The first issue of The Fat Studies Journal is now available in print and online. I’ve contributed a review article on exercise options for fat people, and I’m very pleased to be part of this new project. Building on The Fat Studies Reader (2010), the FSJ will examine the historical, social and cultural fascination with the body. I thought I would take this opportunity to post about the field, since I’m frequently asked what it is I study and why it matters.
What is Fat Studies?
Like Disability and Queer Studies, and Women’s Studies before these, Fat Studies is an activist and academic project. Scholars interested in fatness want to break down taken-for-granted understandings of fat/thin, and the relationship of fatness to health, fitness, sexuality, gender and ability. “Fat,” in this case, is not used to make fun or put down. Fat is a descriptive term for body size, and I use it to signal my participation in the project of deconstructing the medical and social history of the body.
Is fat healthy?
Fat Studies scholars approach this question from two angles. The first, as I’ve posted about before, is to suggest that fatness isn’t necessarily unhealthy. There is plenty of data to suggest that medically “overweight” and “obese” people with low cholesterol and blood pressure, and good cardiovascular capacity, can live just as long as people with a “normal” BMI. A second approach to this question, which I am exploring in my new research on body morality, examines how “obesity stigma” – the rhetoric of the obesity epidemic, the medicalization of fatness, and targeting obese children – is problematic. Given the evidence that people can be healthy at every size, this research suggests public health policies should focus on improving overall health outcomes and not on weight specifically.
Is fatness a human right?
Volume One of The Fat Studies Journal includes an article by Lily O’Hara and Jane Gregg arguing that weight-centred public health policies are inconsistent with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights because they (often inadvertently) stigmatize particular population groups. Several American studies have also framed fatness as a human rights issue because of discrimination in the workplace and by insurance companies. The state of Michigan and the city of San Francisco also have legal ordinances protecting citizens from size discrimination. In Canada, there have been a number of legal cases charging employers and airlines with size discrimination, and some of them have been successful. But, to my knowledge, there has yet to be a Charter case claiming that Canadians should be protected from size discrimination.
My research on fat activists and body morality most reflects the first approach – to consider how body size has impacted the experience of health and fitness, as well as social interactions, shopping for clothing and public spaces. So, the people I study tend to see fatness in terms of social and cultural “rights”: the right to participate, the right to social inclusion, and the right to health.
And another thing…
The first issue of The Fat Studies Journal will give you a pretty good idea of the diverse way that studying size can help us to think about historical and contemporary life. While we tend to see fatness as a health issue today, the journal includes articles on visual culture, literature, human rights, Queer fat organizing etc. etc. When I attended my first Fat Studies conference in 2006 some people were surprised that such a field existed, so I’m excited to see the literature develop and to see how people are using the body as a lens to explore weight and shape issues.
And, since you’re reading this far into the post, consider coming to “The ‘F’ Word: Historical and Critical Perspectives on Fatness and the Obesity Epidemic” on March 8 in Crabtree Auditorium at Mount Allison University. Together with Deborah McPhail and Wendy Mitchinson, I’ll be talking about concepts like “health at every size” and “fat acceptance.” Everyone welcome!