Even as science, medicine and government have defined obesity as a threat to the nation’s health and treasury, fat studies is emerging as a new interdisciplinary area of study on campuses across the country and is gaining interest in Australia and Britain. Nestled within the humanities and social sciences fields, fat studies explores the social and political consequences of being fat.
For most scholars of fat, though, it is not an objective pursuit. Proponents of fat studies see it as the sister subject — and it is most often women promoting the study, many of whom are lesbian activists — to women’s studies, queer studies, disability studies and ethnic studies. In many of its permutations, then, it is the study of a people its supporters believe are victims of prejudice, stereotypes and oppression by mainstream society.
“It’s about a dominant culture’s ideals of what a real person should be,” said Stefanie Snider, 29, a graduate student at the University of Southern California, whose dissertation will be on the intersection of queer and fat identities in the United States in the 20th century. “And whether that has to do with skin color or heritage or sexual orientation or ability, it ends up being similar in a lot of ways.”
Fat studies is still a fringe area of scholarship, but it is gaining traction. Three years ago, the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association, which promotes scholarly research of popular culture, added a fat studies component to regional and national conferences.
The article does discuss the fact that the medical profession views obesity as a serious health hazard. Apparently, the overriding agenda of "fat studies" is to combat this perception:
But proponents of fat studies challenge the science behind those conclusions and firmly believe that obesity research is shaped by society’s bias against fat people and that the consequences of excessive weight are not as bad as scientists portray.
And we can all be sure that this is a purely scientific critique entirely free of things like wishful thinking.
The article also discusses the rather embarrassing case of fat studies proponent Kathleen LeBesco, head of the department of communications at Marymount Manhattan College and author of a 2004 book called Revolting Bodies: The Struggle to Redefine Fat Identity, who lost 70 lbs after a doctor told her she was at risk for developing type 2 diabetes. (LeBesco's journey is discussed in detail in The Chronicle of Higher Education last June.) LeBesco is apparently appalled by the focus on her weight loss:
“It’s similar to discussions within feminism,” she said. “Can you support the team if you’re a man? Or can you be into queer activism if you’re not queer?” In the end, she said, the attention to her size proved the theory that society can’t keep its sights off women’s bodies.
Nice analogy, but it doesn't fly. A gay person who decided to undergo "reparative therapy" to become straight -- which, if we are to accept the "fat acceptance" mindset, would be analogous to LeBesco's weight loss -- would be unlikely to find acceptance in "queer activism" or "queer studies." In The Chronicle, LeBesco "acknowleges uncomfortably" that most of the people who have signed up for her "Healthy at Any Size" campus group were drawn by her own weight loss. What's more, LeBesco's example undercuts some cherished "fat liberation" myths: for instance, that obesity is not unhealthy, or that it has nothing to do with lifestyle habits or self-discipline. LeBesco lost weight through diet and exercise, and in the Chronicle piece she freely admits that her past obesity was a result of her tendency to "let [her] appetite run away." (Actually, LeBesco, as profiled in The Chronicle, is an odd case study. Convinced since childhood that she was doomed to be fat because her father was, she spent her youth on a variety of diets, some of them quite unhealthy. However, even when she was thin, she always felt like a fat person who was "passing" for slim, and eventually she began to explore the politics of fat identity.)
Ann Althouse has an interesting discussion of the topic. Also, my earlier columns on obesity and "fat liberation" can be found here and here. The first of these articles discusses a study released in 2005 which purported to show that the dangers of being overweight were far less than they were made out to be. The fat-acceptance activists were quick to seize on that, despite the fact that the study's "good news" applied to moderately overweight people, not to the morbid obesity championed as a matter of "pride" by the fat libbers. Yet new research that has come out since then casts serious doubt even on the 2005 report:
In what researchers say is the largest and most definitive study yet on whether merely being overweight but not obese is harmful to health, doctors found significantly higher premature death rates in middle-aged overweight people and dramatically higher death rates in those who were obese.
There have been alarming reports, as well, on the health consequences of increasing childhood obesity. (For a rather chilling example "fat acceptance" lunacy, see the fat libbers' defense of a mother who allowed her 13-year-old daughter to balloon to the size of 680 lbs, and was prosecuted for neglect after the girl died of heart failure.)
I am not denying that obsession with thinness and unrealistic ideals of slenderness are a real problem in contemporary Western culture as well, or that quite a few people do themselves harm with yo-yo dieting and fad diets, not to mention eating disorders. Unfortunately, instead of espousing a sensible approach to weight control (healthy, moderate eating and exercise), the fat acceptance activists and their academic allies are pursuing the severaly misguided goal of "destigmatizing" fat, downplaying its risks, and depicting the obese as victims of political and social oppression.
Of course, according to the Times:
Elena Escalera, an assistant professor of psychology at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, Calif., vehemently disagrees with the idea that fat studies perpetuates a victim’s mentality.
“This is not about victimhood, but about becoming empowered,” she said. “Did Martin Luther King and Malcolm X espouse victimhood? Did Susan B. Anthony? It’s really easy for people to feel that fat people are trying to find an excuse.”
Actually, I suspect that Martin Luther King and Susan B. Anthony would be appalled by much of what goes on in race and gender studies on American campuses today. But that aside -- yes, it's really easy for people to feel that a movement which pooh-pooh self-restraint and makes heroes of people who are "strong enough to cast aside diet mentality and live in the present" (a quote from LeBesco in CHE) is really about "fat people ... trying to find an excuse." It's really easy for a really good reason.
Of course, aside from the dubious nature of "fat acceptance" ideology, there is also the question of academic programs that exist to champion a particular point of view and a particular agenda, rather than to strive for knowledge and at least attempt an unbiased intellectual inquiry. (Thank you, women's studies.) There is nothing wrong with the idea of a college course examining the evolution of social and cultural attitudes toward body shape and size, perhaps within sociology or another social science course. But this is obviously not what "fat studies" is about.
Maybe the next frontier in the academic battle against all varieties of oppression should be "drunk studies." Why not an academic program championing the idea that "alcohol abuse" is an artificial construct based on the mainstream culture's oppressive notions of what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate consumption of alcohol? "Drunk studies" could tell us that the stigmatization of drunkenness stems from the Western valorization of such dubious values as self-control, rationality, and obedience to social norms, and reflects a pernicious fear of rebellion against inhibitions and authority. Of course, it would also question conventional wisdom -- supposedly based on scientific evidence, but really rooted in anti-drunk bias -- about the deleterious health consequences of alcohol abuse and the dangers of drunk driving. After all, the goal of "drunk studies" would be to empower drunks!
I think I should get a grant.
Update: Welcome, Instapundit and Ann Althouse readers!