Thursday, 4 August 2016

100 Fat Activists #18: Off Our Backs letters page

Off Our Backs was a radical feminist newspaper from the US that ran from 1970-2008 in various forms and was collectively produced. Some people get Off Our Backs mixed up with On Our Backs, a queer sex magazine that is also now sadly defunct. On Our Backs' name satirised Off Our Backs' problematic relationship to sex and readers who are ignorant of the lesbian sex wars might want to go off and find out what that was about in order to understand why these names are significant.

A digital archive of On Our Backs is available for free online – hurray! I have yet to do a full one-handed sift through the back issues but I am pretty sure there is plenty of fat stuff in there. These pornographers were good feminists after all. You will also find some things that I wrote, I was a columnist for the rag towards the end.

Alas, you will need university or institutional access to look at digitised editions of Off Our Backs. There must surely be sociological observations to be made here about access, respectability, feminism, class and the like between the availability of both journals, but I'll save that for another day. For copyright reasons I can't share the articles, but I have referenced them below if you would like to go digging for them.

I'm mentioning Off Our Backs here because I wanted to share some of the material I found on the letters pages during the period I was researching my book. The editorial collective ran a lively letters page, with discussions stretching across several issues or more if it was one of those intractable subjects that radical feminism could not figure out adequately, like SM. Through reading the letters page you get to see threads appear.

The main one concerns the paper's, and presumably feminism's, struggle to comprehend fat feminist politics. From 1976-1991 they get it wrong again and again! Readers are furious about Off Our Backs' editorial stereotyping fat people as capitalists, about references to 'overweight' and poor health, about an advert for a diet product that is later pulled, about the decision to publish a violently fatphobic letter from a reader. A thread in which Aldebaran pulls Off Our Backs on their fatphobia results in a weedy and defensive response by the collective, although that doesn't stop them publishing her eviscerating reply to their denial. It is electrifying to read.

Around 1978 there is also an illuminating discussion about Fat Is A Feminist Issue. Off Our Backs predictably takes the line that this is a good and useful book, though hedges its bets by inviting two women with opposing views to offer their thoughts. They shouldn't have bothered, Aldebaran is once again on the case, supported by Elly Janesdaughter, and people called Lizard, Helen, Shan and KR. Despite this awesome resistance to the problematic psychoanalytic views of fat women's bodies reflected in that book, Off Our Backs appear to have learned very little and five years later are publishing more about fat and compulsive eating, this time refuted in the letters page by Marjory Nelson. By 1985 they are being taken to task for implying that weight loss surgery is no big deal. The subsequent editorial amnesia to these critical accounts suggest to me that this is one of the ways in which these pernicious and unhelpful ideas about fat women and weight loss have persisted over the years. Time and again in the letters page I witness arguments in beautifully crafted dispatches by fat feminists being pushed aside in favour of feminist fatphobia.

There are also some curiosities. A correspondent called Moral offers some feminist evolutionary theory for the existence of fat women in 1980 and invokes some dubious racialised arguments to prove her point. But best of all is a 1978 communiqué from The Glacial Acetic Acid Liberation Front about their plans to vandalise a fatphobic poster. Wow!

Off Our Backs published a handful of articles about fat over its lifetime, separate to the discussions that went on via the letters page. The tone and range of these articles diminished, in my opinion, as time went on. They became a lot blander, more concerned with 'body image' and 'dieting' than fat, presumably because this is seen to be less contentious and is relatable to more women. Indeed, this shift was orchestrated by fat activists. I could be wrong but I understand that The Body Image Task Force (sounds really militaristic on reflection!) was a NAAFA and National Organisation of Women strategy to broaden interest. In my opinion it ended up backfiring because it had the effect of erasing the radical fat feminist voices that came before, instead of building on their analyses of oppression. To my mind this reflects the growth of conservatism in fat feminism, contextualised in a Western political shift to the right more generally, which continues through 'body positivity' and its ilk. You can see this play out through Off Our Backs, the paper is like a microcosm for this process, which I write about in more detail in my book.


Aldebaran (1979) 'Letter: oob perpetuating stereotypes', Off Our Backs, 9(11), 31.
Aldebaran (1980) 'Letter: liberal on fat', Off Our Backs, 10(3), 31.
Aldebaran (Vivian Mayer) (1979) 'Letter: compulsive eating myth', Off Our Backs, 9(7), 28.
Earthdaughter, d. (1991) 'Letter: diet pills next?', Off Our Backs, 21(3), 35.
Edwards, E. A. (1989) 'Letter: weight oppression', Off Our Backs, 19(8), 26.
Elg, T. (1991) 'Letter: weight ad unacceptable', Off Our Backs, 21(5), 34.
Freepers♀n, K. (1983) 'Letter: heavy punishment', Off Our Backs, 13(5), 30.
Hutchins, L. (1985) 'Letter: and response', Off Our Backs, 15(8), 34.
Janesdaughter, E. (1979) 'Letter: fatophobic feminists', Off Our Backs, 9(7), 28.
KR (1979) 'Letter: free to be fat', Off Our Backs, 9(5), 28.
Lizard, Helen and Shan (1979) 'Letter: thin thinking', Off Our Backs, 9(5), 28.
Moral (1980) 'Letter: fat save species', Off Our Backs, 10(3), 31.
Nelson, M. (1983) 'Letter: thinly veiled insult', Off Our Backs, 13(5), 30.
Roark, D. (1976) 'Letter: sized up &boxed in', Off Our Backs, 6(5), 30.
Stockwell, R. (1985) 'Letter: shadow-boxing', Off Our Backs, 15(8), 34.
Unsigned for obvious reasons (1979) 'Letter: fat kills', Off Our Backs, 9(7), 28.
Wiesner(sic), B. (1985) 'Letter: stomach stapling', Off Our Backs, 15(8), 34.
WildSister, K. (1990) 'Letter: not buying it', Off Our Backs, 20(8), 34.
zana (1990) 'Letter: stress of dieting', Off Our Backs, 20(8), 34.

via Obesity Timebomb