‘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.

“I was a fat kid…”

(Originally posted at riotsnotdiets)

Scanned from Le’a Kent’s “Fighting Abjection: Representing Fat Women” published in Bodies Out of Bounds: Fatness and Transgression edited by Jana Evans Braziel and Kathleen LeBesco in 2001. Brought to you by my procrastination while reading about Julia Kristeva on “the abject”.  Enjoy!

Scanned from Le’a Kent’s “Fighting Abjection: Representing Fat Women” published in Bodies Out of Bounds: Fatness and Transgression edited by Jana Evans Braziel and Kathleen LeBesco in 2001.

Brought to you by my procrastination while reading about Julia Kristeva on “the abject”.


“Plus-size and fashion week: Open door or unhealthy invitation?”

(Originally posted at riotsnotdiets)

Outrageous blog post of the week alert, y’all.

In this relatively uninteresting post, someone asks if the world of plus-size modeling promotes “obesity”.  My dear friend Kristy pointed it out to me, and while the post itself is just more of the same ol’ “BUT FAT IS UNHEALTHY” nonsense, it’s a worth reading so you can understand Kristy’s response, which I think is freaking fantastic.  So freaking fantastic, in fact, that I’m just going to copy and paste it here:

I have a differing opinion, in two parts.

The first is this:
I think we have tied too closely the ideas of size and the idea of health. We use size as the main indicator of health when, in reality, it is such an untrustworthy indicator. There are way way way too many variables to use size as a causation for health.

Therefore, I think that we talk too much about health when we talk about fashion – *because* we continue to talk about size. Fashion isn’t about health. Yes, there are the social repercussions of viewing popular culture and internalizing what that means in terms of body image, but what we really need to be talking about is not whether fashion is a model of good health, but about how fashion *can never* be a model of good health because fashion is about image, and image is a poor indicator for one’s actual health. Once we “de-link” these concepts we can start talking about fashion and we can start talking about health, and we can even do so together, but in the end the conversation itself will be a much healthier one (pardon the pun).

Second, I completely agree with you that runway shows should be integrated. No doubt about it, all sorts of bodies should be shown together at once. However, this integration is so stigmatized that we have to see it as a social movement – something that doesn’t happen all at once and that has historical “movements” or “waves” – just like feminism or gay rights.

And one of those waves is having an insular group, represented singularly and confidently. Showing the world that the marginalized group is not ashamed and is actually entitled to the same human rights as everyone else. This is what is happening with the fat world right now. Sure, media and social structures are stepping in to try to keep it segregated and insular – using this stage of the movement to continue to separate and isolate – but it is still a movement and it is still needed on the road to integration.

And again, the only way we will begin to see this integration is to disconnect our ideas of health (aka mortality, which is something that humans have an instinctual interest in decreasing among their populations) from our ideas of size and shape, because frankly, they have little to do with each other.

Once we can make this disconnect and stop pointing fingers at fat people for being unhealthly, actually believing the two concepts are different (we used to think homosexuality was unhealthy and deadly), we will see the changes we’re looking for.

Awesome, right?  I love having friends (regardless of whether or not they identify as “fat”) who really get FA and understand why it’s so imperative.  YAY for body-acceptance warriors.  I <3 you, Kristy!

Judy Freespirit

(Originally posted at riotsnotdiets)

Judy Freespirit, one of the founders of FA, has passed away today.

In honor of her memory, please read the following:


1. WE believe that fat people are fully entitled to human respect and recognition.

2. WE are angry at mistreatment by commercial and sexist interests. These have exploited our bodies as objects of ridicule, thereby creating an immensely profitable market selling the false promise of avoidance of, or relief from, that ridicule.

3. WE see our struggle as allied with the struggles of other oppressed groups against classism, racism, sexism, ageism, financial exploitation, imperialism and the like.

4. WE demand equal rights for fat people in all aspects of life, as promised in the Constitution of the United States. We demand equal access to goods and services in the public domain, and an end to discrimination against us in the areas of employment, education, public facilities and health services.

5. WE single out as our special enemies the so-called “reducing” industries. These include diet clubs, reducing salons, fat farms, diet doctors, diet books, diet foods and food supplements, surgical procedures, appetite suppressants, drugs and gadgetry such as wraps and “reducing machines”.

WE demand that they take responsibility for their false claims, acknowledge that their products are harmful to the public health, and publish long-term studies proving any statistical efficacy of their products. We make this demand knowing that over 99% of all weight loss programs, when evaluated over a five-year period, fail utterly, and also knowing the extreme proven harmfulness of frequent large changes in weight.

6. WE repudiate the mystified “science” which falsely claims that we are unfit. It has both caused and upheld discrimination against us, in collusion with the financial interests of insurance companies, the fashion and garment industries, reducing industries, the food and drug industries, and the medical and psychiatric establishment.

7. WE refuse to be subjugated to the interests of our enemies. We fully intend to reclaim power over our bodies and our lives. We commit ourselves to pursue these goals together.


By Judy Freespirit and Aldebaran
November, 1973

Originally Published by the Fat Underground,
Los Angeles, California USA
copied from Largesse Archives

(via fattypatties)

On the fringe: Fat countercultures and a BBW club

(Originally posted at riotsnotdiets)

This is a follow-up post to my other post about BBW culture, and Jessica’s latest about our experience at a San Diego BBW night club.  For those with no time to re-read, here’s the long story short: Jessica and I wrote about our negative experience at what ended up being a recruitment event for BBW porn.  The women involved in “The Community” (as it is called by them) ended up reading both of our blog posts, and there were some hurt feelings.  Nevertheless, we were invited out to one of their club nights in San Diego (I know, I know, cue the pig’s blood, right?)—with some reservations, I went with Jessica, and… we ended up having a fantastic time.

Previously, I wrote that:

[…] most of the women [at the porn site recruitment event] seemed to be of the BBW persuasion—there was even a BBW night club doing some promotional raffling, along with the aforementioned photographer and her BBW porn site.  Although I’m all about fat people having “safe” spaces, as a fat activist I am not inclined to find these spaces helpful if they 1) don’t allow/accept the word “fat”, 2) reinforce an “us vs. them” mentality between fat people and non-fat people, and/or 3) cater to a group of people (typically heterosexual men) who fetishize fat and thus objectify (however unconsciously) the very people they purport to love.

After being invited to the BBW club and experiencing a super fun night of dancing with a bunch of beautiful fat chicks, my stance remains relatively unchanged. After talking to a few of the women there on Sunday night, I deduced the following:

  1. While the word “fat” is not totally unacceptable, it is certainly not embraced.  It still holds a lot of negative power over people here, which is why they prefer being called “big” (as in Big Beautiful Women) to fat.  Marianne Kirby recently wrote an amazeballs post about the importance of using fat over other euphemisms, which sums up my opinion on the matter perfectly.
  2. If there is an “us vs. them” mentality here, it’s most likely unintentional.  I didn’t hear anyone dissing on skinny chicks, nor did I hear any weird platitudes about “real women”… but this doesn’t change the fact that this kind of language is used on their flyers (“where skinny jeans aren’t allowed”).  I’m not inclined to say that JUST because a safe space exists for fat people and fat people alone (give or take a few thin “fat admirers”) it MUST be divisive.  Again, “safe” spaces are super important, especially when someone lives in a culture that constantly devalues their existence.  Many other oppressed groups turn to similar kinds of “safe” or private spaces for support and community building.  I get that.  I just don’t think the process of turning to these spaces for support should reinforce an “us against the world” mentality—THAT does not help anything, does not foster understanding between groups, does not lead to a world where we can coexist happily and peacefully.
  3. While the BBW porn site certainly caters to those who fetishize and objectify fatness, the club itself DEFINITELY caters to fat women who just want to have a good, sexy time.  That’s awesome.  YES there are some self-described “fat admirers” there, but that doesn’t take away from the amazingness that is walking into a room full of fat bodies having a great time and loving life.  THAT was overwhelming (in a good way), and I’d give my left tit to have something like that available to me that isn’t associated with the BBW “lifestyle”.
  4. Some people are really, really mad at us for expressing our opinions and criticisms about the website and BBW culture at large.  Many people’s feelings were hurt.  It was kinda like being back in high school—you know all those scenes in the movies where the girl that everyone hates (for whatever reason) shows up at the big dance anyway and people look at her like “WHAT IS SHE DOING HERE, OMG”?  It was like that.

Despite all of this, I had fun.  Jess and I danced, drank super cheap drinks, and *someone* (not naming names) may have walked away with a phone number or two.  Some of the women there (including the owner of the club) were super nice, and even seemed to agree with some of our criticisms.  But they were all super protective of the porn site, perhaps because many of them modeled for it.

People accused us of “looking down” on them, for trying to force body acceptance on them.  Dude, it’s totally true that a woman of any size can do porn and still hate herself, for whatever reason.  It happens often.  I don’t “look down” on women who are made to feel bad about themselves, I feel sad.  Not pity, just sadness.  Because I’ve been that girl before.  I haven’t done porn, but I’ve done stupid shit to get people to like me (to get guys to like me).  I’ve projected a self-confident facade when inside all I wanted was to be someone else.  What bothers me about a lot of BBW porn is that it actively plays on the insecurities of fat women, often portraying (and playing into) the worst stereotypes about what it means to be fat.  As Jessica pointed out, this particular site and its sister sites have videos you can pay to watch like “BBW attempting to walk upstairs”—this video (at least what is insinuated by the title) is intended to titillate the type of person who gets off on a fat person’s inability to perform what is considered a “normal” task.  If that is not dehumanizing, I don’t know what it.

I am not mad at the woman in the video.  I am mad at a culture that fosters this kind of attitude toward fat bodies.  I am mad at whatever societal forces pushed these women toward this kind of fat performance.  A response from one of the models to these objections?  “But that’s what the viewers want to see.”  Not “but I LIKE doing this” or “doing this gets me off”—the excuse was “but that’s what people want me to do”.  And that makes me SO SAD.  AND MAD.


Recently I read an article by communication scholar Catherine Squires titled “Rethinking the Black Public Sphere: An Alternative Vocabulary for Multiple Public Spheres”.  In it, Squires uses examples from the African-American public sphere(s) to explore the various forms oppressed groups’ spaces take and the various conditions under which these specific types of groups form.  The three types of groups she names—the enclave, the counter-public, and the satellite—perfectly map onto what is happening today in fat-positive counterculture.

For brevity’s sake, I’ll include the helpful diagrams from the text and say this: FA (what I do: fat activism, body acceptance for all, fat rights work, etc.) is sometimes an enclave, and sometimes a counter-public.  BBW culture (much like the Amish, or Black Separatists in Liberia) is much closer to a satellite group.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with this in theory, it’s just not for me.  And, just like religious extremists can give well-meaning religious folks a bad name, BBW culture can (but certainly does not always) negatively affect FA’s fight to be taken seriously, to be considered equals, to be treated fairly.

Enclave Publics (Squires, 2002, p. 458):

Counterpublics (Squires, 2002, p. 460):

Satellite Publics (Squires, 2002, p. 464):