‘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.