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Friday, Sept. 11, 2009 | In the introduction to her forthcoming book, San Diego State University Women’s Studies professor Esther Rothblum describes The Fat Studies Reader as “the first comprehensive anthology that maps the contours of the emerging field.”
The field brings together disciplines like law, history, popular culture, and health to question stigmas associated with weight, to frame weight prejudice as an important civil rights issue, and to “provide much-needed momentum for social justice for people of all sizes.”
In The Fat Studies Reader, Rothblum and co-editor Sondra Solovay have compiled the work of 53 authors whose multi-disciplinary research on fat studies examines and critiques prevailing assumptions around being fat in a country obsessed with the “obesity epidemic.”
We sat down with Rothblum to discuss the emerging academic field, its attention-grabbing name, and why she thinks a shift in our focus on fat is more important than ever.
I was struck by the name of your field. What is fat studies?
Fat studies is a field that looks at how we can prevent discrimination based on body size. People vary tremendously in height and weight, and it really recognizes that there’s a huge diversity of appearance but that we should not discriminate based on a particular weight, for example. It also asks the question of who stands to gain — no pun intended — by this enormous focus we have on weight and dieting, and who loses.
The use of the word “fat,” just like other groups that have reclaimed words as they’ve organized, … is saying let’s take a word that really describes who we are and let’s even take one that has been used in a negative way, and use it to describe the field…
What’s new about fat studies right now is it’s new to the academy, to universities, but fat studies in terms of activism has been around for a few decades.
So why is it emerging as a more accepted field in academia now?
There have been pockets of people doing research and I would say it started with people who were coming out of medicine, health, nutrition, who were confusing health with aesthetics. It’s really not true that you can tell how fit somebody is based on how they look. And it’s certainly not true this assumption that fat equals unhealthy. There’s very little data for that.
So they started to look at some of the studies that were coming out and tried to show through data that these assumptions we have aren’t true. More recently, there were enough pockets of people doing work that it began to spread more into popular culture, blogs, literature, history, and more of the humanities.
In the introduction to your book you present fat studies as a potential tool for changing people’s attitudes toward what it means to be fat. How does the field go about doing that?
There are so many different avenues. … In terms of changing people’s minds, so many people feel too fat regardless of whether they are or not. We all know about people who are starving and very thin and yet feel fat.
So in terms of changing it, there has to be an awareness of how the pharmaceutical industries and many of the aesthetic industries like plastic surgery and all kinds of fashion industries are driving this. It almost doesn’t matter what they’re focusing on. People have been told how to look throughout history and across cultures. Right now it happens to be weight in Western cultures. So to have people be aware that this is really being driven by a profit motive, then getting people to organize.
Is there resistance because this sort of movement could encourage people not to address potential health problems associated with being overweight?
In terms of academia, most people are unaware of fat studies. There’s no department of fat studies anywhere. Universities, contrary to what the general public believes, love it when there is controversy over new areas.
In terms of health, the most fascinating thing to me — and I’m not a health educator — is that people are getting fatter and people are living much longer. We are living 20 years longer on average than people born in the 1930s, compared to people born now. As one of our authors says, we’re getting fatter and we’re getting healthier. That is so counterintuitive to what the general public believes. …
Another factor about the health issue is that in this country weight and income are so strongly associated, especially for women. Poor people tend to weigh more and rich people tend to weigh less. The reason that is so important is that … poor people in this country have poor health care. When you’re comparing fat people and thin people on health, you’re really comparing poor people and rich people. So you’ve got to either focus only on fat and thin middle class people or you have to control statistically for income. But that is a big issue that we never seem to think about.
So what kind of challenges does that pose to the field?
Well the early years of fat studies were focused on trying to prove the health stuff and the lack of effectiveness of dieting. … What’s happened more recently is people have said, let’s focus on fat characters in movies and films. Let’s talk about the history of fat across countries, fat literature, and so on. …
We tend to get so obsessed with the health and dieting area that we forget all the other stuff.
How do you elevate the discourse to be more inclusive of all these elements?
With every group that has fought for its rights, there is a long history that we’re often not aware of. We tend to think about the recent past.
What has been difficult for fat studies maybe more than some other groups are the enormous markets that most companies stand to gain by trying to get people to be unhappy and lose weight. When people stop focusing on their appearance, it affects millions of people. The potential that millions of people could stop dieting, buying diet food or going to health spas is very threatening.
Almost every time I’m interviewed by the media, the last two paragraphs of the article will interview somebody who does weight loss surgery or diets, who will say that dieting is good and that people who are fat are unhealthy. It shows that we’re still at a point where there has to be this last word by the status quo.
A colleague of mine will say, it’s always, “P.S., we hate you.” Somehow fat studies is still so radical. … So many people just can’t believe that fat can be good. It’s kind of shocking in a way.
Fat studies looks at the “intersection of oppressions.” Does that mean being a fat minority woman in a society that still has prejudices against all three categories?
This field has a lot of intersections. First of all, women are told in general how to look more than men, so there’s much more focus on fitness at the moment. You see that especially with the correlation between gender and income. … If I had two sisters, one very thin and one very fat, my thinner sister would most likely marry a wealthier husband. Men make more money than women, so she would be much wealthier.
Author Paul Campos … says we’re not allowed to be racist and we’re not allowed to be classist, so now focusing on fat is code for poor people, who tend to be fatter. And of course in our country people of color often tend to be poorer. So saying negative things about fat has become code for not being allowed to say negative things based on race and class. So there are many intersections in that sense.
We can also talk about age. People typically gain weight as they get older. Ageism is in there as well. There are a lot of intersections here with age, race, income, and gender.
What about sexuality?
One of my colleagues used to say she thought people who were in relationships with men were forced to be thinner. That meant heterosexual women and gay men. People in relationships with women had less focus on how they could look. That meant heterosexual men and lesbians. Whether you were a lesbian or a heterosexual woman, being female meant you often had dieted and been told how to look.
The other thing is people who are bisexual who have been involved with both men and women. A student of mine asked bisexual women and found that when they’ve been involved with men, they say that’s when they were supposed to be thinner, that’s when they felt bad, that’s when they had to wear certain kinds of clothes. So what’s so interesting to me about bisexuals is the same person involved with women versus men is changing their behavior.
One of our (transgender) authors writes about how when he is seen as a man, people see him as big and muscular. And when he’s seen as a woman, people look down on him and make hostile comments. He’s the same person, same weight.
A few questions ago I caught myself using the word “overweight.” What do you think of the word?
People really use the term incorrectly because the average in this country for women is like a size 14. …When we talk about normal weight, we don’t usually picture a size 14. So overweight and underweight are really inaccurate because they assume that either we’re at the wrong weight or should be at another one.
Obesity is a Greek word, and we tend to use Greek and Latin for medical conditions. So other groups like homosexuals, which is a Greek Latin word, used gay. Organizing groups try to move away from the medical term into more of the in-your-face term. I don’t like obesity, I don’t like overweight or underweight. What I like about “fat,” is it’s a short word and it says what it is. Some people weigh more because they have more muscles. … Fat has to do with body fat, and that’s what people fear.
Is there anything else?
Most people haven’t heard about the topic. It’s very new and nobody really covers it. There’s so much focus on what we call obesity studies, which is new drugs for weight loss, and surgeries, and the idea that there’s an epidemic of obesity among children. The moral panics are very interesting.
This is a universal issue in this country. The pressure to be thin used to be just women, and then it permeated men and children. And now I even see diet pet food. Is your dog too fat?