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New Area of Learning: Fat Studies

November 30, 2006

A few days ago I ran across a New York Times article on the emerging field of fat studies. Authored by Abby Ellin and titled “Big People on Campus,” the piece explores the field’s place in the academy as well as subsidiary topics of interest. I was intrigued. Here are some excerpts:

– “During her sophomore year at Smith College, Ms. [Sheana] Director attended a discussion on fat discrimination: the way the super-sized are marginalized, the way excessive girth is seen as a moral failing rather than the result of complicated factors. But the academic community, she felt, didn’t really give the topic proper consideration.”
– “In December 2004, [Ms. Director] helped found the organization Size Matters, whose goal was to promote size acceptance and positive body image. In April, the group sponsored a conference called Fat and the Academy, a three-day event at Smith of panel discussions and performances by academics, researchers, activists and artists. Nearly 150 people attended.”
– “Proponents of fat studies see it as the sister subject — and it is most often women promoting the study, many of whom are lesbian activists — to women’s studies, queer studies, disability studies and ethnic studies. In many of its permutations, then, it is the study of a people its supporters believe are victims of prejudice, stereotypes and oppression by mainstream society. ‘It’s about a dominant culture’s ideals of what a real person should be,’ said Stefanie Snider, 29, a graduate student at the University of Southern California, whose dissertation will be on the intersection of queer and fat identities in the United States in the 20th century.”
– “The first ‘Fat Studies Reader,’ an anthology of scholarly research on fat, is being shopped to university presses. It covers a range of topics, from the intersection of fat, gender, race, age, disability and class to fat heroines in chick lit, the role of fat burlesque dancers and the use of fat suits in film.”
– “If fat studies proponents have an underlying agenda, it is to challenge what they consider the alarmist message of the health community about the obesity epidemic in America. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, 66.3 percent of Americans are overweight or obese; 32 percent of Americans are obese. Overweight is defined as having a body mass index of 25 to 29.9, and obese is an index of 30 or higher. . . . Proponents of fat studies challenge the science behind those conclusions and firmly believe that obesity research is shaped by society’s bias against fat people and that the consequences of excessive weight are not as bad as scientists portray.”

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There is much, much more to Ellin’s piece. She outlines the history of the movement, as well as online manifestations of the subject (discussion groups, etc.).

In a nod to the field of history and one of my alma maters, Robert Bucholz, professor of early modern England at Loyola University Chicago, was cited in the article:

– “In a few cases, fat has emerged as a theme through research, the traditional academic route. Robert Bucholz . . . has spent years trying to figure out why Queen Anne, the British monarch who reigned from 1702 to 1714, has gotten so little attention. Britain prospered under her guardianship yet, ‘few people even think about her,’ he said. Finally, he figured out why: She was fat. ‘I didn’t even realize that what I was talking about was fat studies,’ said Professor Bucholz, who presented a paper on the subject at the popular culture association’s meeting last month in Indianapolis.” – TL

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