• September 4, 2015

No Fear of Fat

Fear of Fat 1

Frederic Neema

The Padded Lilies, a women’s synchronized swim team, aims to promote the idea that it’s OK to be overweight.

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close Fear of Fat 1

Frederic Neema

The Padded Lilies, a women’s synchronized swim team, aims to promote the idea that it’s OK to be overweight.

Fat is Bad.

Isn't it odd that people deeply divided on almost every important topic can so easily agree on that assertion? Isn't it strange that countries significantly divergent in culture, attitudes, and approaches apparently share the sentiment? In fact, one of the few disagreements that seem to exist in the popular media is which country is hardest hit by the "obesity epidemic." Regardless of which country is actually the "fattest nation on earth," in 1995 the United States declared a "war on fat" with the support of former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop.

Some scholars found the opinions about fat suspicious and began conducting research to examine the claims. Building on that foundation, the field of fat studies emerged. In the tradition of critical race studies, queer studies, and women's studies, fat studies is an interdisciplinary field of scholarship marked by an aggressive, consistent, rigorous critique of the negative assumptions, stereotypes, and stigmas placed on fat and the fat body. The field of fat studies invites scholars to pause, interrupt everyday thinking (or failure to think) about fat, and do something daring and bold. Moving beyond challenging assumptions, they must question the very questions that surround fatness and fat people. They must not be satisfied by noting that people diet and asking why—they must ask why we continue to expect people to diet.

Who is oppressed by this pattern?

In the foreward to our new Fat Studies Reader, Marilyn Wann, a leader of the fat-activism movement and author of FAT! SO?: Because You Don't Have to Apologize for Your Size! (Ten Speed Press, 1998), explains what that means. "As a new, interdisciplinary field of intellectual inquiry, fat studies is defined in part by what it is not," she writes.

"For example, if you believe that fat people could (and should) lose weight, then you are not doing fat studies—you are part of the $58.6-billion per year weight-loss industry or its vast customer base. If you believe that being fat is a disease and that fat people cannot possibly enjoy good health or long life, then you are not doing fat studies. Instead, your approach is aligned with 'obesity' researchers, bariatric surgeons, public-health officials who declare 'war on obesity,' and the medico-pharmaceutical-industrial complex that profits from dangerous attempts to 'cure' people of bodily difference."

Wann goes on: "If you believe that thin is inherently beautiful and fat is obviously ugly, then you are not doing fat-studies work either. You are instead in the realm of advertising, popular media, or the more derivative types of visual art—in other words, propaganda.

"Fat studies is a radical field, in the sense that it goes to the root of weight-related belief systems."

Fat-studies scholars can begin to explore the implications of Wann's declaration with three crucial intellectual steps. First, be suspicious of any nonneutral policy, attitude, or procedure where a line is drawn between fat and thin. Be especially skeptical when people are treated differently, rights are denied, or an action is motivated by the desire to "help" a group that falls on either side of the line. For example, be suspicious of school-based exercise programs that are mandatory for fat children, or cheerleading or dance programs from which fat students are categorically excluded.

Second, be aware of and alert to seemingly neutral policies that have different effects on groups based on their weight. For instance, a policy requiring Body Mass Index to be listed on report cards, or a science teacher who weighs all children during class and has them calculate their BMI as an assignment, is neutral, but it will have a different impact on fat children than on thin children.

Third, keep the actual lives of fat people at the heart of the analysis. Consider: Fat children in the United States have repeatedly been taken out of loving homes and away from caring, capable parents based on nothing but the child's weight, yet no general civil-rights agency has provided legal assistance when asked, let alone created a task force to focus on such discrimination. When policies are made to help fat people, are they focusing on the issues that affect fat people? If not, how is the agenda being set?

Some of you may find your critical inquiry interrupted by a rush to frame the weight discussion through the health discourse that dominates popular culture (where there is nothing to be gained from any fat endeavor except fighting fat); you should consider where fat studies stands with regard to unpacking "obesity" in comparison to the critical theory more established in academe. For example, today we do not stop our analysis after noting that people are treated differently based on race, nor do we stop after asking what race is. Critical race theory is well established, and the deeper questions about the social construction of race come reasonably naturally—how and why did we establish categories of race as known today, how have they changed, and why do we continue to use them? But in earlier stages of the field's development, those questions were likely to be buried behind the distracting public discourse of the time.

Consider Glenn Gaesser's chapter in our book on the long-term failure of weight loss. No one really knows true success or failure rates, but it's not unrealistic to look at 90- to 95-percent failure, the professor of exercise and wellness at Arizona State University writes.

Realize, too, that weight in North America is strongly related to income. Fat people are poorer than thin people, and that is especially true for women. The general public usually assumes that poverty causes fatness (for example, they point out that poor people cannot afford "healthy" foods like fruits or vegetables, or that health clubs are expensive and thus out of reach to poor people). But in our book, Paul Ernsberger, an associate professor of nutrition and cardiovascular disease at Case Western Reserve University, makes the groundbreaking case that fatness causes poverty because of discrimination (e.g., fat people are less likely to get jobs). Bianca D.M. Wilson, an assistant professor of psychology at California State University at Long Beach, shows how the American obsession with weight affects black lesbian and bisexual women. Facing multiple forms of oppression—race, gender, size—many of these women continue to love their bodies, showing a resilience that should not be eradicated, Wilson writes. Those are deeper issues that move us from health to other questions.

This moment in fat studies provides us with the rare chance to experience the development of a critical-studies field while propaganda is at its peak; we must make our own paths. That is a reward—one that only scholars studying at a particular crossroads can experience—and one that provides a unique window into our own ability not just to see outside the box, but first to see and experience the box for ourselves.

Key issues in fat studies include intersectionality (the intersection of oppressions), health, and international and legal issues, as well as history, literature, and popular culture. After decades of independent study focused on the body, weight, and fat, the past few years have seen an exponential growth in the organization, communication, and focus of professionals and academics working and conducting research in fat studies. Multiple fat-studies courses have been offered in numerous universities for several years. The year 2006 marked the tipping point—it was the first time that three national conferences were held to discuss fat studies. Undergraduate students at Smith College sponsored "Fat and the Academy," focusing on the study and experience of fatness in academe. Later in the year, the joint meeting of the Popular Culture Association and the American Culture Association featured, for only the fourth time, a separate area in the field of fat studies. Finally, the Association for Size Diversity and Health conference promoted the critical analysis of weight-related health matters for, and with an emphasis on, the needs of professionals.

It may come as a surprise, but questioning the appropriateness of discrimination based on height and weight was on the national radar in the United States, at least to a minor degree, during the 1960s. That period was profoundly important for the American civil-rights movement. Central to the movement was the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, legislation vigorously debated by Congress; Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey's remarks during the debate demonstrate awareness of body-size discrimination even then: If, he said, "we started to treat Americans as Americans, not as fat ones, thin ones, short ones, tall ones, brown ones, green ones, yellow ones, or white ones, but as Americans, if we did that, we would not need to worry about discrimination." Several years later, a few courageous individuals began to protest the inhumane treatment of fat people and fat bodies. In 1969, William Fabrey founded NAAFA, the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (it was originally called the National Association to Aid Fat Americans), which continues to be a major source of fat advocacy.

In the 1970s, in Los Angeles, the Fat Underground painted the effort to eradicate fat people via weight loss as a form of genocide perpetrated by the medical profession. The group was influenced both by feminism and by radical therapy, a type of treatment that put the focus of change on society, not on individuals. The early 1970s was a time of liberation movements, like the women's-liberation movement, the gay-liberation movement, and the Gray Panthers. In 1973 two members of the Fat Underground, Judy Freespirit and Aldebaran, wrote "The Fat Liberation Manifesto." In that work, they stated that fat people are fully deserving of human respect, demanded equal rights for fat people, and viewed the struggle to end fat oppression "as allied with the struggles of other oppressed groups against classism, racism, sexism, ageism, financial exploitation, imperialism, and the like." The manifesto specifically mentioned that diet industries harm the health of fat people, and ended with: "FAT PEOPLE OF THE WORLD, UNITE! YOU HAVE NOTHING TO LOSE."

Most recently, while fatness is still framed as a health problem, it is stigma and prejudice (and their consequences) that inspire much of the research in fat studies. The focus is on fatness as social inequality: blaming women (and mothers), bullying, mandatory weight reduction for children, seeing personal "choice" and individual responsibility as a neoliberal interpretation of fatness, gender privilege relating to size, fatness in gay male communities, violence against women, and more. As we write, only six locations in the United States have laws that prohibit weight-based discrimination: the state of Michigan and the cities of Washington; Madison, Wis.; Binghamton, N.Y.; and San Francisco and Santa Cruz, in California. As a result, fat people often rely on disability law and the premise of "accommodation." But defining the argument—whether it be over the size of airline seats or school desks—in terms of disability has the unfortunate tendency to make scholars not versed in disability studies view fatness as something abnormal and problematic. Thin is then seen as the one and only normal and healthy body size. Fat people who use disability law to secure basic rights (for example, to keep their fat children from being placed in foster care) are generally successful only when they support the thin ideal and explain their inability to attain it for themselves or their children.

Research also looks at popular culture, art, poetry, and performance—fat queer zines, fat female characters on television, fatness and "chick lit," and similar topics. Fat studies has also exploded in its focus on the visual. Scholars are looking at the way that tourist postcards portrayed fat women in the early 20th century, the "big butt" in American popular culture, and the occurrence of "fat suits" in the movies (when thin stars dress up in latex-and-foam costumes to appear fat).

Ironically, fat people are urged to exercise but then hindered by a lack of available exercise clothing, ill-fitting exercise equipment, or degrading responses from exercise-center staff members and others. Nevertheless, fat people have always been and continue to be physically active, and scholars are studying fat people moving, dancing, and engaging in physical exercise: on the all-fat burlesque troupe Big Burlesque, or in aerobics classes and health clubs for fat women.

Again, consider what Marilyn Wann has to say about the field, when she notes in our Reader that efforts to wipe out "obesity" are "prescriptive in nature. They assume that human weight is mutable and negotiable, assumptions that are informed by current social bias and stigma against fatness and fat people.'' On that point, fat studies is—in strong contrast—descriptive. Weight, like height, is a human characteristic that varies across any population.

"There have always been and there will always be people of different weights. Unlike traditional approaches to weight, a fat-studies approach offers no opposition to the simple fact of human weight diversity but instead looks at what people and societies make of this reality.

"The field of fat studies requires skepticism about weight-related beliefs that are popular, powerful, and prejudicial. That skepticism is currently rare, even taboo. Questioning the received knowledge on weight is socially risky. American culture is engaged in a pervasive witch hunt targeting fatness and fat people."

Indeed, many of the leaders in the field have encountered significant obstacles and academic disapproval for focusing on this topic. When one of us, Sondra, studying law at a top law school, attempted to find an adviser for her project on weight discrimination, she was forced to petition the school to allow an adjunct faculty member to supervise her—only her "Sexual Orientation and the Law" professor understood the importance of her critical legal inquiry. Years later, with her book Tipping the Scales of Justice: Fighting Weight-Based Discrimination (Prometheus Books, 2000)—the first book to thoroughly document weight discrimination as a civil-rights issue in several legal fields—firmly in hand, Sondra attended a conference on the lack of "women and minorities" in legal academe. She recalls the easy dismissal of her work by a key conference speaker as "not a real topic."

When the other of us, Esther, submitted her research about weight and stigma to academic journals in psychology, the reviewers were often dieting researchers. One reviewer commented, "I do have several suggestions for improving this paper. First, the tone is a bit strident and accusatory. The field of obesity research is cast as sexist, short-sighted and misdirected. There are, of course, flaws in some of the research and the public view of obesity is often not supported by the evidence, but I do feel the paper would profit from more objectivity and from using a less angry tone." Another wrote, "One concern I have with this paper is that some of the myths it debunks (such as the notion that dieting is ineffective) are not views currently held by psychologists." The phrase "strident and accusatory" is reminiscent of critiques of research done by feminists not too many years earlier.

Most notable of the kind of institutional resistance we have encountered was the response to our Reader from Harvard University Press. An editor rejected it with the explanation, "I think I'd have trouble at various stages of the review process with a book that discounted, or seemed to discount, the health risks of obesity."

According to Harvard, not only can we not question research about the "health risks of obesity," but we must avoid even the appearance of such an inquiry. In a world where appearances matter, we are proud to present a fat book about fat issues.

Welcome to the field of fat studies.

Esther Rothblum is a professor of women's studies at San Diego State University. Sondra Solovay is a lawyer and adjunct professor of law in the John F. Kennedy University's School of Law and at San Francisco Law School. This essay is adapted from the book they edited, "The Fat Studies Reader," just published by New York University Press.


1. curtisrt - November 09, 2009 at 12:58 pm

FOOD FOR THOUGHT: I wonder if the stereotypical faculty hire trend will exist in "fat studies." Research in higher education has found that these "silos," or research specializations, tend to segregate faculty and, in turn, students.

For example: Some Women's Studies programs tend to be made up of a majority of female professors; Some Queer Studies programs tend to be made up of a majority of gay or lesbian faculty members, etc.

My question: Should this "trend" continue, would Fat Studies include a majority of overweight professors? Or would the majority be skinny professors?

Furthermore, would the student population mirror the faculty?

2. malonedies - November 09, 2009 at 06:35 pm

Please join me in celebrating the anorexia acceptance movement.

3. marka - November 10, 2009 at 12:12 am

Hmm ... Of course, there are stereotypes out there -- we all use stereotypes to get through the day, without having to analyze everything. The stereotype that might typify some individuals within a group doesn't apply to all. That, of course, results in many of us misunderstanding or misjudging others. And there are plenty of unfair stereotypes about 'fat' people.

But to state that 'obesity' isn't really a health issue, and that anyone who says otherwise is part of the medico/pharm/fitness conspiracy is taking things a bit too far. That's like saying that anyone who promotes 'fat' is just part of the processed food/consumption/'growth' economy capitalist conspiracy!

Good evidence & analysis that obesity is a medical problem for many individuals, and definitely a significant public health problem, with diabetes but one of many increased medical issues associated with increased weight. How we deal with that is, in part, cultural -- larger folks in some cultures is a sign of wealth & prestige. But to state that it isn't a health issue suggests you are simply in denial, in your efforts to get folks to see 'fat' people as people first.

This latest 'crit' study sounds a lot like others in the past -- in the process of demystifying and countering biases, one starts reaching for straws, and then 'creating' straws, to support one's views. Not everything is simply relative, subjective, context contingent. Get real. I was empathizing up until then ... and you lost me.

4. cistoladp - November 10, 2009 at 01:37 pm

Well stated Marka!

5. piske109 - November 10, 2009 at 02:37 pm

I agree 100% with Marka, this is just Neo-Marxism at its most absurd. When will this trend in academia die out? It seems only the most left-wing departments in English and the Humanities are still tackling it as if it means anything.

Instead of just providing mindless polemicals and negative dialectics against the so-called status quo, wouldn't the obese be better served by acknowledging that they are indeed at greater risk for certain diseases? Discrimination shouldn't be tolerated, of course; it is just as unlawful to discriminate against a person in the labor market for being overweight as it is to discriminate against a homosexual who is HIV+ or has the AIDS virus; however, the at risk homosexual is still going to find medical treatment for his ailment, since it is obviously accepted that his/her mortality is at risk. I think that's where the Fat Studies loses its credibility: instead trying to bring people to a mutual understanding that it is wrong to discriminate against others or to hold prejudices based on appearance, they try to rationalize obesity and make it some sort of movement of empowerment. No this is very very different from other categories like race or gender.

So yeah, what's next? Bulimia/Anorexic Critical Theory? Ridiculous...

6. carriep - November 10, 2009 at 04:44 pm

Actually for the majority of the US and the world, it is perfectly lawful to discriminate against a fat person in the labor market and in any other circumstance. Fat is an unprotected status in all but a few cities.

Here's what I think you are all missing: You know how all the thin people in the world aren't anorexic or bulemic? Some are just naturally thinner than most people? Well the same is true for people on the other end of the spectrum. Some people are just naturally fatter than average.

But okay, maybe you're saying nobody gets to 300+ pounds without doing some disordered eating or having some unhealthy habits. And maybe that's true, but here's the thing: just like you can't look at a reformed anorexic and know that she's eating way better than she used to and is living a much healthier life, you also can't look at a fat person and know this. You can look at my 300+ frame and assume that I have had some trouble with disordered eating in the past (not that it's any of your business btw), but you'd never know by looking at me that I eat a healthy vegetarian diet and work out several times a week with a personal trainer and that I have done this for years.

People's bodies are different. There is no one right way to be. Yet people come up to me and insist that I must be living an unhealthy life and that I should change my habits without knowing anything more about me than that I am fat.

I also have a problem with this construct that society at large needs to figure out how to help "the obese". We are not infants. We are not idiots. We are not just trying to make excuses. We hear the same news reports about obesity as you do, and the only thing that makes us take those reports with a grain of salt is that we know what our lives are like and what we do and don't do and therefore know that the generalizations made in the media don't always apply to us.

The mentality that fat people should be grouped together and all treated one way (which seems to be displayed in the comments here as well) is the exact reason that there needs to be a fat studies field, just like there needed to be a womans studies field, a race studies field, and a queer studies field.

7. navydad - November 10, 2009 at 04:45 pm

This article is a parody, isn't it? Please tell me it's a parody. If we want to start a new discipline that will really strike home, how about Stupid Studies. Stupid people are discriminated against in many areas of society, especially in academe. I will grant that stupid people have found success in politics, business, entertainment, and religion, but higher education clearly is the last bastion of stupidism (to be distinguished from stupidity). Oddly enough, it's the Republicans who seem to be leading the charge in combatting stupidism. How else to explain the popularity of Sarah Pailin and Rush Limbaugh?

8. piske109 - November 11, 2009 at 01:51 am

This country and the business establishment unfairly discriminate against those who naturally have a different body smell from the status quo. These people, these prejudice charlatans, they have the gall to say that we should all shower on a regular basis, that we should wear deoderant! Well I say NO, and I beg all of my brothers and sisters who have ever been asked to bathe and wear deoderant to STAND UP to the hygenical bourgeois oppressors. No longer will we be forced to pour water on our bodies to wash away the so called "dead skin", for it is this epidural phenomenon which the bourgeois neoliberal elite want to wash away from our skins in hopes of controlling all of us.

Look at one of the portrayals of those who go against the hygene status quo in popular culture: Pig Pen from Charlie Brown. A child who chooses not to bathe is viewed as a SOCIAL PARIAH, and we allow this to corrupt our youth and the rest of the public, well no more I say. To hell with your soap, to hell with your loofahs, to hell with your towels, to hell with combining of hydrogen and oxygen atoms and to hell with your tyranny!! UNWASHED MEN AND WOMEN OF THE WORLD UNITE!!!

9. amnirov - November 11, 2009 at 12:17 pm

But fat really is gross and ugly. It's a sign of indulgence, lack of exercise, poor life choices. Yuck. I wouldn't date a fat person if we were the last two people on earth.

10. almelle - November 11, 2009 at 12:33 pm

Sondra and Esther, thank you for the thoughtful article reviewing the state of Fat Studies. Like many of the other commenters, I have hesitations about yet another interdiscipline being created...

And yet continuing to explore the factors that both bring favoritism and discrimination to all of us is important to explore across many disciplines. The social consequences of a given weight do deserve further study, although I wish this could be combined with other factors rather than separated out into yet another 'studies.'

11. 11231850 - November 11, 2009 at 03:40 pm

How fatness affects a person's health, civil rights, and ability to earn a living deserves attention. Whether that attention is paid in a fat studies program or in older, more established disciplines doesn't matter much to me.

12. anonscribe - November 11, 2009 at 08:48 pm

Well, I have to admit my knee-jerk reaction is to scoff at "Fat Studies." On second thought, I think something more like "Weight Studies" would be a perfectly useful enterprise. Weight certainly seems like an essential term in a person's identity. I mean, what about "Thin Studies" for men? Limp noodles don't get the girls and often get picked on by other men (admittedly, fat men don't fair much better). What about "Muscle Studies"? What about "Tall Studies" for women? What "Flat Chest" studies? The list goes on.

I think my main objection to this program of research is that it isolates one part of a larger identity issue and turns it into a polemical cause instead of looking more broadly and intricately at how weight and size determines identification in the West.

13. almelle - November 11, 2009 at 10:37 pm

anonscribe, you're exactly right. Even more broadly, Appearance Studies (or something of the sort) would be a much fuller discipline. Much as Gender Studies is (happily) replacing women's studies.

On a side note, one of my favorite blogs, http://shapelywomen.blogspot.com/, has great artwork of curvy women. If only there could be more sites that portray diverse appearances positively.

14. umgymsuccessstory - November 11, 2009 at 11:22 pm

I don't know if it's already been said...BUT, I think that it is not so much a "poverty" issue as it is an issue of "depression" and "unhappiness" and lots of "emotional" eating going on in this country. I think the first step is to have some counseling and then tackle the eating habits. Once the eating habits change, there will be energy for regular exercise that will lead to a healthy weight. I know because I've been there and so has Susan Powter and many other women/men. My 11 year old niece is struggling with it now and I feel for her when I see how she eats for comfort...

15. bertnb - November 12, 2009 at 08:13 am

I think it's interesting that so many of you are on the "eat right-exercise" bandwagon. I think everyone knows someone who is naturally skinny -- they can eat whatever they want and never gain weight -- even if they want to. Why do you find it so hard to believe that the opposite person exists -- one who is naturally heavy? These people defy your "they're lazy, they're depressed..." comments. Is it right that they should be discriminated against and treated poorly?

And amnirov, rest assured, they wouldn't date you, either!

16. rchill - November 12, 2009 at 08:17 am

I must agree with many of the above. This seems to be a discussion within the field of sociology, and making a distinct department/discipline is just providing employment for professors in the social sciences. And why only study weight discrimination in one direction from the norm? Make it weight studies, as thin (whatever that term actually means) can also be discriminated against as well.And why focus on women? Males certainly have weight issues and the types of discrimination you detail pertain to them as well. If you deny that thin people can be discriminated against, then I suggest you are being just as closed minded as the people you are railing against.
Like it or not, human bodies are not designed to carry excessive weight....nor are they designed to carry too little weight. Thin and fat....what exactly do you mean by these terms? Like it or not, excessive weight is correlated with health issues, both chronic and severe. Like it or not, too little weight is correlated with chronic and severe health issues. What does that mean? That everyone who is within each of these extremes of the weight spectrum will have those issues? NO. Just as some people can smoke excessively all their lives have really long, seemingly healthy lives, some people on the extremes of the weight perspective will live long and seemingly healthy lives. BUT - we do not understand the underlying etiology, so we cannot predict who will be fine and who will die early and suffer health issues.
So, study away on the social implications of this issue, just don't deny the underlying health implications - that would be doing a disservice to your students.

17. jffoster - November 12, 2009 at 08:39 am

At real universities, this has two chances of catching on.

Fat and Slim.

18. aifos - November 12, 2009 at 08:50 am

Studies show that obese kids are coronary time-bombs:

I might as well post this here.
Where else?

I don't mind fat people: as long as they pay extra for their health insurance, airline travel, etc.

19. texasmusic - November 12, 2009 at 09:56 am

Exactly the kind of thing that makes the general public think fat=diabetes, heart disease, etc. Fat does not equal disease. It can possibly raise your chances of developing them, but it does not guarantee you will. That CNN story is just sensationalist stuff to make your own heart stop. If you read the actual study, you'd probably just fall asleep. Show me statistics, not anecdotal evidence. And for our heros beginning the fat studies programs, I say the same: bring on the statistical evidence!

20. eyeswideopen - November 12, 2009 at 10:07 am

I agree with almelle, that studying our personal and cultural preceptions of fat people should be a special case within appearance studies. I would also like to propose another area, effort studies. Being very lazy, I am unable to take the lead on this, but I wouldn't mind sitting around reading about it.

21. mithras93 - November 12, 2009 at 10:46 am

This is some of the most absurd nonsense I have ever read. Fat people are not oppressed because they have to pay more for insurance, or have to buy an extra seat on an airplane. I'M oppressed when some behemoth sits next to me and his (or her) bulk flows over into my space, smashing me up against the fuselage!

The last thing we need is another whining class of victims. Most of the time, fat people are victims of only one thing: their own appetites.

22. please - November 12, 2009 at 11:00 am

Is the research contribution to this issue so considerable that it warrants the 'studies' label? At what point does a research interest become a full-fledged discipline? Should we really encourage people to accept a condition like one's weight as the defining characteristic of their identities? People 'are' what they weigh?

23. superdude - November 12, 2009 at 11:12 am

Frankly, anything with the word "Studies" in the title is suspect to begin with. But "Fat Studies" really takes the cake.

Pun intended.

24. mithras93 - November 12, 2009 at 11:21 am

I'd like to see the AMA weigh in on this....

25. victorl - November 12, 2009 at 11:59 am

Let's try to "unpack" just one of the hard & fast "medical facts" about fat: it correlates more highly with diabetes. This implies that fat people have a higher instance of diabetes. I tend to accept this as true, though others may not. Yet, what is our solution to this problem? For people who subscribe to the "disease model" of fatness, then the solution is much the same as the one for smoking, alcoholism, etc. Just say "no," or we will give you drugs, operations, and other services and procedures to reverse or eliminate this "problem."

But, what if we took a different approach--one that does not "pathologize" fatness as a disease that must be gotten rid of? Instead of asking the question, "how can we help this poor slob recover from his disease," can we instead ask: "is it possible to identify ways that a fat person can enjoy a healthier life as a fat person?" Just as we no longer (mostly) don't try to "cure" people of homosexuality, or cure women of "hysteria," can't we look at ways to offer better life quality to people of all sizes instead of making them feel like outre, diseased abnormalities of human existance?

That we don't do this is because we have a model and mindset of appearance norms that must be met by any means possible. The same way you would do everything in your power to keep someone from leaping off a cliff to their death, you will strive to prevent the gaining or retention of excess fat. I can't suggest that the above fully addresses this issue, but I only want to imply that there are alternate paths we could be travelling down which are predicated on very different assumptions than the ones researchers, educators, and society at large, are making. To follow through with the metaphor, we pull people away from the cliff before we learn if they're they're just there enjoying the view. Can they enjoy this view more safely?

It's easy to make a joke out of all this, as several posters have demonstrated, but replace "fat" with some other words, and 2009 with some other years, and you may find yourselves better able to take a fresh look at the issue.

26. velvis - November 12, 2009 at 12:00 pm

Perhaps those who don't see this a valuable study material have never spent times in their lives avoiding cameras or having to have clothing specially made for them because you don't want to wear the typical fat people muu muu uniform.

Just in the comments here prove the need to study the effect of being fat not just on women but on people. Studies have been done where kids would rather have mean friends than fat ones. In media the heavy girl is either the bully or the side kick, rarely the romantic goal, unless it's a farce. In England if you have a BMI above 40 you can be denied the ability to adopt, for no other reason than your weight.

In my high school a kid was expelled for bringing and distributing anti-semetic materials at school. This same kid wasn't suspended or even given detention for harassing classmates and encouraging a large proportion of the school to squeal like pigs when certain people walked down the hall.

Being "unhealthy" for whatever reason, whether it's weight, smoking, alcoholism, addiction, mental illness (pick your poison here), is the last bastian of accepted prejudice, because many people not understanding how or why the 'unhealthy' became that way assume it's a choice and you're making yourself a target and because of that you almost deserve it.

Maybe, just maybe it is total acceptance of discrimination and prejudice against the 'unhealthy' is what needs to be studied.

27. 22286593 - November 12, 2009 at 12:28 pm

The comments posted here reflects the fundamentally conservative nature of American society--even in its purportedly most liberal and progressive setting. Most of the criticism against "fat studies" can be classified into those that push the boundaries to ridiculous edges to make the proponents of "fat studies" unreasonable and the critics guardians of saneness in academia. However, being fat and not fat is a profoundly serious social and personal difference in American society. It's consequences are many, decisive, and pervasive. The increasing weight of Americans has not created a society where people who are considered fat can contain anywhere between significant minority to a majority of the population depending on what measure we use. Clearly, people who are fat deal with this status throughout their lives, and it shapes in profound and direct ways most of their live decisions in matters that are big and small. In addition, it is obvious that the social definition of a fat person has changed over time and in different settings. With all this, we lack clear and critical knowledge of what it means to be fat (does it really "cause" poverty?; do fat girls and boys experience their fatness in the same way?; do fat African American women have better body image than white fat women?; do American fat people treated more or less fairly than fat people in Japan? or Germany?; what are the limits that a society can impose on fat people? is forcing them to pay for two seats in an airplane fair? how far can these kinds of acts go?; what is the boundary of normal, fat, and one category above fat that could trigger lawful discrimination in certain circumstances?). Upshot of all this is that given the world we live in and the trajectory of the American body weight right now, I can't imagine a study that is needed more than fat studies. So, think a bit and reconsider if a critical and rigorous study of fat people has no place in American higher education.

28. aifos - November 12, 2009 at 12:48 pm

NO texasmusic, maybe that cnn article makes YOU think that fat-diabetes. But it does not make me think that (it makes me think about what it means to not be healthy). Fat people are ulgy and they stink. I don't like looking at them. I like looking at athletic bodies, both male and female. They are works of art (and whoever defiles the body, defiles the soul). I like the beauty of a such a bio-machine in motion. It is ART. I like the shadows cast by the muscles; I like when I see the tendons push out the skin. When I see this, I want to go up to that person and strum the tendons like a violin. I don't see any of that with fat people. But I smell fat people when they spill over into my seat. The authors have a right to extol the beauty of fat. I have a right to say its ugly.

29. navydad - November 12, 2009 at 12:52 pm

Speaking only for myself, my comments about "Fat Studies" have nothing to do with the plight of heavy people or the legitimacy of studying bio/psycho/social aspects of weight and size. Much good work from both scholarly and clinical perspectives has been and continues to be done regarding the biological and psychological aspects of eating and weight and the social construction of size, beauty, etc. I have worked with (mostly) women with eating disorders and with wellness programs for over 25 years and I have great sympathy for the complexities and frustrations surrounding issues of eating, weight, and body image. My sarcasm and criticism is directed at the idea of establishing "Fat Studies" along the lines of Queer Studies, Women's Studies, etc. The last thing we need is another polemical academic ghetto that will detract from good scholarship and trivialize an important area of study.

30. madamesmartypants - November 12, 2009 at 01:14 pm

I'm not ready to embrace a "Fat Studies" department, but this article did change my way of thinking about how fat people are treated in society. I think it's a worthwhile area of inquiry. My concerns about making it its own discipline include: Is this phenomenon so closely linked to the present obesity crisis in the U.S. that it is likely to be short-lived? How will it incorporate all the fields that it proposes to research--media, health institutions, diet industries, etc--without becoming too fragmented and/or losing its focus? How about the link between fat and health--would Fat Studies make people who do have real health issues that contribute to, or result from, their weight assume that they don't need to change their eating and/or exercise habits? While there may indeed be a _small_ group of people who are "naturally" fat, just as there is a _small_ group of people who are "naturally" thin, the overwhelming medical evidence proves that for most overweight people, fat=a health condition. It would be dangerous and irresponsible to encourage overweight people with high blood pressure, diabetes, or heart conditions to think otherwise. So proponents of FS must proceed cautiously.

Despite these concerns, I do think there's a lot of good to be found here. Solovay and Rothblum have made a good case, and I look forward to seeing more of their work in the future. My personal suggestion is that Fat Studies might do best as a subfield of emerging disciplines like Public Health, where it could act as an important corrective to some of the abusive practices--i.e., BMI on report cards--that are currently being carried out. Being part of a larger discipline like Public Health would help get FS the attention it deserves, and a chance at being included in policy initiatives, too.

31. unusedusername - November 12, 2009 at 01:37 pm

1. Being overwieght is hazardous to your health.
2. With the exception of a few people with rare diseases, everyone is capable of achieving normal weight. Yes, for some it will be harder than others. It is harder for me to do it than when I was younger. I do it anyway.
3. Fat people are less attractive than thin people--deal with it.

32. gtkarn - November 12, 2009 at 02:22 pm

After a number of years of steadily increasing weight, my wife and I joined Weight Watchers. We've lost, each, over 45lbs. We are free lifetime members. And it's not about dieting. It's about eating right and being healthy. I think Marka nailed it pretty well. That said, no one wants to do harm to anyone because of their weight; but no one should try to treat being overweight as if it were not a health problem and that the King Corn folks and the ubiquity of fructose etc. is having its way with all too many of us.

33. symbolic - November 12, 2009 at 02:30 pm

Thank you for the interesting article. From some of the comments on this thread, it's clear that you have hit a nerve and that a lot of research remains to be done in this area. I wish I were shocked that your article has drawn comments demonstrating the social acceptability of expressing disdain and disgust for fat peoples' bodies. It is distressing to see virulent hatred and disgust expressed (in an academic forum) towards people because of their bodies. One question for the authors and for the people discussing the relationship between health and weight. Does "fat studies" include the full spectrum of people who fall into the "overweight", "obese" and "morbidly obese categories?"

34. alundcha - November 12, 2009 at 03:56 pm

As a little blonde woman I've got some myth busting to add to this dialog. Nearly everyone in their comments has missed the point.

For purposes of this article it seems important to disclose that I am shorter than average and thin. There are a lot of things that really suck about this, but no one likes to hear someone who looks like me talk about that.

My appearance means I have no credibility, and people really do treat me as if I am weak and stupid. Others have observed this and confirmed that it is because of my appearance. I have been told directly that I am incompetent and weak (among other things) - by strangers and colleagues. Perfect strangers come right out and ask me how much I weigh. Every time this happens my heart breaks for the women (and men) who are "abnormally" tall or heavy. If people say such things to me, I cannot fathom what they are willing to say to someone who is big.

Contrary to what I am told quite frequently (and has been repeated ignorantly in these comments) I cannot eat anything I want and I do have to be active and exercise. My body needs whole, healthy, unprocessed, locally grown food just as much as anyone's. If I do not get exercise regularly my body atrophies and I lose energy just like anyone's. And again I think, if people say to my face things that indicate they think it is more important to be skinny than healthy, what do people say to those who are big? My heart breaks.

There are other social problems with being a little blonde woman, but nothing so painful as the social stigma of being big. None of this is meant to complain about being thin, but to demonstrate the absurdity in the way people are treated because of their appearance, specifically how we interpret beauty and size.

Thank you for producing real research that documents the social and emotional effects of being large in a consumption-based economy where people do judge appearances. I'll be the first to admit I have a lot to learn and understand about the experiences of men and women who are big, and I appreciate that your work is helping to fill this void in scholarship.

35. 2susan - November 12, 2009 at 04:25 pm

I admire these women for their research and their boldness, and I am glad NYU Press published their work. But, speaking very honestly here, I have to say this: I have been fat, and I have been thin in my life, and guess what? Thin was better. Much better. I was more confident, I looked better in terms of what this society says one should look like, and my life was better as a result.

Right now I am fat. I am working hard to get thin. Why am I doing this? Because: I have been fat and I have been thin, and thin was better. For me.

However, again, I admire these women for their work. There is an enormous amount of discrimination that goes on against fat people.

36. i_told_u_so - November 12, 2009 at 08:42 pm

This is exactly why the authors want to have fat studies. Any biology or medical department can teach or research on the medical aspect of "fatness" - the diabetes, heart stress, and other problems it can (but not always) cause. However, what needs to be taught, studied, and perhaps changed is the negativity towards the overweight person. Of the comments I see here now (35), over half are derogatory in nature. Some are down right insultive and mean, which if the word fat or overweight were to be exchanged for say Black, or Oriental, or Gay, disabled or any number of other things would not be PC, causing a lot of comments about how bigoted the poster was.

The idea for the studies is not to revisit things already covered - but to study things like the effect of derogatory remarks on the self esteem of overweight people, or the effects of a culture of thinness on teenaged children.

Perhaps they can find a way to help young people accept their bodies if they are overweight - as most are. Because if they do have non-medical reasons for being overweight (excessive comfort eating) the culture of "thin is in" and "fat is gross" makes them think THEY are gross, resulting in more depression, and more obesity. If the person has a medical reason (many drugs have weight gain as a side effect), then these studies can perhaps find a way to help people to overcome the way they look at overweight people.

I agree that having "fat studies" as an area may be limiting to a degree, and perhaps should be combined to Weight Studies, to cover both ends of the spectrum.

By the way, aifos, amnirov, and unusedusername, remember, the way you treat others tells a lot about your inner beauty or inner ugliness. In the words of a BBW (Big Beautiful Woman) friend of mine, "I may be fat, but you're ugly and I can diet."

37. yorklibrary - November 13, 2009 at 07:55 am

To me the most interesting aspect of this exchange is the level to which some posters will go - am I reading sixth graders' facebook posts? Talking about how fat people smell? How they are disgusting? That fatness can provoke such responses from academics demonstrates the depth to which this is an emotional and cultural issue at least as much as it is a health issue. And that does require some scrutiny.

38. peopleofsize - November 13, 2009 at 11:08 am

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39. oathay - November 13, 2009 at 03:13 pm

Carriep, two things: many vegetarians are eally "grainarians", which is likely why you remain overweight. Grains are calorie dense, nutrient deficient, and are actually disease-causing organisms. You should check out paleolithic nutrition in order to optimize your health the way nature intended.

40. mendhamt - November 17, 2009 at 11:39 am

If I had any questions about the necessity of fat studies when I began reading this review, the hatefulness of some of the above comments make a good argument for the authors' position.

41. randomacademic - November 30, 2009 at 11:15 am

I just love how the authors use this manifesto as a way to lash back at their anonymous reviewers. Classy.

I do hope this is a parody, but fear that it isn't.

Here, in a nutshell, are what seem to be the main issues at stake:

- healthy human body types are plentiful, but too many of us are petty, unreflective, and easily manipulated by sexualized marketing and various peer pressures.

- our bodies are shaped in complex ways by heredity and environment.

- excess body fat is linked to a range of health concerns, but what counts as "excess" is far from straightforward, either scientifically or culturally:

- on the one hand, some people can "look fat" by prevailing standards of "health" and "beauty", yet be entirely healthy and happy.

- on the other hand, while there seem to be some broad similarities in what humans find attractive, there is a lot of variation both across and within cultures, and even those broad similarities that the ev-psych people claim to find do not seem to suggest a narrowly specified universally "attractive" body type.

- too often we judge and act on the basis of simplistic stereotypes, not careful thought, reliable evidence, and sophisticated understandings.

- poor diet and poor health are bound up with class and racial/ethnic inequalities that are too often injustices (on any sensible view of such matters), and that should worry us enough to do something.

There, did we miss anything?

Probably, but do we really need another jargon-addled "studies" program or department to teach us these (and a few other) rather obvious and straightforward points about biological diversity and social construction?

These seem to be largely matters for cultural activism and public education, not further academic research. (To which, no doubt, some will say: activism and public awareness are academic issues! But that seems to me to be how we've devalued the academic rigor of social studies in the first place.) Insofar as there may be fruitful research questions here, they hardly seem to warrant a new "X-studies" agenda. (And we wonder why the sciences think of us as a joke: we find painful and confusing ways to state and restate the obvious, even as we make grand gestures at "problematizing" and "contesting".)

42. cwinton - December 01, 2009 at 11:47 am

And people in social studies wonder why their "discipline" lacks credibility? There are lots of biologists interested in frogs for all kinds of reasons, but we don't see a call for a disciplinary niche called frog studies. There is no doubt that our culture has led to an increased average BMI for our population accompanied by any number of attendant problems, and it requires attention, but not in the context of some self-serving academic silo.

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