The Chronicle Review

No Fear of Fat

Frederic Neema

The Padded Lilies, a women’s synchronized swim team, aims to promote the idea that it’s OK to be overweight.
November 08, 2009

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.