‘People think when I talk about fatness that I’m trying to get everyone fat’
A new show by artist and fat activist Scottee challenges attitudes to body weight
Scottee: “The only time we ever see fat bodies are as the lowest-common denominator.”
When artist and fat activist Scottee invited people to a talk and a slice of pizza at the Project Arts Centre in early January, it was at odds with the prevailing “new year, new me” obsession with BMI and waistlines. But being at odds with the rest of society isn’t a problem for the London artist. “Being working class, growing up in poverty and being queer has meant that I am not afraid of productive confrontation,” he says.
His dance show Fat Blokes, created with choreographer Lea Anderson, brings together many of his issues about attitudes and prejudices around fatness, particularly the type of casual abuse that he finds himself subjected to daily.
“People think that when I talk about fatness that I’m trying to get everyone fat, and I want all children to be eating pork pies and I want a nation of diabetics. That’s not what I’m saying. What I’m saying is: do you think that the daily violences that are put upon my body are acceptable?”
Evidence of these assaults were starkly highlighted in his BBC documentary Fat and Fabulous: Walking in my Shoes, which showed him receiving abuse from schoolkids to police officers.
Conversations, like the one at Project, aren’t an outreach event. He is interested in opening up conversations, inside and outside the theatre, and is steadfast in his belief in the transformative power of art.
“I was excluded and expelled from school when I was 14 and never went back in to formal education,” he says. “It was art workers... who invested their time and energy into me. They didn’t take the easy route. They gave me paid traineeships so that this became a job for me, so I am passionate about what this work can offer, when it is done properly.” This belief sharpens his sense of disappointment at art that is self-serving and unengaged with social and political issues.
“We are living in violent, volatile times. The shit is actually hitting the fan. As artists we should be responding to this stuff.” He also deplores what he calls “re-Tweet theatre”, where topics become fashionable and shows are copied sycophantically, perpetuating mediocrity.
“To be crass, I think that they are like wanks in mirrors. They are artists glorifying their own voice and centring themselves as the most important thing, when what we need to create is conversations. We don’t have to agree with each other, in fact it is better if we choose to engage with opposite opinions.”
Poverty and class
Fatness is a divisive, complex issue. It is often equated with bad lifestyle, gluttony and sloth, but historically it was a sign of strength and survival.
“I acknowledge where my fatness came from,” he says. “I grew up poor so there is a historical and generational relationship with food that was tied up in poverty and class.”
Whatever taboos exist around racial insults, there are none around fatness. “It still seems socially acceptable to publicly mock fatness and that is probably coming from the pitiful comedic sense of the fat body. Interestingly, the violence directed towards our bodies is almost always from men. Maybe it comes from men thinking, in some sort of psychological way, that we are failing their masculinity by being fat. So by publicly abusing us they are reminding us that we got it wrong.”
The language around fatness is tackled in Fat Blokes, particularly making people comfortable with the word “fat”. As a loaded term, it is often avoided but according to Scottee it is just a descriptor. Not so with the term “morbidly obese”, where the medical profession uses an adverb absent from other conditions.
“Because of this word ‘morbid’ you are constantly dealing with the association with death. If you get hot and sweaty in a train, you think, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to have a heart attack’. We have to live with this kind of fat paranoid. In fact, I’m very in control and in charge of my health. My cholesterol is where it should be, I have no sugar in my water, I’m not pre-diabetic, and I do yoga twice a day.” Nonetheless, unhealthiness is unthinkingly projected on to fat bodies.
“People’s bodies are used, without their permission, to depict health problems that may not be present in that body... The only time we ever see fat bodies are as the lowest-common denominator like a clown, or when their heads have been chopped off and they represent oncoming death.
“We tackle it in a very forceful way in Fat Blokes,” he says. “Essentially we’ve created a memorial and for me, it is one of the most emotionally charged part of the show.”
Scottee is critical of a lot of the online body activism, which he says is fuelled by capitalism. Many of the advocates are what he calls “good fatties”.
“They have a certain amount of capital already. They are not too fat, with small waists, middle class, white and have access to a lifestyle which helps hegemonic society to judge them with other more fickle capitalistic measures. ‘Ah yeah, they are great craic’ or, ‘She has lovely hair’.” Brands are jumping on this body-positivity bandwagon, because it is a political movement yet doesn’t force them to align with any actual politics.
“I struggle with [the] body autonomy movement, because it is so fuelled by bath bombs and scented candles,” he says. “I don’t like middle classes telling me I should feel better about myself and claiming that body positivity is this island that, once you get to it, is brilliant. I don’t think that’s possible. I don’t think there is a permanency to feeling great about yourself because I could have a bath bomb and a scented candle on a Sunday and think I’m doing myself good and loving my body. I could then leave the house and be violently assaulted because of my body. And what then? Am I supposed to be happy about it because I did my hashtag self care Sunday? I don’t think so!”
‘Dance felt right’
Scottee works within a variety of media, including theatre, cabaret, and radio and screen documentaries. So why has he turned to dance, an artform that frequently objectifies the lean body?
“I always try to find the most poignant, pertinent and poke-in-the-eye way of saying the thing that we need to be saying,” he says. “And dance feels like it is ripe for the picking.
“With Fat Blokes, there is a dualism. Fat people are constantly told they need to exercise and as an artform dance does that. So if the public want us to move then let’s give it to them! But even in the so-called body-autonomous mindset we are supposedly living in, dance is still endorsing really dangerous ideals on bodies. Frequently it centres on a limited range of bodies, excluding others based on race or age.”
In Fat Blokes Scottee performs with four other fat men, creating a camaraderie between the performers that is shared with the audience. This is important, since many of the assaults suffered by fat people are experienced alone on public transport, when they are shouted at, or with their GP when she says they should go on a diet. Together on stage the five performers don’t have to fit society’s expectations but dance proudly together.
“Dance felt right – not to mock the fat body. Rather Fat Blokes celebrates the bodies and I think shows how the fat body, as a dance body, is a really f***ing amazing body.”
Fat Blokes is at the Project Arts Centre, Dublin, on February 14th-16th