus at the moment, but again, you never know it could come back. I mean it was an important project for me because until that point, I'd thought of fat activism as really hard work. And the Chubsters was something that was really ridiculous, imaginative, really playful, silly, but also meaningful to people as well. We had a symbol called the Screaming C, which I have tattooed on me. Sadly a couple of Chubsters died recently and their partners returned their cards and badges to me. Even though it was this really irreverent and silly project, it also had these deeper resonances and meaning to people.

Gem: Yeah, that sounds amazing. There are two others that I wanted to look at in the Fat Activist Vernacular. As I said, there are lots that I would choose, but I guess one that really pissed me off - not what you'd written - but one that really pissed me off that I come across a lot in my work is this idea of Protective Layer Theory.

Charlotte: Oh God. Yeah.

Gem: Yeah, fuck that. I'll probably not explain this as well as you, but I'll just really quickly say for anyone listening if you don't know what it is, it's essentially what you read about in Fat Is A Feminist Issue. So the idea that people have kind of put this layer of fat around themselves to protect their bodies, particularly following sexual assaults. I'm just going to say this really quickly. One person that I know of who is a coach suddenly announced one day that they'd realize they'd been living in a fat suit and that they were going to 'lose the weight' and 'finally live their full life'. And obviously I was horrified. But it seems to be quite a common idea that people are protecting themselves from something in some way. It feels very spiritually bypassing and bullshit basically.

Charlotte: Gem, it is total bullshit, but it's a really popular view amongst people who absolutely should know better. My understanding is that it came out of psychoanalysis and it also came out of these feminist takes on psychoanalysis, hence it's in Fat Is A Feminist Issue, which draws on those ideas. That book was so popular, so phenomenal that this has just become taken as fact, but it's not, it is bullshit. I realised actually after I wrote that entry, what I forgot to put in is that it's really victim blamey and it relies on an idea of sexuality as something that's about genitals rather than a social view or a sense of identity or a different way. It's very genitally focused and I just thought, "Yeah, what bloody out of date, useless nonsense." I don't know who it helps really, that idea. I did find that entry really hard to write because it's one of those ideas that is so pernicious and that people really internalise and it's bullshit but it's so, so fat phobic, it's misogynist, it's really anti-sexuality. I think it has so many problems with it and I really wish people would stop using it. And you're right, it also draws on this idea of your fatness is some kind of fat suit that you wear and that there's an authentic thin person inside you. It's bloody nonsense actually.

Gem: Yeah, it really is. I was actually really pleased to see it because sometimes I think it can feel quite isolating doing the kind of work where you're telling people that there are layers of oppression involved and there's nothing wrong with fatness and then you have other people spouting this kind of stuff. Also I've recently seen even on Instagram I've seen a pile of books, which actually includes your Fat Activism book but with Fat Is A Feminist Issue kind of lumped in with it as though they're of a similar thought and they're clearly not. So I think that's really important to distinguish as well.

Charlotte: They're very different books and they come from different traditions, certainly. Yeah I find the book Fat Is A Feminist Issue extremely problematic and I've written many places why that is but one of the things that you said that sparks hope in me is a sense of not being alone with it. And one of my greatest hopes actually for the Vernacular, is people will recognise parts of their lives in there and won't feel isolated and will know that somebody else might be thinking about it and that there are others too. One of the things that has influenced me in my life has certainly been a feminist practice of naming things, giving things form instead of them being abstract or unknowable. And once you name something, then you can talk about it and work it...

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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

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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.