‘Fat Studies’ Goes to College

Fat undergraduates often experience subtle forms of prejudice that most people tend not to notice, from tiny wooden desks that won’t fit their bodies to sidelong stares whenever they visit the student fitness center. Some—like Margitte Kristjansson, a Fat Studies graduate student and alumna of the University of Washington—will voice their concerns to administrators, but many fat students would rather suffer in silence than spotlight themselves by speaking up. “It’s definitely harder to be a fat student on campus, when you don’t yet know that you deserve respect in the same way that any other student would,” Ms. Kristjansson says.

Oh hey, that’s me, quoted in an article by Yale University senior Eve Binder for The Daily BeastCheck it out here.

The author’s basic argument here is interesting to me: she essentially asks “who is the audience for Fat Studies?” and if it is fat students, “how do you reach them if they aren’t making it to college?”

It is critical that we recognize that there is a problem when fat students are not found on college campuses at the same rates as their non-fat peers.  It has been a documented problem for a long time now (at least as far back as Marcia Millman’s Such a Pretty Face: Being Fat in America was published in 1980).  At the same time, in the author’s focus on the fat undergraduate student as the only audience for Fat Studies (or undergraduates as the only audience for any discipline), she misses the point.  Fat Studies is not a discipline about making fat people feel good about themselves.  It is about—at least in my opinion—doing rigorous academic work in, on, and around bodies from a lens that is critical of mainstream conceptions of fatness and the ‘obesity epidemic’.

The primary audience for Fat Studies is not necessarily fat undergraduates.  In many cases the audience is other academics, colleagues who do similar and unrelated work in critical/cultural studies, health sciences, gender studies, american studies, science studies, etc.  In general, I think the hope is that this work will eventually be put out there for a more mainstream audience, which certainly includes fat undergrads but is not limited to them.  In fact, many people could benefit from Fat Studies: those bigoted readers who all think fat people are gross, ugly, and unhealthy over at the The Daily Beast, (see comments on article above) could benefit from Fat Studies; those well-intentioned people working on health policy (like Michelle Obama) could benefit from Fat Studies; those people who took time out of their dinner to call my friend and I “poor fat girls” the other night could benefit from Fat Studies; Maura Kelly could REALLY benefit from Fat Studies… and so on.

I do work in Fat Studies because I believe that knowledge production, in combination with my own personal activism, is how I can best do my part to change the cultural feeling around fatness, so that all those fat kids in high school who are too busy being bullied, obsessing over their weight, put on the fast-track to vocational schools, and ignored by teachers and other possible mentors, can buck this trend and go to college, if they want to.

Unlike the author of this post, I don’t think that not having enough fat students on college campuses will prevent Fat Studies from taking root in academia: I think that Fat Studies MUST take root in academia in order to make the changes necessary for fat students to enter university at a rate equal to their non-fat peers.

7 thoughts on “‘Fat Studies’ Goes to College

  1. Ultimately, this woman was arguing (even if it was only in her undertones) that Fat Studies is not legitimate. Just look at the last paragraph. She pretends as though she is being positive and including fat voices, but uses them only as a way to counter-point them with covert hate and bias — obviously, and of course ironically, the exact thing that Fat Studies focuses on.

    Scholarly work has always been first for colleagues, then for a larger high academic audience, then for the academic community as a whole – like undergraduates -, then for the “whole wide world.” That is how work trickles down in the academic system (although I’m sure there are people who are unhappy with this flow, and indeed there are those who jump straight from their own academic research to the “general public” through activism).

    But I digress. I am consistently shocked by people who are college educated who don’t do sufficient work or think critically. Journalists who obviously ignore their duty to complete their due diligence before writing and publishing. This woman did not even understand her topic enough to know that Fat Activism and Fat Studies are separate (although at times overlapping). That grave misunderstanding – and misinformation given to her readers – lies at the base of her entirely flawed and biased article.

    • I think you are correct. (Although from my own hour-long interview with the author, I did not get the impression that she personally devalued fat studies or was trying to argue that it was not legitimate.) I agree that the article’s biggest flaw was its conflation of fat studies with fat activism. A key component of fat activism work IS about helping fat people to accept and love and ‘feel good’ about their bodies. Fat studies, on the other hand, is not about this, even if empowerment happens to be a byproduct of reading fat studies scholarship.

  2. If critical thinking or objectivity were being engaged, this obesity crusade would never have caught on. It requires the continued absence of them to sustain its momentum. It is truly a disgrace.

  3. And one of the things I like about fat studies is that, like queer theory, I think it is a lens through which you can study any thing. I do fat studies in the Literature & Creative Writing departments for my PhD. And that’s the nice thing about CW is that it isn’t just for other academics. (Not that anyone really reads poetry…but still.)

  4. I happened to find this Fat Studies’ go to college article quite late and just could not believe the amount of hatred in the comments. Thank you for taking the time to properly address this issue. Good luck with your work!

  5. this is kind of embarrassing, silly definitely, but as a fat girl going to a Top Ten school, and never noticing hardly any one my weight, let alone heavier than I, I always attributed it to the idea that kids who go to universities are more educated, come from more educated families, and therefore have been taught “healthier” eating habits (where, you know, they grew up eating organic whole wheat couscous and halibut and were taught how to make hummus, etc. and I grew up eating Cup Noodles when my parents couldn’t pay for food for 4 kids) and that was why they were thin. That’s really all I have to add. Thanks for this post, and for the Fat invisibile documentary; it was very, very eye-opening to someone who has viewed fat and obesity in the mainstream way (i.e., that it = BAD).

  6. Again, I am not suggesting that Fat Studies and Disability Studies are exactly the same. In fact, their differences may show that Fat Studies is more akin to studies in bigotry. A major difference between society’s view of disabled bodies and fat bodies is the conception that fat people are “to blame” for fat, which suggests that there is something inherently deviant about fat and the fat person’s character. Pattie Thomas, in Taking Up Space: How Eating Well and Exercising Regularly Changed My Life, writes that being fat is a potentially silencing effect, because, to many, a fat body is considered proof of incompetence, laziness, etc. This eradicates ethos, in general. Thomas speaks of fat adulthood: “It was no longer the occasional bully or routinely insensitive kid, it was colleagues and superiors showing a lack of respect for my work or utter shock when they discovered I could think and speak reasonably well” (location 500). The invisibility experienced by Thomas may be keener in the classroom, where classroom desks “make fat students visible in order to, eventually, make them invisible in a crowd of identically conforming bodies” (Hetrick and Attig 198).

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