Can a thin person write about fat?

In recent years a field of study that has come to be entitled ‘fat studies’ has developed, largely in response to the discourse around obesity in developed countries. Just as gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgendered people have chosen to reappropriate the once pejorative word ‘queer’ for their own purposes, attempting to reinstate it as a positive self-identifying and political term, some academics and activists seek to use the word ‘fat’ to describe corpulent people in a positive, accepting manner.

In her foreword to The Fat Studies Reader, a ground-breaking collection of radical essays critiquing dominant cultural representations of fatness, well-known fat activist Marilynn Wann (2009: ix) defines fat studies as ‘a radical field, in the sense that it goes to the root of weight-related belief systems’. She contends that fat studies rejects the following assumptions: ‘that fat people could (and should) lose weight … that being fat is a disease and fat people cannot possibly enjoy good health or long life … that thin is inherently beautiful and fat is obviously ugly’ (2009: ix).

Interest in fat studies is such that there is now a new journal (Fat Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of  Body Weight and Society) and regular conferences and sections of major conferences devoted to this topic. Taking its name from other critical areas of interdisciplinary study such as gender, queer, black, Latino/a, postcolonial studies, those who designate themselves as part of this field tend to share the following ideas:

  • they prefer the terms ‘fat’ or ‘fatness’ to what they view as the medicalised terms ‘overweight’, ‘obese’ or ‘obesity’;
  • they challenge the dominant biomedical perspective on the relationship between fatness and ill health and disease (see here for my previous post on the contentions of obesity sceptics);
  • they represent fat people as members of a minority group that contends with routine discrimination and marginalisation;
  • they seek to counter and resist such discrimination and marginalisation;
  • they often adopt a feminist or queer approach in their critiques.
The sculpture Bronskvinnorna (The women of bro...

The sculpture Bronskvinnorna (The women of bronze) outside of the art museum (Konsthallen), Växjö, Sweden. The sculpture is a work by Marianne Lindberg De Geer.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is no lack of evidence to demonstrate that these writers are correct in identifying highly negative meanings and experiences around fat embodiment, many of which have been apparent in popular and medical discourses for centuries (see here for my discussion of fat phobia). A central theme for many writers in fat studies, as well as in the areas of what are variously entitled ‘fat activism’, the ‘fat acceptance movement’ or the ‘size acceptance movement’ is that they themselves identify as ‘fat’ people. Adopting the position that ‘the personal is the political’, they view their activities as part of a political project.

Other scholars prefer the terms ‘critical obesity studies’ or ‘critical weight studies’ to describe their writings on the social and cultural dimensions of obesity discourse (for example, the contributors to the collection edited by Rich, Monaghan and Aphramoor, 2011). The emphasis in these terms is on the word ‘critical’, as these scholars seek to identify and challenge the taken-for-granted assumptions circulating in mainstream lay discourses and in the biomedical and public health literature on obesity/fatness.  Here again, many of these writers actively avoid the use of the term ‘obesity’, preferring instead to use the term ‘fat’. Such writers may themselves identify as fat, but this is not the case for all or even many of them.

Some commentators in fat studies and fat activism have expressed very negative opinions about people writing on the topic who do not themselves identify as fat. When I was working on my book on fat politics and fat embodiment (Fat, published this month), this was an issue of which I was highly aware, as I have always been a thin person and have therefore never personally experienced the stigmatisation and marginalisation to which many fat people have been subjected.

However, as I point out in my book, fat people are not the only individuals who have been singled out for attention in contemporary anti-obesity discourse. Mothers of young children, regardless of their own body weight, have been positioned as key targets in anti-obesity campaigns and programs because they are viewed as responsible for monitoring and disciplining their children’s diet and weight. As one such mother, I have found myself the subject of moral discourses in relation to the ‘child obesity epidemic’ , implicated in the network of expert advice directed at mothers (see here for a previous post on the topic of maternal responsibility for children’s weight). The voices of mothers with young children have not often received attention, except when researchers want to determine how well they are conforming to advice on controlling their children’s weight. Yet there are many difficult ethical questions to negotiate as a mother in response to weight control issues. How, for example, do mothers ensure that their children are healthy without instilling a hatred and fear of fat or of their own body if they do not conform to the ideal of slim embodiment?

Another argument against the rigid categorisation of people as ‘fat’ or ‘not fat enough’ to write about the politics of fatness and obesity is that fatness is a fluid and unstable category, depending on the historical and cultural context and personal experience. People who may officially be categorised as ‘normal weight’ according to medical guidelines such as the Body Mass Index (BMI) may still feel ‘fat’, particularly if they aspire to or admire the kind of extreme thinness displayed by models and celebrities. People who were once medically categorised as ‘obese’ or ‘overweight’ but then lost a great deal of weight and reduced their weight to a  ‘normal’ BMI may still identify as  ‘fat’. Conversely, people who have always been large-bodied may resist being labelled ‘overweight’, ‘obese’ or ‘fat’ because they view their weight as normal and appropriate for them. What has been considered ‘fat’ in one historical era has fluctuated according to the prevailing norms of beauty and medical advice.

Further, it may be contended that everyone, regardless of body shape or weight, is caught up in or reacting to obesity discourse in some way or another. According to several public health campaigns and policies, we are all potentially fat people, unless we take steps to constantly monitor and discipline our bodies. Whether or not we identify as ‘fat’, it is difficult to escape the prevalence and dominance of anti-obesity discourse and fat phobia. Willingly or not, resistant or accepting, we are all implicated in the contemporary discourse that positions fat people as morally deficient, undisciplined, sick and inferior.

References

Lupton, D. (2012) Fat. London: Routledge.

Rich, E., Monaghan, L. and Aphramor, L. (2011) (eds) Debating Obesity: Critical Perspectives. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan.

Wann, M. (2009) Foreword: Fat Studies: An invitation to revolution. In Rothblum, E. and Solovay, S. (eds), The Fat Studies Reader. New York: New York University Press, pp ix-xxv.

My new book ‘Fat’


My latest book Fat has just been published as part of Routledge’s Shortcuts series.

In contemporary western societies the fat body has become a focus of stigmatizing discourses and practices aimed at disciplining, regulating and containing it. Despite the fact that in many western countries fat bodies outnumber those that are thin, fat people are still socially marginalized and treated with derision and even repulsion. Medical and public health experts insist that an ‘obesity epidemic’ exists and that fatness is a pathological condition which should be prevented and controlled.

Fat is a book about why the fat body has become so reviled and viewed as diseased, the target of such intense discussion and debate about ways to reduce its size down to socially and medically acceptable dimensions. It is also about the lived experience of fat embodiment: how does it feel to be fat in a fat-phobic society? Deborah Lupton explores fat as a cultural artefact: a bodily substance or body shape that is given meaning by complex and shifting systems of ideas, practices, emotions, material objects and interpersonal relationships.

Fat reviews current scholarship and research into obesity discourse and politics, drawing upon critical perspectives offered in the humanities and social sciences and by fat activism and the size acceptance movement. It will be an engaging introduction for the interested general reader, as well as for students across the humanities and social sciences.