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Fat Studies: Mapping the Field

Charlotte Cooper

Abstract This poster is concerned with an emerging body of work that is critical of dominant obesity discourse and offers fresh perspectives concerning the 'problem' of obesity. Given the powerful commercial, ideological and institutional interest in maintaining dominant obesity discourse, such reframing is contested. Nevertheless, this poster demonstrates that Fat Studies offers dynamic new possibilities for social scientists interested in using fat as an interrogative lens. This poster draws on a paper published in Sociology Compass based on the draft literature review for my PhD thesis, which has the working title: An Autoethnography of Fat Activism (Cooper, 2010).

Obesity discourse

Energy balance · Obese refers to anybody with a Body Mass Index over 25. · Fat is caused by an imbalance between calories consumed and calories expended. Once that balance is restored the human body will resume a normative healthy state. Interventions to restore this balance can include medical procedures such as surgery; social programmes, such as health eating education; or policy that affects macro environments, such as town planning. All have significant costs and risks. · Methodology lacks rigour because the truth of obesity causation is self-evident, and studies repeatedly reach the same conclusions (Aphramor, 2005). · Proponents of energy balance do not engage with its contradictions, eg evidence that weight loss is rarely sustainable or health enhancing (Bacon et al., 2005). Curebie · A term used in communities of autistic people to refer to a movement to cure that which cannot and does not need to be cured. · Obesity discourse lionises the treatment and prevention of fatness and fat people, who are classified as a social problem. · A moral discourse is hidden behind science, expertise, authority (Gard and Wright, 2005). · Fat people are referred to as an abstract collective, 'The obese', and are absent as active participants in the production of the discourse. Abjecting · Fat people are regarded as pitiful, pathological, unfortunate, childlike, shocking, self-deluding, ugly, disgusting, ignorant, objects in need of normalising interventions (Brownell et al., 2005, Butland, 2005, Hill, 2009). · The Headless Fatty is a common visual trope used extensively in media representations of abject obesity (Cooper, 2007). · Abjection produces stigma which reproduces social exclusion that intersects with gender, class, race etc (Herndon, 2005). Obesity Epidemic · Late 20th century Western discourse has mutated into a global moral panic around fatness, featuring high level anti-obesity policy. · Neoliberal ideology: rhetoric of cost to state, involvement of obesity lobbying groups directly funded by corporate weight loss interests, public private partnerships, increased surveillance of bodies (Wright and Harwood, 2008).

Fat Studies

Roots · Fat feminist activism in the US from the late 1960s laid the groundwork for a social model of fatness, drawing on rights discourse, Erving Goffman's Stigma, radical psychology, direct action and consciousness-raising strategies (Goffman, 1963). This work was critical of medicalisation and weight loss. Many of its proponents were radical lesbian feminists and this body of work has been obscured because of this context (Schoenfielder and Wieser, 1983, Levy-Navarro, 2010, Cooper, 2011). · This lineage is separate to and often critical of more populist feminist discourse concerning eating disorders, slenderness, beauty and the body (Orbach, 1978, Wolf, 1990, Bordo, 2003). · Today Fat Studies is represented by an emergent literature, a loose network of scholars and activists, occasional curricula and conferences (Tomrley and Kaloski Naylor, 2009, Rothblum and Solovay, 2009, Economic and Social Research Council Fat Studies and Health At Every Size working group, 2009). Themes Rational-critical debate · Engaging with contradictions of obesity discourse, critiquing current state of obesity science, weight loss, obesity epidemiology, moral discourse, stigma and discrimination (Campos, 2004, Campos et al., 2006). · Promoting alternative health paradigms in Health At Every Size (Bacon, 2008). Social justice · Intersections between scholarly knowledge production and activism within a political process model of social change (Solovay, 2000, McAdam et al., 2001). · Identity politics as social change strategy (Dykewomon, 1983). · Broadening definitions of activism, developing micro-activism, activism that is embedded within everyday life (O'Shaughnessy and Huddart Kennedy, 2010). Fat phenomenology · Fat subjectivities in relation to medicalisation, liminal embodiment, stigma and discrimination (Murray, 2008, Harjunen, 2003). · Fat as a politicised identity (Jenkins and Farnham, 1988, Cooper, 1998). · Fat as a means of transgressing and queering obesity discourse (LeBesco, 2004). Cultural production · A popular literature of memoir and self-help (French, 2008, Harding and Kirby, 2009). · Art, literature and poetry (Edison and Notkin, 1994, Stinson, 2009, Donald, 1986). · Activism as a form of cultural production, activists as cultural workers (Cooper, 2009).

References Aphramor, L. (2005) 'Is a weight-centred health framework salutogenic? Some thoughts on unhinging certain dietary ideologies', Social Theory & Health, 3: 4, 315340. Bacon, L. (2008) Health At Every Size: the surprising truth about your weight, Dallas TX: BenBella Books, Inc. Bacon, L., Stern, J. S., Van Loan, M. D. & Keim, N. L. (2005) 'Size Acceptance and Intuitive Eating Improve Health for Obese, Female Chronic Dieters', Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 105: 6, 929-936. Bordo, S. (2003) Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and The Body, 10th anniversary. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. Brownell, K. D., Rudd, L., Schwartz, M. B. & Puhl, R. M. (2005) Weight Bias: Nature, Consequences, and Remedies, New York: Guildford Press. Butland, B., Jebb, S., Kopelman, P., McPherson, K., Thomas, S., Mardell, J. and Parry, V. (2005). Foresight Tackling Obesities: Future Choices ­ Project Report. In: Government Office for Science (ed.). London. Campos, P., Saguy, A., Ernsberger, P., Oliver, E. & Gaesser, G. (2006) 'The epidemiology of overweight and obesity: public health crisis or moral panic?', International Journal of Epidemiology, 35: 1, 55-60. Campos, P. F. (2004) The Obesity Myth: why America's obsession with weight is hazardous to your health, New York: Gotham Books. Cooper, C. (1998) Fat & Proud: The Politics of Size, London: The Women's Press. Cooper, C. (2007) 'Headless Fatties' [Online]. London. Available: [Accessed 26 August 2008]. Cooper, C. (2009) 'Fat Activism in Ten Astonishing, Beguiling, Inspiring and Beautiful Episodes', in: Tomrley, C. & Kaloski Naylor, A. (eds.) Fat Studies In The UK. York: Raw Nerve Books, 19-31. Cooper, C. (2010) 'Fat Studies: Mapping The Field', Sociology Compass, 4: 12, 1020-1034. Cooper, C. (2011) 'Fat Lib: How Activism Expands The Obesity Debate', in: Rich, E., Monaghan, L. & Aphramor, L. (eds.) Debating Obesity: Critical Perspectives. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 164-191. Donald, C. M. (1986) The fat woman measures up, Charlottetown, P.E.I: Ragweed. Dykewomon, E. (1983) 'Travelling Fat', in: Schoenfielder, L. & Wieser, B. (eds.) Shadow on a Tightrope: Writings by Women on Fat Oppression. Iowa City: Aunt Lute, 144-154. Economic and Social Research Council Fat Studies and Health At Every Size working group. (2009) 'Economic and Social Research Council Fat Studies and Health At Every Size Seminars' [Online]. Available: [Accessed 30 August 2011]. Edison, L. T. & Notkin, D. (1994) Women en large: images of fat nudes, 1st. San Francisco, CA: Books in Focus. French, D. (2008) Dear Fatty, London: Century. Gard, M. & Wright, J. (2005) The Obesity Epidemic: science, morality, and ideology, Abingdon: Routledge. Goffman, E. (1963) Stigma: notes on the management of spoiled identity, London: Penguin. Harding, K. & Kirby, M. (2009) Lessons from the Fat-O-Sphere: Quit Dieting and Declare a Truce with Your Body, New York: Perigee. Harjunen, H. (2003). Obesity as a Liminal and Marginalised Experience. Gender and Power in New Europe, the 5th European Feminist Research Conference. Lund University, Sweden: International Information Centre and Archives for the Women's Movement. Herndon, A. M. (2005) 'Collateral Damage from Friendly Fire? Race, Nation, Class and the "War Against Obesity"', Social Semiotics, 15: 2 127-141. Hill, A. (2009). Living with Obesity: A Psychological Perspective. Size Matters? Centre for Appearance Research, University of the West of England, Bristol. Jenkins, T. & Farnham, M. (1988) 'As I Am', Trouble And Strife, 13. LeBesco, K. (2004) Revolting Bodies: The Struggle to Redefine Fat Identity, Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press. Levy-Navarro, E. (2010) Historicizing Fat in Anglo-American Culture, Columbus OH: The Ohio State University Press. McAdam, D., Tarrow, S. & Tilly, C. (2001) Dynamics of Contention, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press Murray, S. (2008) The 'Fat' Female Body, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. O'Shaughnessy, S. & Huddart Kennedy, E. (2010) 'Relational Activism: Reimagining Women's Environmental Work As Cultural Change', Canadian Journal of Sociology/Cahiers Canadiens de Sociologie, 35: 4, 551-572. Orbach, S. (1978) Fat Is A Feminist Issue: How to lose weight permanently ­ without dieting, London: Arrow Books. Rothblum, E. & Solovay, S. (2009) The Fat Studies Reader, New York: New York University Press. Schoenfielder, L. & Wieser, B. (1983) Shadow On A Tightrope: Writings By Women on Fat Oppression, San Francisco: Aunt Lute. Solovay, S. (2000) Tipping the Scales of Justice: fighting weight-based discrimination, Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books. Stinson, S. (2009) 'Fat Girls Need Fiction', in: Rothblum, E. & Solovay, S. (eds.) The Fat Studies Reader. New York: New York University Press, 231-234. Tomrley, C. & Kaloski Naylor, A. (2009) Fat Studies In The UK, York: Raw Nerve Books. Walkerdine, V. (2008) 'Biopedagogies and Beyond', in: Wright, J. & Harwood, V. (eds.) Biopolitics and the Obesity Epidemic: Governing Bodies. London: Taylor & Francis, 199-208. Wolf, N. (1990) The Beauty Myth, London: Chatto. Wright, J. & Harwood, V. (2008) Biopolitics and the Obesity Epidemic: Governing Bodies, London: Taylor & Francis.

New complexities Theoretical tensions within the field, for example between positivism and postmodernism; standpoint: who is speaking, and for whom? "[...] traditional modes of opposition and critique, often directed at a government, for example, simply do not even vaguely match the complexity of the current political situation. [...] there is no longer a simple politics to fat Shifting paradigms ­ from obesityof opposition, but complex oppositional politics with intersecting claims, demands and interests" (Walkerdine, 2008, p.199). Fat Studies is based on the premise that fat people have value and agency, fat bodies are part of human diversity, and fat can be reclaimed from abjection. Fat Studies shows that fat is more than Body Mass Index, fat is a fluid subject position relative to social norms, it relates to shared experience, is ambiguous, and has roots in identity politics. Instead of the reductionism of obesity discourse, Fat Studies offers expansive interdisciplinary sites through which to engage with fatness. This is of particular potential benefit to social scientists because it opens up many new opportunities for engaging with embodiment, public policy, activism, identity, human activity, social justice, discourse ­ and to do so ethically. Two models I have offered two ways of thinking about fatness. It would be a mistake to think of them as distinct entities, there are plenty of points of overlap. Queering these models and engaging with those grey areas is beyond the scope of this poster presentation, but I wish to acknowledge that those blurred boundaries exist. [email protected] 5 September 2011


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