Audience Engagement Digital Publishing
15 mins read

“It’s personal, it’s passionate, it’s something beautiful”: Publishing insights from The Fat Zine founder Gina Tonic

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‘The more shit we can put into the world that someone can relate to, the less people have to feel like lonely, little misunderstood freaks.’

This week we hear from Gina Tonic co-founder of The Fat Zine, an independent magazine by fat people for fat people, plus those that care.

We spoke about the F word, the influence of Pitch Perfect, being an activist vs being a publisher, Fat Liberation and how inside every thin person there’s a fat person dying to get out.

In the news round-up, we take a look at which publishers have come out of the pandemic in the best shape, ask why there have been so many journalism unions established over the past year, and look at how Reach is using Instagram.

Here’s the full transcript:

Peter Houston: How did the Fat Zine come about?

Gina Tonic: So the Fat Zine was my pet idea, maybe a few years ago, when I first got into self-publishing and the zine culture through zines like Polyester. It was just an idea, it wasn’t something that I ever really took that seriously.

I talked it through a few times on the sesh with fellow creatives. That’s where I met Chloe Sheppard, who’s a photographer and has made loads of her own zines and stuff like that. Obviously, she’s also a fat woman, like myself, so we always used to talk about the struggles of being a fat woman, not just in our industry as creatives, but in society in general, growing up fat and fat families, being from a very solidly fat background.

Then when the pandemic started, I was out of a job, I was going to start doing freelance writing full-time. Chloe works full-time as a photographer anyway, but had to move back home for personal reasons. I think she put something on her Instagram story, saying ‘I wish I had something to focus on’. So I thought ‘well, maybe now this is the time to do it’. It just became one of those things where we egged each other into doing it.

Then it’s blossomed since then. It’s been about a year now since we first made the Instagram and the Facebook and were reaching out to people saying ‘would you want to collaborate on this project?’ We literally just sold out Issue Two yesterday, so it’s nice how the timings worked.

I’m going to jump straight in here and get to this fat word. As someone of a certain age, to me, that’s always been a pejorative. You don’t use it that way. With the Fat Zine, the clue is in the name that you use that term quite proudly. But what’s going on there? What are you trying to get at?

So fat liberation isn’t really a new thing. The whole body positivity thing is, where they’re selling the new bras and saying that even chubby girls can have bras now in adverts. But fat liberation has been around since the 60s. It’s been an idea that being fat isn’t a negative, it should be seen as a neutral descriptor.

Lawrence Llewellyn wrote this article, I think in 1972, but it might have been the year before, saying that more people should be fat in an American newspaper. In that, he’s saying that more people are naturally fat and, because of the diet industry, they’re not.

You know that phrase ‘inside every fat person is a skinny person trying to get out’. In that, he says inside loads of skinny people, there are loads of fat people dying to get out. Let’s be honest, more people are naturally fat and trying not to be because they see it as a negative thing.

But what we should be doing is instead of using that word negatively within our own community, we should be reclaiming it as just a neutral word that we can use to describe ourselves. Like when you call someone tall, or if you say their hair is brown, it’s not a negative thing.

I think that’s the point of using the word fat, is to try and reclaim it as not necessarily positive, though I see it as a positive, but as a neutral word, because at the end of the day, if someone’s calling me a fat cow online, then I can say ‘well, yeah, I am, what’s your point’, rather than getting hurt by it.

In that sense, is it trying to undercut that stigma or negativity?

Yeah, definitely. It’s just trying to halt it and make it our own. It’s like in ‘Pitch Perfect’, where she calls herself Fat Amy, and she goes, ‘well, I’m calling myself that because then you can’t say it about me behind my back’. I think quite a lot of minorities do this, where you take a word that’s historically been used against you.

As a queer woman, I’d use the word queer, but people in my older generations say that you should not say that. I feel like it’s a similar thing, where if we start calling ourselves fat, then what do you actually have to say against us?

That’s definitely where I come from on, as a 50-something, white, Scottish guy, working-class, you can’t say that. But looking at the cover of the magazine, it’s by fat people for fat people. I love the addition to the tagline, it’s by fat people for fat people plus those that care. That took me by surprise a little bit. Why was it important for you to put that on there?

Because there are loads of people that care about us and there are loads of people who may not necessarily be a part of my community, but understand my struggles. All my friends in Manchester, all of them are thin, I don’t really have a fat friend who I see regularly, but they care so much about my struggle.

They’re really empathetic, they understand how much harder my life is because of my weight. They would never say things like ‘oh I feel so fat today, I look so fat and ugly today’. They understand the issue and they’re allies to my mission. It’s important to include them in our conversations.

Even on romantic levels, so many thin people get called chubby chasers or people assume that they have a fetish if they like fat people, but at the end of the day, they love fat people and they care about us. If they want to support us, then I’m not going to exclude them on that mission.

So you just put out your second issue and it’s sold out already.

Yeah, we put it out on the 15th of March, we did 500 copies. We also re-stocked Issue One of 200 copies, and we’ve sold out both.

So what’s the plan? Are you going to do more? Are you going to reprint?

Yeah, we definitely will reprint Issue Two, but Issue One, I think that’s over now, you won’t catch it. I think what we’re trying to do, or something I want to work on, is selling the PDF for a quid or something. Because I think accessibility is super important as well.

On World Obesity Day, this activist called Scottee, he has this group called Scottee and Friends. They got money off of Arts Council, which I thought was really funny because obviously, that’s the government and the government are paying for the anti-obesity stuff. They did a World Obesity Day Hack, and we got loads of fat creatives to post about being fat, and why we enjoy it.

Doing that, I gave away the PDF of Issue One for free to anyone who ticked the box saying ‘I’m fat, and I love myself’. Then loads of people said ‘it’s really handy having a PDF’, because maybe they can’t afford the shipping to America or Australia. Or maybe they just find reading stuff digitally more accessible because they have digital readers, like voice readers and stuff for people who have visual impairments. That’s definitely a next step that I want to take is making sure that it’s accessible digitally, as well as in print.

So if I had been lucky enough to get a copy, what would I get?

It comes with little add-ons as well, so you get the issue, which is about 100 pages of essays, artwork, photography, we’ve also done interviews. I did an interview with someone who had one of the first fat zines in the 90s called Marlin Wham. There’s so much different stuff. There’s loads of poetry in there. Someone submitted part of a script, and that’s in there.

Then inside that, you get another little mini-zine, which me and one of our contributing editors, Marie Southard Ospina, put together, of a fat liberation timeline. Like I said earlier, a lot of people don’t realise that fat liberation has been around for so long. I guess because most of our goals haven’t been achieved in such a long timeline.

But we wanted to put it together to show that we’ve been fighting this fight since the 60s, it’s not a new idea. We also have some postcards from this Australian photographer, an artist who is called Laura Dovey, who I adore. I wanted to make something that went in the zine, that you don’t have to tear up the zine to put something from it on your wall. So you can have these postcards and stick them up if you wanted to.

I read a quote from you and I honestly can’t remember where, but it might have been in Dazed. You said, ‘the more shit we can put into the world that someone can relate to, the less people have to feel like lonely, little misunderstood freaks’. The point of that, for me, is that puts you right at the centre of a community. There’s a real feeling, I think, talking about that tagline, plus those that care, for fat people by fat people. That idea of being right at the center of that community. How do you see your role in that community?

I wouldn’t like to say that I’ve put myself as a leader. I feel like I’m just as much as a part of it in the middle sense. I definitely benefit so much from my community as much as I put into it, which I think is why I’m so passionate about it. I wouldn’t be even happy with being fat without the fat liberation community that existed before me and have done the hard work online and offline.

I just see myself as a part of it rather than any form of leadership at all. I’ve got a background in self-publication and independent publication, I’ve obviously got a background in writing and editing. It just seemed like a natural step for me, to not just express my love for myself, but my love for my community.

Print is just one aspect of this. The community is connecting through the web, on Instagram. Do you ever do any events on anything like that?

That’s the thing, because we’ve been in lockdown for the whole time we could do the publication, we haven’t really been able to do anything especially community-based. We did do a collab with Fat Life Drawing, which is an InstaGram and website collective that get fat people to model for life drawing on Zoom sessions. We did a collab with them and Marie models for them.

Chloe was leading a fat reads Zoom class, where we bought some fat literature that maybe people don’t have the money to buy. The old zines can be up to 20 quid just to get your hands on. So she was scanning them in and doing read-alongs and talking through the language, because obviously language has developed around liberation and politics.

We have done a few online events, but definitely in the future, I’d love to do something like in Shrill when she has the fat pool party.

In Manchester for Pride last year, they did a digital pride and Joe Spencer and Niall O’Conghaile did a fat pride hour. They got a fat DJ, fat people dancing, and I did a little speech that they showed at the time. They said that if they get to do a live pride hour, this year, they’re gonna put a scale at the side of the stage, so if you’re under 200 pounds, you’re not getting in.

I love that. What’s that, positive discrimination?

Yeah, exactly. Give us our own space. I love them, they’re class, but they were saying that they’re gonna push for doing Fat Pride as more of an event as well. I think fat liberation is really linked to queer liberation. It’ll be really fun to get involved with that. I’m sure I’ll be dancing and off my tits at that this summer.

Looking forward to that one.

You should come down.

You have to livestream it. So all of that’s going on, why bother with print? What attracted you to do something in print?

I think just physically having something is just as important as having access digitally. Holding something in your hand as a tactile object, let alone even reading and looking at it and knowing that this was made for you by people like you and those that care about you, like we’ve said. That’s our claim.

It’s just revolutionary, having one publication that the only thing you’re going to see in it is fat positivity. It’s just something that I’ve not really seen before. It’s not something that I’ve had access to even. I’m not saying it’s not been done before, but I feel like having access to something like that would have definitely revolutionised my life when I was a child, when I was a fat teenager with an eating disorder.

I feel like giving people something physical that reinforces these ideals, because a lot of the time when you access activism online, when you log off, you disconnect from it a bit. You realise that the real world isn’t exactly in the same bubble that you can be online with activism, especially when everyone’s voting in the Tories and Brexit.

You realise that your point of view might not be the mass point of view. So having something that ties you to the physical, real world as well as the digital world, I think is important to have.

Was it difficult? You’ve talked about your own background in self-publishing, but was it difficult pulling it together, particularly during the year that we had last year?

I actually found the first issue easier to do than the second issue, to be honest. I think me and Chloe had a lot more spare time and a lot more enthusiasm out of the pandemic to push for something. Towards the end, it’s just been quite exhausting.

By the end of this pandemic, which we’re still going through, but after a year of going through it, it was a bit of a struggle to get out of bed and put the energy into this. Especially because it’s not something that makes either of us money and it’s not something that is paying our bills or anything. We’re doing it for love.

I ask everyone this question. For some people, it is about the money, but you’ve just said for you guys, it’s not about the money. Have you got any ambitions, or is it just covering your costs and getting the message out there?

I would love it if it did pay me eventually. I’m not gonna say that I wouldn’t. I’d be lying if I said ‘no’. The first issue, we donated all our money, all our profits, to Black Lives Matter, because that was really important to us. I think without Black fat women, we wouldn’t have fat liberation as it is today anyway.

Then with this issue, we told everyone the profits are going to go back into the people who are in it. So even though it’s largely submission-based and usually submissions to magazines don’t get paid, we paid everyone across the board like 35 quid or something like that.

Just so everyone got a bit of money because I think in circles with this kind of activism and definitely in the art world, people do stuff because they’re passionate about it and don’t expect money. It’s nice to be able to say, ‘you know what, you’ve made this thing about being fat, it’s personal, it’s passionate, it’s something beautiful, and we want to make sure that you know that we can reimburse you in a physical way, as well as giving you a place in our magazine’.

We’re starting up the blog again, soon, in the next couple of weeks. I’ve just had Mollie Quirk sign on to be the editor for that. We’re going to go through all our people who didn’t make it into the past publications and reach out to them and go, look, you didn’t make it to print, but we’ve got this platform and if you want to be on it, you can be on it.

We’re trying to be as inclusive as possible and I think that’s something that isn’t as often seen in the publishing world. A lot of publishing stuff, especially in print, is curated, like my friend who does Polyester. Everything in the print publication is curated. There’s hardly any, if at all, any submissions that go into the print, but in our print, it is 80%, 75% submissions.

I find myself very passionate about providing a platform where people can just have it without having to have all these connections, or a name for themselves, or have worked published previously. If you send it in and we like it, we’ll give you a platform. That’s something I’m very passionate about doing.

What do you think’s the hardest part of what you do? I don’t mean that in the sense of your workflow or making enough money? I mean in your head and the way you face the world, what’s the hardest part of that?

I think, again, a lot of imposter syndrome. I feel my accomplishments maybe don’t feel like accomplishments a lot of the time. I always think that I could be doing better or I feel like I’m lying. I feel like it’s false when people celebrate my work because they don’t necessarily see all the worth in it. I think that’s especially tied to having a struggle with mental health towards the start of this year.

Obviously, I’ve had eating disorders and stuff in the past, so especially tied to the Fat Zine and fat writing, it can feel a bit like I’m being an imposter when I have negative feelings about myself. I think it would be ignorant to pretend that I don’t have those negative feelings about myself and my fatness. But I think that’s probably the hardest thing is dealing with those feelings as well on the outside, so lots of people I might represent only feel positive about being fat, when in reality, it’s a struggle every day,

And you write about fat issues for other people. You write for Dazed and you do Polyester as well.

Yeah, I’ve written for Vice quite a lot about fat stuff. When they did the new obesity guidelines last summer, I wrote a long-form piece for Vice saying, here’s all the different ways that this is just classist and horrible shite. Then I’ve done fun stuff as well. I wrote one for Vice about how to shag a fat girl. I said, don’t be afraid to touch us, maybe. Maybe don’t say how much you love fat women, because it’s not really making me feel any better.

That’s a question I’ve got for you. I’m maybe not skinny, but I wouldn’t describe myself necessarily as fat in the sense that you are. What’s the right way I should talk about that? How should I talk about that?

I think just as long as you’re using fat in a neutral or positive manner, then go right ahead. I don’t want any thin person to think, ‘oh, well, she can say it, but I can’t say it’. It’s not that at all. It’s just about using it in a way that’s not an insult. If you’re calling me a fat cow, then yeah, maybe don’t say that.

Say that you’re trying to find me in a crowd, and you’re going to your mate ‘oh, she’s fat and she’s blonde and she’s very Welsh’. They can use that to find me in a crowd, for example, that’s totally normal. If, say when Dazed did that feature on me, they would call me fat in it and I think the writer was thin. It doesn’t matter, because that’s how I call myself and it’s a neutral word.

But I also think it’s worth being aware of what other people do prefer to be called because there are maybe people like my mom’s age where if I called her fat, she wouldn’t be very happy about it.

It’s context as much as anything.

Yeah, definitely. It’s context just as much as anything.

So what does success look like for the Fat Zine? What do you want to happen with this? Does it get bigger, or does it get more attention? What does that look like?

I don’t know, because I feel really successful already. We sold out in less than a month, we have all these followers on Instagram. People are always very passionate about the work we do. I feel like a success already, as long as we keep trucking on with what we’re doing and maybe reaching more people.

Maybe in the next print issue, we’ll print more. Maybe over the next few months, we’ll get more followers, a bigger community, but there’s no set bigger, massive goals, really, for the magazine, because it’s achieving what I wanted it to achieve.

In that sense, do you see yourself as a publisher or as an activist?

Maybe a little bit of both. It’s hard to call yourself an activist really. It’s kind of like calling yourself a punk, it feels like it cancels out. I just see myself as a writer before anything else. I think writing goes hand-in-hand with publishing, especially the way that I’ve gotten into the writing world is through self-publishing. So neither, I’d call myself a writer. Or all of the above.