Volup2 and many other blogs dedicate themselves to the noble, and necessary world of size acceptance activism. This movement, which focuses mostly on women of size, is take up by those tired of society’s mandates on how we should look if we want acceptance. From poetry readings to photo shoots, the fight for fat acceptance is alive, well, and growing.
However, one aspect of the movement also enjoying a rise in relevance can be found within the halls of academia. Scholars from several fields—law, English, social sciences, feminist studies, etc.—have taken on the aforementioned fight for fat acceptance in a variety of ways. The bookworms have joined the fray; Fat Studies is hear.
Fat Studies is an interdisciplinary field of scholarship dedicated to the critique of the information and common beliefs about fat and fat people. This rapidly growing field seems as important from an activist’s perspective as it is from a scholar’s. Organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Fat Acceptance (NAAFA) combine scholarship and activism to support fat people in all aspects of their lives, from living healthily to dealing with an anti-fat society. Scholarly texts like the Fat Studies journal and The Fat Studies Reader are working to promote awareness and solidify the place of fat studies in academia. Books like Paul Campos’ The Obesity Epidemic, Peter Stearns’ Fat History, Amy Farrell’s Fat Shame, and Abigail Saguy’s What’s Wrong with Fat share the books shelves of fat acceptance activists with the more mainstream works of Marilyn Wann, Virgie Tovar, and Ragen Chastain. Along with modes of activism, works in Fat Studies often discuss the nature and rhetoric of fat stigmatization and the connection to other modes of discrimination.
Fat Studies is very eclectic, but seems to come in three major categories: Medical, Legal, and Humanistic.
The medical field gets much attention because health is the leading reason (excuse) for those who speak out against fat acceptance. In Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight, nutritionist and physiologist Linda Bacon concludes that there is no real proof that losing weight automatically prolongs life. She writes “While it is clear that research indicates a short-term improvement in health risk factors with weight loss, no randomized clinical studies have observed the long-term effects of weight loss.” Bacon even finds fallacious cause and effect relationships between weight and conditions like type-2 diabetes. (High levels of insulin may be a cause of weight gain, not its effect.) Bacon concludes that a Health at Every Size (HAES) approach is best, citing research that classifies fat people as fit based on performance in standard fitness tests. In collaboration with The Association of Size Diversity and Health, Bacon has created a HAES fact sheet, available online at https://www.sizediversityandhealth.org/content.asp?id=161.
The legal aspects of Fat Studies tend to deal with Human Resources and workplace discrimination. Legal briefs ensuring the protection of fat people inside and outside of the work place are appended in The Fat Studies Reader. Dylan Vade and Sondra Solovay discuss the fight for the legal protection of fat people and other underrepresented groups in “No Apology: Shared Struggles in Fat and Transgender Law.” Although several states have passed laws protecting the rights of fat people, scholars in this aspect of the field would surely agree that much more work needs to be done.
When I refer to the Humanistic side of Fat Studies, I speak of its representations in literature, philosophy, rhetoric, history, and behavioral sciences. These disciplines explore the fat experience by addressing several aspects of life. Often, works produced by scholars of Fat Studies involve a combination of these disciplines, making for very dynamic work. Work from Amy Farrell, Abigail Saguy, and Peter Stearns go over the history of fat discrimination. Jeannine Gailey’s The Hyper(in)visible Fat Woman: Weight and Gender Discourse in Contemporary Society and Susie Orbach’s classis Fat is a Feminist Issue make the connections between size discrimination and patriarchal oppressions. My own work in “Making Room for Fat Studies in Writing Center Theory and Practice,” and “The Pragmatic Attitude in Fat Activism: Race and Rhetoric in the Fat Acceptance Movement” discuss issues of classroom discrimination and issues of race in fat activism, respectively.
I think the real beauty of Fat Studies, however, is that many scholars are also activists, adding “intelligent” to the many positive labels attributed the fat acceptance movement. My hope I can make a contribution to studying the aesthetic rhetoric and pragmatics of “the BBW”: what new ideologies of beauty are happening within BBW modeling and what language is used to convey them?
If you are interested in studying Fat Studies and activism at the collegiate level, the following schools have programs that support and encourage such endeavors.
Nothern Illinois University’s College of Education
University of North Carolina-Charlotte
Bowling Green State University’s programs in Popular Culture and American Culture Studies
Michigan State University in the Department of Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures
EREC SMITH has a Ph.D. in rhetoric and teaches at York College of Pennsylvania. He has published scholarly articles and written blog posts on fat studies and the size acceptance movement. He is currently writing a book on the confluence of aesthetics, academia, and activism in the size acceptance movement.