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Chaos, catering, and conferences

May 12, 2014

Weight LossFat PoliticsFat HealthFat ScienceExerciseMy Boring-Ass LifeDickweedDiet Talk

It all started in December 2012, just after Christmas. I was a about a month and a half into my PhD studies, reading my university emails over the holiday period, and I came across a notice about some funding that was available to PhD students to help them put on a conference. It was part of a skills development fund, the intended skill being for students to learn how to put on a conference.

As regular readers may know, I am studying weight stigma. This is a fast-growing academic field, but the vast majority of the literature in the area comes out of two research centres in the US. I figured, I was new at this, nobody at my university was studying weight stigma, perhaps me and the other six people in the UK who give a damn about weight stigma ought to get to know each other. So I decided to apply. I mean, how hard can it be? Reserve a room, order some catering, invite people to speak — and I already knew a few from the Health at Every Size® (HAES) and Size Acceptance circuit in the UK already — and put out some advertising. I figured if I was organised, it wouldn’t be that much work and it would fit easily into my studies.

The main problem was the deadline. I remember it — it was 7th of January. So I had about 10 days to put together an application. I waxed lyrical about the importance of such an event and made sure to throw in some buzzwords that funding bodies seemed to like. I also needed a “name” speaker who would agree to talk if the funding were granted. I had a very tenuous connection to a professor of health psychology; I’d emailed her during my masters and she’d sent me copies of a couple of her papers that I was having trouble sourcing. I knew she’d done some of the early work on communication between doctors and fat patients. I also knew she’d written a book on the psychology of food and eating. I hadn’t read it, but I’d flipped through it and there was a whole chapter on whether or not “obesity” actually needed treating at all. She seemed like a good choice. Given the short time frame, I dropped her a line and she said she’d love to speak. So I submitted my application.

I also remember the date that I found out I’d been awarded the money — it was the 14th of February. I’d asked if they’d consider moving the meeting to the morning so that I could get home in time to have a Valentine’s dinner with my husband (they did and we did. It was nice.) So, I had £1,000 to play with, and just over three months in which to organise my conference. Because of the academic year in the UK, all accounts had to be finalised by the end of June, which meant I kind of needed to get everything submitted by the beginning of June.

This gave me another problem (apart from it being a ridiculously short time to organise a conference). Ideally, I would have liked as much time as possible to organise, holding the conference at the end of May or first week in June. But in the middle of May there was a big European “obesity” conference being held in the UK. I thought some people might like to attend both, but if they were coming from far away, they wouldn’t be likely to fly to the UK for one, leave, then come back again. So I decided to make the best of it. I scheduled my event for the day after that one finished, and planned to ask the Association for the Study of Obesity (the UK organisation that was supposed to represent people in this field, as well as co-organisers of the conference with the European Association for the Study of Obesity) to share information about my event to their lists. That way, I figured, people could easily stick around an extra day and come to the stigma conference also.

They refused. Point blank. That’s a whole other story, but by this point, the wheels were in motion.

Colourful OrganisingThe next three months were a bit of a blur. How hard can it be? Um, pretty damn hard. You would not believe how much organisation goes into this kind of thing. The big stuff — the venue, the catering — that’s easy. It’s the details, the things nobody thinks of that are a nightmare. We need a room where the chairs don’t have arms or bench seating, so that big people can sit easily and without embarrassment. We needed to source kettles so we could provide our own tea and coffee because the caterers charged £1.50 per cup, or about £600 ($900) for coffee at registration and during the morning, lunch, afternoon, and we didn’t have access to a fridge for the milk. Things like that.

But some of the big stuff was pretty fun too. My big name speaker, an absolutely lovely lady,  proposed to talk about how weight stigma can help promote behaviour change, despite the fact that almost all of the evidence suggested that the opposite was true. I’ve spent the last few years learning how much of obesity rhetoric comes from the “well, it’s obvious” school of science. Like the recent national report by the UK’s leading lobbyists, where their spokesperson admitted to making up the supposed soaring obesity rates despite the government’s own evidence not supporting this at all, because, well, there were fat people being fat in the street, where he could see them, and Something Must Be Done™. Nobody seemed to bat an eyelid.

I had an anti-obesity charity set up by a major name researcher (a different one) wanting to sponsor the event and people with more tact and experience than me suggested it wouldn’t be good to offend her. This was at a point that I didn’t know if I was going to be able to raise enough money to fund the whole event. In the end, I decided against taking it. On top of this, I was under a lot of pressure to not charge for attendance, in case it put people off. Plus, there were a series of other logistical problems ranging from niggling to “waking up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night wondering what the hell I’d been thinking when I took this on” problems. Most of them I can’t tell you about here. Ply me with nice wine one night and I might just fill you in!

Somehow, I got through all this. I did charge, but kept it ridiculously cheap. The base registration rate was just enough to cover catering costs. So if I got an extra 50 people, I wouldn’t suddenly find myself unable to feed them. The Big Name speaker modified her talk title by making it the “possible” role of stigma in promoting behaviour change. And I decided against hiring security to keep the activists away from The Big Name.

On the day of the event, just over 100 people crammed into a room that was too small for them — more than double the number I’d hoped for, making me very glad that catering was covered! They had come from all over the UK, flown in from Ireland and Scandinavia. One from the US.

But apart from some start-up problems (the poster boards hadn’t been delivered; we couldn’t find the velcro dots; there weren’t enough chairs and we were stopped from moving them from other rooms and told to take them back. We had to wait and sneak them back in. One of the two hot water kettles didn’t work; there was no outlet socket for them and somebody had to go and find an extension cable, I have no idea who; and people I didn’t even know were jumping in to help register people and make tea and coffee (thank you so much if you’re reading this), the day was a huge success. From the time of my welcome speech (during which I did all the health and safety announcements and pointed out that we had already broken every H&S rule in the book by the time we got going that morning) to the thanks at the end of the day, it was wonderful.

It was rowdy, controversial, there were arguments, but no bloodshed. The performance artists were a big hit, although the medical scientists weren’t quite sure what to make of it all. A health sciences obesity researcher stood up after one of the talks and said that even if people do “healthy things,” “obesity” is still a disease risk and people need to be told to lose weight. I’d been keeping my mouth closed so far, thinking it rude to invite people to a conference and then argue with them in public, but I couldn’t let that pass. I stood up and attempted to summarise the entirety of the evidence suggesting this was not in fact true, in under 60 seconds. I sat down to a round of applause. This didn’t go down well with some in the room. I remember thinking that normally it would be the “obesity-mongers” who would be in the majority and the HAES people would be the unpopular “crazy” contingent. This time the shoe was on the other foot and they didn’t like it — when disciplines collide. And here I was, slap bang in the middle, studying a subject that really does cross these boundaries, and trying to bring the two sides together.

I had a lot of great feedback (as well as a couple of complaints — especially about the clapping!). People talked about how it had really made them think about things in a different way. One person I met at a wedding, who didn’t know I was involved, said it was the best conference she’d ever been to. And then, while I was still glowing with satisfaction, she added, “Yes, I was waiting for them to get up and start hitting each other.”Within a week, two people offered to host the conference in subsequent years.

Deb Burgard

Deb Burgard., 2014 Key Note speaker. Photo by Andy Berry,

Now it’s that time again, and this is where you come in.

I am tasked with raising the funding for this year’s conference. I have been approaching publishers, academic institutions, plus-size clothing companies, and HAES and SA organisations. Many of them are helping to sponsor the event, but I still don’t have enough. Last  year, I raised enough money to provide travel assistance to every student who needed it. I’d like to do the same this year, but it’s pretty hard going.

I have been offering sponsors the option of purchasing a named student bursary at £100 each. So they’d get something like “Publishing Company Inc Student Travel Bursary” in the programme. So far, I only have two takers. I would love to have some “Fatosphere Student Travel Bursaries.” If you are able to make even a small donation, this would be a huge help. All donations will go towards providing assistance to unfunded students who would otherwise not be able to attend and present their work – I promise, you won’t be paying for our cheese and wine reception!

If you’d like to make a donation, this is the link. It’s also the link to buy tickets if you want to attend. Instructions on how to donate are near the bottom of the page.

Six weeks to go. Wish me luck!

Note: Edited somewhat by author because, well, it’s The Internet, y’all. And I do at some point want to have a career.

2nd International Weight Stigma Conference

Never Diet Again Sigs

3 Comments leave one →
  1. keythah permalink
    May 13, 2014 12:21 am


    I am so glad to hear that the conference came together. As a conference organizer, volunteer, and participant, I understand how tough it is, especially when you are working last-minute.

    That said, as a fat woman of color, I was hoping to clarify some of what the person you call The Activist said.

    “She noted that my university and venue of the conference was in an area with a lot of ethnic diversity. All of this was true, apart from the “token fatty” part.”
    Unfortunately, if she was the only person of color on the panels, she was, by definition, the token speaker.

    “But with only weeks to pull this together, I had gone with names I knew, rather than making an effort to show this kind of diversity.”
    Without meaning to, when we go with what we know rather than make an effort, we tend to end up favoring people who fall into our own categories as people and, inadvertently as we might do it, end up failing to represent certain groups. For example, I know this is true of myself when it comes to classism: due to my upper middle class upbringing, I tend to favor the college-educated in terms of the people I both know and of whom I am aware. I have to try (and often fail) in order to ensure a wider swath of the population is represented since the college-educated hardly represent any kind of majority. I do not actively think “oh, I must exclude poor folks” but it ends up happening if I don’t stop to think about the unthinking classism in which I engage.

    “Having said that, I didn’t really see the significance of the multiculturalism of the host city. Was I supposed to go out and pull speakers off the street?”
    The significance is that is that people from outside of the city came in and having a conference where almost all the visible leaders are white while the city itself is more diverse. It can seem somewhat crass to some when that is the case.

    “surely that would also be tokenism. I have to be honest though – this aspect hadn’t even crossed my mind, and her words certainly made me think. I still struggle with this idea though if we are railing against tokenism. I’m not sure how I would handle this next time, but I would certainly put a lot more consideration into it.”
    It’s not tokenism if you know of the work of women of color and therefore are aware enough of them to want to invite them to a conference. It’s also not tokenism to look around and say “wow, we are in a diverse city yet all of our visible leaders are white, let’s do better”.

    As I mentioned before, I personally share the problem of inadvertently excluding certain groups myself. The key is to actively get yourself out there to listen to and familiarize yourself with the sorts of people you are unwittingly not hearing. It’s not tokenism because you are actively correcting the unthinking, accidental exclusion that you were doing.

    If you’d like to check them out, I have some suggestions for fat activists of color.
    Virgie Tovar:
    NOLOSE (a conference with which Virgie is involved that features many people of color): &
    Kate Harding responds to intersectionality issues in fat activism:
    Juicy D Light:
    A Sociological Perspective on Diversity in the Fat Acceptance Movement:

    I hope that helps, and that next time will be even better-attended than this time was.

  2. May 14, 2014 2:21 am

    Hi Keythah,

    Thank you so much for your comment, and for those resources. The Activist was not a POC. A commenter on another page where this post was shared noted that the person who pointed out the institutional racism was being labelled a troublemaker. To be honest, she was a huge source of trouble for me, (and most of the major problems associated with this conference were not in this blog), although not for this reason, and my feelings about her clearly come through in what I wrote about this issue. On which she was right.

    I’m going to append a reply I wrote to another commenter on another page.

    [This] is something I have given a great deal of thought to. From a practical point of view, when inviting published academics to an academic conference on weight stigma, I am mostly limited by the pool of people who have published on this subject. I mentioned in the piece that the background, ethnicity etc of the invited speakers was unknown to me and was not even a consideration at the time of last year’s conference. In the medical sciences, this is what is considered appropriate. This does appear to be very different in the social sciences, because you are actually taxed with considering society, as opposed to molecules, and I feel I have learned a lot by my new association with people with a longer history in the movement.

    All other things being equal, I would in future take into account the representation of marginalised voices and experiences, but do struggle with the underlying problem that the existing structural inequalities do limit the pool of people available to choose from. This puts an organiser in the difficult position of not wanting to perpetuate and be part of the problem but nevertheless being constrained to some extent by the status quo. And this is something I really would appreciate guidance on.

    At last year’s conference, I made an attempt to include the voices of people who have been stigmatised, asking for their stories to put in the conference brochure, to help remind the attendees, especially the medical scientists, that there are real people’s lives being affected by the stigmatisation of large bodies. Some of those who responded did have intersecting stigmatised identities. But again, I am constrained by the people who respond. I also wanted to include some performance art in the event, which was unheard of in scientific circles. After the exchange with The Activist last year, I reached out for assistance in identifying people who might be best able to present these unheard voices. None was forthcoming.

    And one final point. While the invited speakers must largely come from the pool of published academics, abstract submissions did reflect the multicultural diversity of the areas, and consideration WAS given to presenting research in ethnic, minority groups, etc. For practical reasons, the vast majority of research tends to be conducted on undergraduate psychology students, and these are in no way representative of a population in general. Nor are findings from these groups generalisable. This is another area where academics are aware of the problem but limited by access, time, money and so on.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that I am increasingly aware of the problem and its historical underpinnings, but not always sure on what to do about it.”

    So I think I’m echoing to some extent what you have written. I am newly aware that this is another area where my white middle-class privilege is blinding me to experiences of others who are not equally represented in the circles in which I move. What to do about that is even more challenging.


  3. Oxymoronictonic permalink
    May 15, 2014 1:31 am

    Good luck!

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