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More armchair quarterbacking

There been a lot of discussion of race and the Atlanta billboard campaign in the fatophere lately. I can't say that most of it seems to me as if it would be useful to someone struggling with the issue of how to be inclusive.

I've read the original thread that caused all the fuss, and in that thread, Atchka asks a few questions about what, exactly, he should have done or should do to include people of color in the fat activism surrounding the Georgia billboards. As far as I can tell, he has never gotten an answer from anyone.

So, although I'm probably the least qualified person to try to answer that question, I do think that it's sincere and that it really should be explored, so I'll give it a shot. I hope that others will also contribute their comments and ideas. Also, I'm pretty sure that at least some of this did go on behind the scenes, but I don't know the whole story.

But First...

I want to start by saying that this whole effort has been absolutely amazing and that I am blown away by what has been accomplished. Even though it may not have been textbook perfect (and what kind of grassroots project being done for the first time would be?) it has been well managed and effective beyond anyone's expectations. Sometimes when you see that something needs to be done, you just do it. I have become very cynical about human nature over the years, and this campaign has really lifted my spirits.

I also want to make it clear that I know I'm being an armchair quarterback. I knew about the anti-billboard campaigns from pretty early on, and I could have volunteered for a role doing what I'm about to describe. However, it just didn't occur to me at the time. The fact that we were non-local and were taking action on an issue that was local to Atlanta had occurred to me, but the full implications of it really didn't hit me, as I didn't give enough thought to the demographics. However, that's a poor excuse, because what we probably should have done first is...

1. Figure out exactly where the billboards are and who lives there.

When the effort to do something about the Georgia billboards first began to gel, there was an issue of context that (as far as I know) was never fully explored. This campaign is in Atlanta, Georgia. The majority of the children in the negative stereotype-based, fatphobic Strong4Life advertisements were either Black or Hispanic. In fact, according to Wikipedia, Atlanta is approximately 55% Black, 35% White and 5% Hispanic. In Georgia as a whole, the population is approximately 60% White, 30% Black and 5% Hispanic. These are the demographics of the people whose neighbourhoods are being polluted by the negative ads.

We could have made a map of the ad locations and then figured out the ethnic and economic demographics of the specific areas that were targeted.

In reality, I think there was some awareness of this issue, especially after the first of the "stage one" billboards were removed and Children's Healthcare of Atlanta began really obviously targeting poor Black neighborhoods. However, it may not have been acted upon strongly enough.

2. Look for links into Georgia-based, activist, African American and Hispanic social networks.

Some of this could have been done through our social networks. There are size positive bloggers and commentators who may be from Atlanta or have Atlanta connections - particularly activist, African American connections. Even a general call-out for volunteers may have drawn out people who could have helped link the fatophere campaigns to local Georgians, particularly African Americans, who were concerned about the effect of the billboards on their children.

I seem to remember that an Atlanta newpaper columnist wrote a piece that was critical of the campaign, early on. It would have been a good idea to get in touch and to see if there was anything they could do to help.

3. Seek out community groups local to the billboards

After reaching out with our social networks, the next thing we could have done was seek out local Atlanta groups who are already fat positive: the local NAAFA chapter (I think Marilyn Wann may actually have done that), local BBW groups, the local plus sized fashion community. Body image activists, feminists, and eating disorders groups share common ground with the fat acceptance movement and are often based in universities and colleges. I'd look specifically for educational institutions in and near the targeted neighborhoods, with diverse faculties and student bodies. We could even have looked for privately owned plus sized and big-and-tall shops and enlisted the owners' help.

We could have tracked down community groups and cold called (or e-mailed) them. Local chapters of civil rights organizations? Volunteer-oriented churches? People in those types of organizations are going to be just as likely to be fat-phobic as they are to be sympathetic to our cause. However, it's hard to believe that the Strong4Life billboards won't have offended people involved in social justice. If we'd taken the right approach (HAES and an acknowledgement of the racist aspects of the Strong4Life ad campaign), we'd have had a chance to win some allies there and to support people in those organizations who may have already been concerned about the billboards and thinking about taking action.

4. Listen to - and amplify the messages from - local people

We could have tried to find out what the people who saw the billboards every day were thinking about them; what effects they were having. We strongly suspect that the billboards are psychologically harmful and probably counterproductive as well. We could have strengthened that argument with real examples - written, audio and video testimonials from real local people, not actors with a message someone else wrote. Then we could have plugged the hell out of these messages on our blogs and social networks.

5. Partner with concerned organizations and individuals

"Do you think something should be done about those billboards? Have you got anything is mind? Is there anything we can do to help, or can we plan something together?"

And from there on in, hopefully the fatophere's efforts could have meshed with actions taken by local groups that reflected local demographics.

The Issue of Timing
Now, I want to emphasize that this is difficult stuff. It isn't "just Google it." There's social risk involved, there's the possibility of substantial delays, however...

The billboards had been up since May, 2011. Fatophere bloggers had been aware of the campaign for a long time. I remember that someone linked to this this April 2011 article on Sociological Images right after it was posted. However the fatophere campaign didn't start until January 2012.

It's true that all of the things I describe above would have slowed down the response. The fact is, we did it at the last minute anyway. There was no organized response from the fat acceptance community for the first seven months of the Strong4Life Campaign. If we'd been on top of the issue from the beginning, there would have been time to build a coalition.

I'm not blaming anyone, because I'd have to blame myself too. I wasn't a leader in the campaign, even at the rather late time it emerged. I just photoshopped a bunch of "I Stand" posters. That was my contribution. It's just how things worked out.

The fact that we accomplished something so solid and that so many people (of all backgrounds and physical descriptions!) were ready to put their money and their pictures behind it tells me that it was needed and that it was a good idea. The fact that it got done by a group of volunteers with absolutely no grants, public or private - only individual contributions - is incredible. I don't think we should be too hard on ourselves. BUT, if it had been organized sooner, there would have been more time to build alliances.

The Issue of Distance

There's also the question of whether or not it was appropriate to get involved in someone else's local issue. In this context, we were "people from the internet," an amorphous group of size acceptance activists with no particular tie to Atlanta, Georgia, taking action from a distance. I asked a good friend who isn't involved in fat acceptance (okay, my husband) what he thought. He said "Do you think it was wrong for people outside of South Africa to take action on Apartheid or people from outside Afghanistan to criticize the Taliban for how they treat women?" And he's right. When you can clearly see that something's wrong, then how is it wrong to speak out about it and take action against it? The thing is, doing it from a distance and in relative isolation was probably not the optimal way to go about it.

On the other hand, I do see the negative Stand4Life campaign as primarily sizest and secondarily racist. The size issue is what's right out front. It was definitely not an inappropriate issue for fat acceptance activists to take a leadership role on. Some people might disagree, arguing that the ads are primarily racist because associating fatness with minority groups reflects badly on the minority groups (presumably because fat people really are - insert negative stereotype here). As someone who sees fatness as a neutral physical characteristic and fat people as a group that's in need of social justice, I am not on board with that, although I can certainly see how many people would view it that way.

In Conclusion

I think that what we did - especially what Regan Chastain, Marilyn Wann and Shannon Russell (Atchka) did, was spectacular and that it was absolutely a positive and worthwhile thing to do, even though sure, it could have been done better.

But maybe what we can start here is a list of ideas for how, specifically to establish partnerships with other community and social justice groups. And maybe the best way to reach out to people who aren't exactly like us but who share similar values right now so that we can share social networks and give each other help and support when it's needed.


I think that for my next post, I'm going to start the work I talked about above, just to see how long it takes and how difficult it is. For example, is there an easy way to find out the locations of the Strong4Life billboards when you're not actually in Atlanta?

British police and press confuse BMI with fitness | Study: the Biggest Loser increases weight bias

omnifrog April 3rd, 2012 | Link | DeeLeigh, I too contributed


I too contributed money to and was delighted by the response to the Atlanta billboard ads.

I'm going to take a brief sidetrack here, but there is a point: After the Kony 2012 video was released, a large number of grassroots organizations protested: it simplified too much, it did not involve locals, it had white savior complex, etc. However I was listening to On the Media a couple of weeks ago and they interviewed a media expert and he explained that the video had an impact. It hit all the right marketing messages. White people listened because the story was told through the eyes of a white person. In the end, his point was that the video was successful because it raised awareness on a massive scale and that all the tradeoffs by the films creators were required for this degree of success.

All too often grassroots movements get hung up on local community engagement, other causes, turf wars between organisations and many other side issues that make everyone feel "progressive" but that ultimately muddy the message and that slow our response time and reduce our effectiveness.

I'm not saying that coalition building is not important, but we do have to get used to the idea that effective PR happens in hours and days. And that our responses should not be crafted to appeal to us, but for peak effectiveness with the public and even more importantly, decision makers. Now this is certainly not to say that having a very strong analytical base along with partnerships and all that other good stuff is unimportant, just that these are things that we do to make a movement, but that is something separate from PR aimed at outsiders. The goal has to be 50 million views on youtube or a discussion on the news or an interested reporter or hearings in congress, all of which may involve simplifying messages and not always worrying about maximizing inclusiveness.

DeeLeigh's picture
April 4th, 2012 | Link | I agree 100% that the

I agree 100% that the campaign is a very good thing as it stands. However, to me it's undeniable that making alliances with local and especially African American (and Hispanic) organizations would have been a good idea. People of color were being specifically targeted by the campaign and it was specific to Atlanta.

Marilyn Wann had diverse participation in her "I STAND" project and a solid Atlanta contingent as well, and I think that there was some outreach going on. But it would have been even better if there had been organizational partnerships established.

That said, it seems to me that this should be taken as an opportunity to talk about specific things that could be done in the future if something similar comes up, not so much an opportunity to criticise individual leaders of the counter campaign, who deserve praise for their very successful efforts.

CarrieP's picture
April 4th, 2012 | Link | Thank you for this post.

Thank you for this post. I've been struggling with what should have been done differently and how and you've given me tons to think about.

closetpuritan April 5th, 2012 | Link | Thank you for this post,

Thank you for this post, DeeLeigh. This subject had become so toxic that I think you were brave to take it on.

I think that having partnerships/alliances with other groups is also good long-term strategy for FA.

richie79's picture
April 5th, 2012 | Link | For what it's worth, here

For what it's worth, here are my thoughts on the matter. Just my opinions, no more or less valid than anyone else's, and constructive criticism would be much appreciated, as I'm not always the best at appreciating the subtleties of language and other people's sensitivities Puzzled

I wasn't previously aware of Joanna or her blog 'Dead of Winter' but a post she (bravely) made on this topic really resonated with me on so many counts and I think is well worth a read as indicative of an alternative viewpoint within FA. She deals with the dominance of FA by a particular (and often quite aggressive) strand of educated, middle-class, liberal feminist thought and the manner in which its proponents sometimes deliberately or unwittingly police or silence those who approach the topic from alternative standpoints, including those who are themselves discriminated against in less obvious or acknowledged ways.

The subsequent comments go on to discuss the way in which some progressive activists seem to have appointed themselves the representatives of large groups of diverse people and the links between the dominance of progressive thought and the healthism (placing importance on eating 'right' and exercise) that I too believe is becoming more intertwined with political fat acceptance.

I consider it a far more constructive post in terms of identifying issues within the movement for consideration than some of the more strident attacks on some very well-intentioned activists who, as you point out Deeleigh, have at least succeeded in getting the FA message out there into the mainstream. On the contrary I do worry that the tone* of some of the recent exchanges will have the effect of convincing potential bloggers and commenters that the fatosphere is a minefield of potential offence, accusations of ignorance and minunderstood remarks that only certain people (read, not newbies or those without the correct ideological grounding) can successfully navigate.

(*I AM in fact aware that criticism of a confrontational 'tone' borne of anger at injustice is itself considered a silencing tactic, but in turn don't consider that vitriol directed at other commentators is a particularly constructive way of engaging them in debate, making them feel included, or inspiring them to impart their own perspective on a controversial topic.)

"What is right is not always popular and what is popular is not always right" - Albert Einstein

vesta44's picture
April 5th, 2012 | Link | This whole controversy is

This whole controversy is why I don't start campaigns against anything - it's not going to matter how much research I do, how much outreach I do, how inclusive I try to be, someone somewhere (or a group of someones) is going to say I didn't do enough, didn't try hard enough, wasn't inclusive enough. And they aren't going to be willing to educate me, or even point me in the direction I need to go to begin to find the education I need to become more inclusive, work harder, do it better. That kind of thing is discouraging and disheartening and I've seen it happen over and over again in the fatosphere. So I'll continue to do my little part when someone else leads the way - I'll contribute dollars when I have them, I'll blog when I have the time, I'll write letters, I'll post comments on Facebook pages, etc. But I'm not ever going to be a leader, especially after being told by one of the so-called "respected leaders of FA" that she "used to respect me" (I'm guessing she doesn't respect me anymore, but that's her problem, not mine).
Attacking people doesn't create change and it sure as hell doesn't educate or enlighten them, but that seems to be the first thing that some people want to do when a mistake is made - attack the one who made a mistake, call them out on it, and tell them to educate themselves, but don't give them any clues on how to go about doing that. Makes me wonder how this intersectionality thing is supposed to work when no one wants to educate anyone. We keep saying bootstraps don't work when it comes to improving socio-economic status, but somehow, bootstraps are supposed to work for knowledge about all the -isms we face. That seems like a massive logic fail to me.

WLS - Sorry, not my preferred way of dying. *glares at doctor recommending it*

Viola's picture
April 5th, 2012 | Link | I'm completely ignorant

I'm completely ignorant about this controversy, as I don't follow the fatosphere. The only blog I read is this one and Ragen's, and I don't read them regularly, I'll admit. But it sounds like there was a negative reaction to the negative reaction to Strong 4 Life, and you're giving information, so I appreciate all the work and thought you've put into this.

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