Narratives surrounding fat and more specifically fat bodies are, more often than not, violent. They are steeped in colonial framing and perceived western ideals of beauty and ‘health’.
Fat bodies are both hyper-visible and invisible in our society and fatphobia is an inherent part of our everyday lives. Societal views on fat bodies are amplified on social media platforms. We know how algorithms work and we can often find ourselves bombarded with fatphobic imagery and messaging online.
However over the past year or two there has been a growing presence of fat queer BIPOC coming to the forefront in Aotearoa - and this month grassroots neighbourhood arts festival FATFEB is bringing together some of these bodies in a bid to destigmatise the fat experience. Not just the usual “OMG YASSSSS QUEEN” type of respect, but the political, cultural and social respect that is missing.
A calendar of events at Papatoetoe gallery Vunilagi Vou as well as online will be dedicated to radical fat body sovereignty, driven by festival creative director Amy Lautogo, also the designer and owner of Infamy Apparel. She’s worked closely with a collective of creatives, including advisors Elyssia Wilson-Heti (also of FAFSWAG) and Ria Hiroki and producer Ema Tavola of Vunilagi Vou.
Following up on the first FATFEB in 2020, this year includes a Talanoa panel facilitated by Amy and featuring wāhine who are no strangers to social media and its impacts on fat bodies and fat in general: Meagan Kerr, MahMah Timoteo and Siobhan Tumai.
An extension of that will be the Fat Gal Pals podcast, also a natural progression of the chats Amy, Ria and Elyssia were regularly having. With many fat made podcasts overseas, they wanted to offer a local perspective, and that of queer Moana Pacific female voices. The first three episodes will feature the trio in conversation about their experiences with the word fat, debunking myths around life as a fat person (“most of which seemed to be related to sex,” says Amy, “which I imagine is related to beauty standards = sex appeal”) and their own fat icons.
The exhibition Pussy Fat absolutely screams body sovereignty and fat body sex positivity. Featuring work from the young talented Sara Moana and Vunilagi Vou curator Ema Tavola, Pussy Fat sings from the Audre Lorde songbook of power and eroticism. The works are decolonial, confronting and powerful. Creating space for a different kind of conversation to your regular exhibition, there is an opportunity for real meaningful exchanges of ideas and political thought.
There is also a performance based ceremonial work from Elyssia and Ria, titled Only I Can Name Me. (The pair have collaborated in the past, both featuring in the 2019 production Reclamation that explored female desire and pleasure.)
“It’s exploring our individual self care practices and why those are important in how they keep us mentally and emotionally balanced in navigating the world,” explains Elyssia of their new performance. “Self care as fat brown queer women is so important and I’d say that those acts of self care and self love are pretty political because the bodies we all occupy have been explicitly told to hate ourselves.”
On opening night, and through a virtual experience, fashion will be in the spotlight too with Amy showcasing some of her work with Nebulous.
Fat fashion is something that exists and it exists inequitably. We only have to look at any brand online to see if they have ‘plus’ sizing and more often than not, sizing stops at XL or XXL (roughly the equivalent of an NZ 16/18). There is an even bigger issue with fat representation in fashion. With ‘small fats’ being more palatable and therefore used more online when advertising the low range plus sizes. However the reality is that being a small fat holds far more privilege than say a ‘superfat’ or ‘infinifat’, especially online. Inclusivity in fashion is a must and not just at a superficial level. All bodies should be celebrated and should be able to access clothing that is comfortable, practical, beautiful and boujee if need be.
“Fashion is a really effective means to promote size equity and break down barriers for those who refuse to view fat bodies as high fashion," says Amy. "You can achieve so much with a garment and, as we all have to wear clothes everyday - fashion can be an equaliser, if you have designers willing to prioritise size equity and more importantly, fat bodies.”
Amy, Ria and Elyssia share more about the FATFEB festival, and the politics and conversations behind it - in their own words. — Emmaline Pickering-Martin
• FATFEB 2021 runs from February 13 at Vunilagi Vou, with a full programme of events and booking details via fatfeb.co.nz
What’s your vision for FATFEB 2021?
Amy: As the creative director this year, I wanted to prioritise fat BBIPOC narratives. It was extremely important to me to have as many BBIPOC contributors to the programme as possible - to centre stories and experiences over the course of a few weeks which would hopefully strike a chord with our fat community and help them on their journey of fat liberation and body sovereignty.
Due to life post-Covid, it was extremely important to plan a robust online experience where people could read the manifesto, listen to podcasts, watch a fashion show, experience the exhibition Pussy Fat and shop merch, amongst other things.
Last year’s festival was a unique South Auckland experience and FATFEB 2021 beds this in even more with our venue partner and exhibition curator Ema Tavola of gallery Vunilagi Vou. This is a grassroots neighbourhood festival in the heart of South Auckland because this is our community and we are proud of that.
Elyssia: My personal vision is to elevate and prioritise indigenous fat queer voices within the fat community and to create space for those voices to be heard and celebrated - while creating an inclusive community environment for all of our fat community to come together.
Why is a festival like this so important, particularly in a local context?
Amy: First and foremost it is extremely rare to have such a big event planned and executed by women of colour and for women of colour. The body positivity movement has been co-opted and evolved away from the initial goal of fat liberation and when this intersects with BBIPOC, we end up challenging the ideas of body sovereignty.
These messages, questions and support are so needed in the communities where we live. Where first you are brown and then you are fat, and treated accordingly. We are the lowest on the lists when it comes to pay equity, health outcomes, crime statistics - you name it. The act of radical self love is a political act in these spaces and the concept of body sovereignty seeks to shift the focus on us from an external colonial lens to our own intersectional one.
Often, there isn’t enough time or space for BBIPOC Queer communities to prioritise this for themselves - the festival that is FATFEB 2021 is about putting these themes in front of our friends, family and community, knowing they will find value there.
Elyssia: It is the intentional creation of a space that is specifically being created for our fat community to talanoa, celebrate and hold space for one another safely. Everyone involved with creating it has been super mindful around creating a safe, inclusive environment for our community to engage with.
Vunilagi Vou is a privately run gallery space run by our brilliant friend Ema Tavola. The nature of operations at the gallery is by appointment only. So that creates an extra level of safety around who engages with FATFEB. Safety is absolutely pinnacle when engaging with vulnerable communities.
How has FATFEB evolved from last year’s series of events?
Amy: FATFEB 2020 was absolutely legendary from my perspective. Spearheaded by Ema Tavola and the insanely talented artist Lissy Cole; that programme really centred around the Fat Babe Pool Party and the exhibition FAT.
What I found personally after FATFEB, then going into lockdown, was that there were a lot of amazing photos and media about the events but a lack of lasting information on fat advocacy. There wasn’t really an archive of the information and amazing talanoa that was had.
As we move to more story/ experience driven content, we have brought in a number of creatives who are experts in their fields and also fat BBIPOC to feedback into both our own economy and their narratives. This then meant that our own archiving and quality of content needed to be next level and really be able to sit there in the space of fat lived experience as a true reflection of fat life instead of just a fantasy of how we would like it to be - then crash to reality.
So instead of events like the pool party we are instead having the show Only I can name me, an original work by Elyssia and Ria dealing with the rituals and ceremonies of self love - a really important topic and one with huge takeaways. Excitedly we are able to cover all overheads for this show so the box office is 100 percent for the artists which is just one example of how we can directly influence the livelihoods of artists.
Elyssia: I think the intention has evolved from last year’s offering. There isn’t a homogenised fat experience so by having a different creative director with each rendition of FATFEB comes different intentions and visions of what they hope to create. Which is awesome. Lissy Cole led it last year and created a beautiful 2020 Fat Feb. This year Amy is our creative director and has been leading a beautiful kaupapa for 2021, with the main intention being body sovereignty and intersectional practice.
What is ‘fat’? I mean this in a sense of - is it a certain size? A body type? A state of mind? Who decides what fat is? When does fat become fat?
Amy: Fat is kind of like, how long is a piece of string? I support self identification as fat in a non-problematic way. Fat is really when you experience the life of a fat person. When you are treated like a fat person - you know you really are fat. For example - can’t buy anything in non-fat stores, can’t get assistance in non-fat stores or treated like you shouldn’t be there? Told by your doctor that every single medical condition is due to your fatness? You’re probably fat.
There is absolutely a spectrum of fatness like there are in all things - and alongside this spectrum is privilege. You may be fat but still experience certain privilege if you are thicc or conventionally attractive and of course the colour of your skin comes into this. That’s why it’s so important for people to be aware of intersectionality.
The main takeaway that I would like people to have is that it’s not a feeling. It’s not appropriate to say that you feel fat. You probably feel full or bloated or something else and because you think it reflects negatively on your appearance you conflate that with fatness.
Fat isn’t a bad word. What people have done with the word is the real harm.
Elyssia: I would say that like most things, there is a spectrum of fat. I don’t feel comfortable quantifying what is fat enough to be considered fat.
What I consider to be fat for myself is that you visibly can see fat on your body. I am a size 20 and you can see I have a belly, thick thighs and a big butt. I’m considered a more palatable fat body and on the lower part of the fat spectrum for a multitude of reasons. I understand this privilege when I’m navigating in fat spaces. I am mindful of this when I’m speaking to the fat experience: I only ever want to speak to my own experiences. I hate when people try to talk for me. So I try my best to never do this to others.
I don’t think fat is a state of mind, it definitely isn’t a feeling which I’ve had to explain to friends in the past. You can’t feel fat.
How would you describe the fat activist movement here in Aotearoa?
Amy: Growing! Which is amazing - especially in the BBIPOC space. There are amazing academics coming through the ranks, more diversity in fat representation and popularity on social media.
Elyssia: Flourishing. I think the fat activist space from my own experiences is getting stronger and stronger. There is a real desire for people to connect and create a strong network and community. To have safe spaces for people to show up as their whole selves.
Fat activism is separate to ‘body positivity’, and for good reason. What’s your take or response to the concept of body positivity, particularly now since it’s been co-opted by marketing/fashion/social media etc.
Amy: Oh, I cringe when I think back to my body positive days. This as a catch cry was a useful tool on the way to fat activism. I don’t think I could say that about the term as it stands now. Like many things not made for the mainstream, it got picked up and warped into reinforcing standard beauty ideals or even worse attached to diet culture and has become Frankenstein’s monster. I get that everyone wants to be part of everything but sometimes things aren’t meant for you. Which is fine because if you are thin and white then pretty much the world is geared towards you so... you could just leave things be.
It occurs to me as I write this that the sanitisation of concepts like body positivity is a similar process and experience to colonisation. Taking something that wasn’t yours, dissecting the parts that you like and promoting them and dismissing or denigrating what remains. I think that’s why it was so easy for me to just drop body positivity and switch straight to fat activism because the concept of finding my own space has been pretty much my whole life - it just so happened that I came into an area which has amazing activists already there and already doing important work.
Elyssia: Ahhhhh, so much to unpack here. Understanding whakapapa is really important and my understanding is that the whakapapa of the body pos movement was birthed from the fat rights movement in the US during the late 1960s. Ironically the body pos movement has shifted significantly in the opposite direction. The policing in body pos spaces is wild to me and often pretty tone deaf in my experience.
The body pos movement has definitely been co-opted as a tool to sell us all more shit we don’t need. Consumer capitalism at its finest really.
I recently read this great Vox story that noted a shift in the discourse around fat acceptance - that searches for ‘body positivity’ have increased during the pandemic, and that many fat activists have seen a jump in followers/engagement too. Have you noticed this here locally? And why do you think there is more of an openness to these conversations now?
Amy: Wow that was a great article. I think that followers of fat activism have continued its growth but I can’t say that I have noticed anything in particular. What I did notice was an uptake in casual fatphobia which has probably affected vulnerable people, and they are maybe making the choice to curate their feed to be more positive than ‘we’re all gonna get fat in lockdown’.
I don’t think that we are any more open to the discussion about fatness than anywhere else in the world. Aotearoa has its own idiosyncrasies and these are a huge barrier to talking about a number of things - racism, discrimination, equity, poverty, to name a few.
Elyssia: I think the shift is being spearheaded by fat folks who are tired of not having spaces to see themselves in all honesty, and the silver lining of social media is you can create these online communities. I do think we have seen more visibility of fat activists locally; it's still a relatively small community but it is growing which has been wonderful to observe.
I’m not entirely convinced that there is more openness; I think fat activists and people are being increasingly more unapologetic in occupying space and taking up digital space to have these discourse around all things FAT.
To speak to the increase in body pos searches during this pandemic, I’m really not surprised as it’s been a tough time for a lot of people. Digital spaces have a reputation for having high levels of toxicity and I think that has been heightened because a majority of the globe has been stuck at home. So there has been a hunger from people to try and find some positivity amidst it all. To remind ourselves your body is strong, worthy and loveable.
How do you think social media has helped - and hindered - fat activism?
Amy: I think it has helped in being able to show fat folks that you can literally be anyone with a passion to make a difference and stick your head above the herd. You do not need to be conventionally attractive, educated or white to affect change. There is room for everyone and there needs to be more voices and more diversity in the fat activism space.
Conversely - these platforms are not without bias and the systems that we rail against are the same ones that these corporations are investing in. So issues of privilege and equity are still the same. This is why diet culture is so prevalent in all major fat hashtags and those who commodify their own weight loss journeys are elevated above those who are just living life in a fat body. To be fair there are a number of weight loss pages who are fat allies but a lot of them don’t and can perpetuate the idea that fat bodies are just ‘before’ pictures.
Elyssia: Social media has done both simultaneously. Social media can feel like the wild west at the best of times, because there's a level of separation people think they can say whatever they want from the safety of their keyboard with zero accountability for the verbal violence they spew on these platforms.
Fat people are an easy target for this kind of violence and are often targeted by trolls or by the platforms themselves. Many fat activists have been unfairly targeted and policed by platforms like Instagram who shadow ban people or report images as inappropriate. I call bullshit on that: if it’s okay for a size 6 woman to have her body in a bikini, it should be the same for a size 26 woman.
The value of social media for fat activism, I think, is that it has given people an opportunity to connect and create community which is phenomenal. Representation matters and it saves lives. I believe wholeheartedly that is the gift social media has given us. People who have been invisible in mainstream consciousness now have space to be seen and celebrated in all their glory.
How can someone who is not fat be a good ally?
Amy: Call out fatphobic behaviour. When I am doing this I reframe things to try and encourage folks to interrupt the negative thoughts about food and weight and fat. Don’t give fatphobia any more oxygen than it already has. Your willingness to put your foot down signals that you recognise the harm that can be done to the fat community.
Also - stop telling fat people they are brave.
Elyssia: To be completely frank I’m not interested in allies anymore. I want co-conspirators who want to move towards intersectional solidarity where no one gets left behind. If you want to be a co-conspirator as a non-fat person, I’d strongly urge you to start unpacking your own internalised fatphobia and figure out why and where those prejudices stem from. Also maybe have a look at your inner circle. Do you have any fat friends? If not, why?
How would you describe your relationship with fashion - and your experience as a shopper who loves clothes and fashion?
Amy: Fractured. I don’t really have a relationship with fast fashion or shopping. With the exception of essentials (bras etc) I don’t buy new clothes. I make the majority of what I wear and tend to cycle through the same things.
I adore fashion in the sense that it is such an effective form of communicating ideas or stories. I pay close attention to the high fashion houses and the graduate work out of London and New York as that shit blows my mind and sometimes is really confronting.
I loathe the commercialisation of fashion and the hierarchy that determines which sectors of the community will be represented and catered for.
Elyssia: I love fashion, I love clothes, I love looking good. I have yo-yoed with my weight my entire life so my relationship and experience with fashion and shopping has shifted a lot during that journey throughout my life. I think because of this it has informed my style which is pretty eclectic. It hasn’t always been positive, but it is now I love fashion and finding things that make me feel good.
Fashion claims that it’s embracing diversity and inclusivity, but to me - someone who has worked in the industry and I admit, has also been complicit in this - it seems as though often the idea of size diversity translates to a size 12 ‘curve’ model with a C cup. That’s not ‘diversity’! What is your take on that?
Amy: I agree - performative diversity is such a pain in the ass. I don’t give cookies to brands or designers who make a big deal out of ‘diversity’. The real shit is when diversity is so much a part of your ethos that you can’t operate any other way.
I acknowledge those curve models and brands that do curve ranges etc but there is so far to go when it comes to representation within this space. It begins with each brand/ designer/ model house making the conscious decision to work with fat bodies right from the concept stage - not the grading stage. Then moving from that to championing these same bodies within your creative scope.
Elyssia: It’s performative diversity. I think there is a shift happening but it’s not happening fast enough for my liking.
Amy, I’m interested in hearing your thoughts on working in fashion as a designer - an industry that has notoriously and quite openly been fatphobic. How have you found this - challenges, and also any positives?
Yeah I think that I mostly find that the industry likes to pretend that fat designers don’t exist. I remember the grilling I got when I applied for Project Runway and they seemed surprised that I said designing for their model sizes would be a piece of cake. Then the mannequin they supplied was a size 4 and the garments I brought were a size 24 even though they knew. I realise this isn’t the ‘fashion’ industry itself but I thought it was a good example of the lack of real thought and/or tokenism.
I think in my first year of putting collections down the runway I was treated as a bit of an oddity and my model teams were excluded from goodie bags and just generally treated poorly by organisers. As time has gone by I have noticed a big change in the organisers I have dealt with. This year I was part of a Talanoa session with Nora Swann of Pacific Fusion Fashion show but particularly for her Dressed in Confidence programme - which is centred in finding confidence through personal style. We focused specifically on the fat experience and the live panel was full of great questions and comments from people who felt seen. It was a beautiful experience.
Personally, as a fat woman who designs fat clothing, my experience has been quite negative but that has mainly been from people who are trying to uphold the structures because they want to maintain the exclusivity of fashion - which is ridiculous.
It’s not all bad though - I personally enjoy operating far in the margins. Less of the politics of the industry are able to reach and affect me. I almost don’t think of myself as part of the fashion industry because everything I do is rooted in my own form of advocacy.
Photography by Hōhua Ropate Kurene.
Styling by Lofa Totua.
Interview by Zoe Walker Ahwa.
With thanks to gallery Vunilagi Vou for hosting our team for this beautiful shoot.