Artful Fat: Lessons from Leeds

By Daisy May Barker

On the 9th of April 2019 I escaped a day of frantic dissertation writing to make the journey to Leeds University for the ‘Artful Fat’ symposium. The event was hosted by Karen Throsby and Bethan Evans, and funded by The Sociological Review. I was drawn to the event due to my research interests being centred around fatness; at the time, for my undergraduate dissertation project, I was exploring what fat activism in the UK entails. The event promised to bridge the arts and social sciences to encourage more critical and creative representation of fat bodies. With the issue of the (moralised) representations of fat bodies being a profound theme in my dissertation, I arrived at the event with pen and paper in hand, eager to learn.

As an undergraduate student, arriving at the conference alone, at a university I had never visited before – which was an achievement in itself given my poor sense of direction – I initially felt nervous about the whole thing. However, as soon as I arrived I was made to feel welcome by all the other attendees and was more at ease after a chat, brew, and biscuit. It was exciting to have a mix of people together in one room, with academics, activists, a diverse range of artists, and students at different stages of higher education, coming together to critically (re)think how fat bodies could and should be better represented. This mix of perspectives and backgrounds created a unique and vibrant environment for discussions on how we can ‘undiscipline’ sociology, and – as per The Sociological Review’s Manifesto – to renew its critical and creative appeal from both inside and outside of the academy.

First up, Bethan Evans presented with her Skype-linked co-presenter Stacy Bias – the work of both featured in my dissertation, and I was very excited to hear their presentation. They spoke about the animation entitled “Flying While Fat” that they co-created, which combined visual imagery and audio recordings to convey their research findings. Bethan and Stacy opened up a dialogue around how activists and social science academics can work together in ways that are ethical and mutually beneficial. These discussions prompted me to reflect on the research relationship that I had with fat activists for my undergraduate dissertation project, and to think about how I can better manage future collaborations with activists to ensure that we both prosper fully from the experience.

Complimentary to this, Oli Williams and Jade Sarson discussed the comic that they co-created entitled ‘The Weight of Expectation’. Oli introduced how the comic – in a format more accessible to many – can visually represents research findings; he illustrated this claim with respect to an article he published with Ellen Annadale (2018). Their argument was particularly exciting to me, as I have proposed to collaborate with an artist to make a graphic essay to supplement my thesis, in order to disseminate my research findings to wider audiences. Their presentation discussed some of the challenges and possibilities of using art to better represent fat bodies. Oli reflected on the complicated nature of accurately depicting the findings of his research, without in the process adding to mainstream negative representations of fat people. This tension was the basis of further interesting discussions.

I also thoroughly enjoyed the other presentations and performances that were given by Cath Lambert, Lucy Aphramor, Rebecca D Harris, and Francis Ray White. They all illustrated the diversity of constituents of ‘the arts’ and how they can be used in collaboration with the social sciences. These varied presentations suggested the necessity for social researchers to fully explore the diverse mediums that can be used to record, report and disseminate their research findings.

The event ended in a panel with all of the speakers, that, in the spirit of the day, turned into more of a collaborative ‘circle’ discussion between all of the speakers and attendees. These discussions addressed critical questions that had guided the event, such as how collaborative research between the arts and social sciences can yield new understandings and representations of fatness, how this research can be practically carried out and how diverse audiences can access such. This was a brilliant end to the day. Overall, the main ‘take home’ point for me was the importance of considering how sociological research on fatness benefits from collaborating with the arts to make more creative and critical research that is impactful inside and outside of the academy.

Daisy May Barker is an ESRC-funded MA/PhD student in her first year at Lancaster University. Her proposed PhD is provisionally entitled, ‘Fat is a class issue: obesity and the weight of inequality in neoliberal Britain’. It will consider how growing “obesity rates” correlate with increasing inequalities and how high rates of obesity are spatially clustered amongst deprived populations in the UK. Broadly, her research focuses on the broader political economy of obesity vis-a-vis its relationship to inequalities, class power, and changing forms of welfare capitalism. Daisy tweets @_daisymaybarker

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