Fat Studies 101: Learning to Have Your Cake and Eat It Too

Patti Lou Watkins


“I’m fat–and it’s okay! It doesn’t mean I’m stupid, or ugly, or lazy, or selfish. I’m fat!” so proclaims Joy Nash in her YouTube video, A Fat Rant. “Fat! It’s three little letters–what are you afraid of?!” This is the question I pose to my class on day one of Fat Studies. Sadly, many college students do fear fat, and negative attitudes toward fat people are quite prevalent in this population (Ambwani et al. 366). As I teach it, Fat Studies is cross-listed between Psychology and Gender Studies. However, most students who enrol have majors in Psychology or other behavioural health science fields in which weight bias is particularly pronounced (Watkins and Concepcion 159). Upon finding stronger bias among third- versus first-year Physical Education students, O’Brien, Hunter, and Banks (308) speculated that the weight-centric curriculum that typifies this field actively engenders anti-fat attitudes. Based on their exploration of textbook content, McHugh and Kasardo (621) contend that Psychology too is complicit in propagating weight bias by espousing weight-centric messages throughout the curriculum. Such messages include the concepts that higher body weight invariably leads to poor health, weight control is simply a matter of individual choice, and dieting is an effective means of losing weight and improving health (Tylka et al.).

These weight-centric tenets are, however, highly contested. For instance, there exists a body of research so vast that it has its own name, the “obesity paradox” literature. This literature (McAuley and Blair 773) entails studies that show that “obese” persons with chronic disease have relatively better survival rates and that a substantial portion of “overweight” and “obese” individuals have levels of metabolic health similar to or better than “normal” weight individuals (e.g., Flegal et al. 71). Finally, the “obesity paradox” literature includes studies showing that cardiovascular fitness is a far better predictor of mortality than weight. In other words, individuals may be both fit and fat, or conversely, unfit and thin (Barry et al. 382). In addition, Tylka et al. review literature attesting to the complex causes of weight status that extend beyond individual behaviour, ranging from genetic predispositions to sociocultural factors beyond personal control. Lastly, reviews of research on dieting interventions show that these are overwhelmingly ineffective in producing lasting weight loss or actual improvements in health and may in fact lead to disordered eating and other unanticipated adverse consequences (e.g., Bacon and Aphramor; Mann et al. 220; Salas e79; Tylka et al.).

The newfound, interdisciplinary field of scholarship known as Fat Studies aims to debunk weight-centric misconceptions by elucidating findings that counter these mainstream suppositions. Health At Every Size® (HAES), a weight-neutral approach to holistic well-being, is an important facet of Fat Studies. The HAES paradigm advocates intuitive eating and pleasurable physical activity for health rather than restrictive dieting and regimented exercise for weight loss. HAES further encourages body acceptance of self and others regardless of size. Empirical evidence shows that HAES-based interventions improve physical and psychological health without harmful side-effects or high dropout rates associated with weight loss interventions (Bacon and Aphramor; Clifford et al. “Impact of Non-Diet Approaches” 143). HAES, like the broader field of Fat Studies, seeks to eradicate weight-based discrimination, positioning weight bias as a social justice issue that intersects with oppression based on other areas of difference such as gender, race, and social class. Much like Queer Studies, Fat Studies seeks to reclaim the word, fat, thus stripping it of its pejorative connotations. As Nash asserts in her video, “Fat is a descriptive physical characteristic. It’s not an insult, or an obscenity, or a death sentence!”

As an academic discipline, Fat Studies is expanding its visibility and reach. The Fat Studies Reader, the primary source of reading for my course, provides a comprehensive overview of the field (Rothblum and Solovay 1). This interdisciplinary anthology addresses fat history and activism, fat as social inequality, fat in healthcare, and fat in popular culture. Ward (937) reviews this and other recently-released fat-friendly texts. The field features its own journal, Fat Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Body Weight and Society, which publishes original research, overview articles, and reviews of assorted media. Both the Popular Culture Association and National Women’s Studies Association have special interest groups devoted to Fat Studies, and the American Psychological Association’s Division on the Psychology of Women has recently formed a task force on sizism (Bergen and Carrizales 22). Furthermore, Fat Studies conferences have been held in Australia and New Zealand, and the third annual Weight Stigma Conference will occur in Iceland, September 2015. Although the latter conference is not necessarily limited to those who align themselves with Fat Studies, keynote speakers include Ragen Chastain, a well-known member of the fat acceptance movement largely via her blog, Dances with Fat. The theme of this year’s conference, “Institutionalised Weightism: How to Challenge Oppressive Systems,” is consistent with Fat Studies precepts:

This year’s theme focuses on the larger social hierarchies that favour thinness and reject fatness within western culture and how these systems have dictated the framing of fatness within the media, medicine, academia and our own identities. What can be done to oppose systemised oppression? What can be learned from the fight for social justice and equality within other arenas? Can research and activism be united to challenge prevailing ideas about fat bodies?

Concomitantly, Fat Studies courses have begun to appear on college campuses. Watkins, Farrell, and Doyle-Hugmeyer (180) identified and described four Fat Studies and two HAES courses that were being taught in the U.S. and abroad as of 2012. Since then, a Fat Studies course has been taught online at West Virginia University and another will soon be offered at Washington State University. Additionally, a new HAES class has been taught at Saint Mary’s College of California during the last two academic years. Cameron (“Toward a Fat Pedagogy” 28) describes ways in which nearly 30 instructors from five different countries have incorporated fat studies pedagogy into university courses across an array of academic areas. This growing trend is manifested in The Fat Pedagogy Reader (Russell and Cameron) due out later this year.

In this article, I describe content and pedagogical strategies that I use in my Fat Studies course. I then share students’ qualitative reactions, drawing upon excerpts from written assignments. During the term reported here, the class was comprised of 17 undergraduate and 5 graduate students. Undergraduate majors included 47% in Psychology, 24% in Women Studies, 24% in various other College of Liberal Arts fields, and 6% in the College of Public Health. Graduate majors included 40% in the College of Public Health and 60% in the College of Education. Following submission of final grades, students provided consent via email allowing written responses on assignments to be anonymously incorporated into research reports. Assignments drawn upon for this report include weekly reading reactions to specific journal articles in which students were to summarise the main points, identify and discuss a specific quote or passage that stood out to them, and consider and discuss applicability of the information in the article.  This report also utilises responses to a final assignment in which students were to articulate take-home lessons from the course.

Despite the catalogue description, many students enter Fat Studies with a misunderstanding of what the course entails. Some admitted that they thought the course was about reducing obesity and the presumed health risks associated with this alleged pathological condition (Watkins). Others understood, but were somewhat dubious, at least at the outset, “Before I began this class, I admit that I was skeptical of what Fat Studies meant.” Another student experienced “a severe cognitive dissonance” between the Fat Studies curriculum and that of a previous behavioural health class:

My professor spent the entire quarter spouting off statistics, such as the next generation of children will be the first generation to have a lower life expectancy than their parents and the ever increasing obesity rates that are putting such a tax on our health care system, and I took her words to heart. I was scared for myself and for the populations I would soon be working with. I was worried that I was destined to a chronic disease and bothered that my BMI was two points above ‘normal.’ I believed everything my professor alluded to on the danger of obesity because it was things I had heard in the media and was led to believe all my life.

Yet another related, “At first, I will be honest, it was hard for me to accept a lot of this information, but throughout the term every class changed my mind about my view of fat people.” A few students have voiced even greater initial resistance. During a past term, one student lamented that the material represented an attack on her intended behavioural health profession.  Cameron (“Learning to Teach Everybody”) describes comparable reactions among students in her Critical Obesity course taught within a behavioural health science unit. Ward (937) attests that, even in Gender Studies, fat is the topic that creates the most controversy. Similarly, she describes students’ immense discomfort when asked to entertain perspectives that challenge deeply engrained ideas inculcated by our culture’s “obesity epidemic.” Discomfort, however, is not necessarily antithetical to learning. In prompting students to unlearn “the biomedically-informed truth of obesity, namely that fat people are unfit, unhealthy, and in need of ‘saving’ through expert interventions,” Moola at al. recommend equipping them with an “ethics of discomfort” (217). No easy task, “It requires courage to ask our students to forgo the security of prescriptive health messaging in favour of confusion and uncertainty” (221).

I encourage students to entertain conflicting perspectives by assigning empirically-based articles emanating from peer-reviewed journals in their own disciplines that challenge mainstream discourses on obesity (e.g., Aphramor; Bombak e60; Tomiyama, Ahlstrom, and Mann 861). Students whose training is steeped in the scientific method seem to appreciate having quantitative data at their disposal to convince themselves–and their peers and professors–that widely held weight-centric beliefs and practices may not be valid. One student remarked, “Since I have taken this course, I feel like I am prepared to discuss the fallacy of the weight-health relationship,” citing specific articles that would aid in the effort. Likewise, Cameron’s (“Learning to Teach Everybody”) students reported a need to read research reports in order to begin questioning long-held beliefs.

In addition, I assign readings that provide students with the opportunity to hear the voices of fat people themselves, a cornerstone of Fat Studies. Besides chapters in The Fat Studies Reader authored by scholars and activists who identify as fat, I assign qualitative articles (e.g., Lewis et al.) and narrative reports (e.g., Pause 42) in which fat people describe their experiences with weight and weight bias. Additionally, I provide positive images of fat people via films and websites (Clifford et al. HAES®; Watkins; Watkins and Doyle-Hugmeyer 177) in order to counteract the preponderance of negative, dehumanising portrayals in popular media (e.g., Ata and Thompson 41). In response, a student stated:

One of the biggest things I took away from this term was the confidence I found in fat women through films and stories. They had more confidence than I have seen in any tiny girl and owned the body they were given.

I introduce “normal” weight allies as well, most especially Linda Bacon whose treatise on thin privilege tends to set the stage for viewing weight bias as a form of oppression (Bacon). One student observed, “It was a relief to be able to read and talk about weight oppression in a classroom setting for once.” Another appreciated that “The class did a great job at analysing fat as oppression and not like a secondhand oppression as I have seen in my past classes.” Typically, fat students were already aware of weight-based privilege and oppression, often painfully so. Thinner students, however, were often astonished by this concept, several describing Bacon’s article as “eye-opening.” In reaction, many vowed to act as allies:

This class has really opened my eyes and prepared me to be an ally to fat people. It will be difficult for some time while I try to get others to understand my point of view on fat people but I believe once there are enough allies, people’s minds will really start changing and it will benefit everyone for the better.

Pedagogically, I choose to share my own experiences as they relate to course content and encourage students, at least in their written assignments, to do the same. Other instructors refrain from this practice for fear of reinforcing traditional discourses or eliciting detrimental reactions from students (Watkins, Farrell, and Doyle-Hugmeyer 191). Nevertheless, this tack seems to work well in my course, with many students opting to disclose their relevant circumstances during classroom discussions:

Throughout the term I very much valued and appreciated when classmates would share their experiences. I love listening and hearing to others experiences and I think that is a great way to understand the material and learn from one another.

It really helped to read different articles and hear classmates discuss and share stories that I was able to relate to. The idea of hearing people talk about issues that I thought I was the only one who dealt with was so refreshing and enlightening.

The structure of this class allowed me to learn how this information is applicable to my life and made it deeper than just memorising information.

Thus far, across three terms, no student has described iatrogenic effects from this process. In fact, most attribute positive transformations to the class. These include enhanced body acceptance of self and others:

This class decreased my fat phobia towards others and gave me a better understanding about the intersectionality of one’s weight. For example, I now feel that I no longer view my family in a fat phobic way and I also feel responsible for educating my brother and helping him develop a strong self-esteem regardless of his size.

I never thought this class would change my life, almost save my life. Through studies shown in class and real life people following their dreams, it made my mind completely change about how I view my body and myself.

I can only hope that in the future, I will be more forgiving, tolerant, and above all accepting of myself, much less others. Regardless of a person’s shape and size, we are all beautiful, and while I’m just beginning to understand this, it can only get better from here.

Students also reported becoming more savvy consumers of weight-centric media messages as well as realigning their eating and exercise behaviour in accordance with HAES:

I find myself disgusted at the television now, especially with the amount of diet ads, fitness club ads, and exercise equipment ads all aimed at making a ‘better you.’ I now know that I would never be better off with a SlimFast shake, P90X, or a Total Gym. I would be better off eating when I’m hungry, working out because it is fun, and still eating Thin Mints when I want to.

Prior to this class, I would work out rigorously, running seven miles a day. Now I realise why at times I dreaded to work out, it was simply a mathematical system to burn the energy that I had acquired earlier in the day. Instead what I realise I should do is something I enjoy, that way I will never get tired of whatever I am doing. While I do enjoy running, other activities would bring more joy while engaging in a healthy lifestyle like hiking or mountain biking.

I will never go on another diet. I will stop choosing exercises I don’t love to do. I will not weigh myself every single day hoping for the number on the scale to change.

A reduction in self-weighing was perhaps the most frequent behaviour change that students expressed. This is particularly valuable in that frequent self-weighing is associated with disordered eating and unhealthy weight control behaviours (Neumark-Sztainer et al. 811):

I have realised that the number on the scale is simply a number on the scale. That number does not define who you are. I have stopped weighing myself every morning. I put the scale in the storage closet so I don’t have to look at it. I even encouraged my roommate to stop weighing herself too.

What has been most beneficial for me to take away from this class is the notion that the number on the scale has so much less to do with fitness levels than most people understand. Coming from a numbers obsessed person like myself, this class has actually gotten me to leave the scales behind. I used to weigh myself every single day and my self-confidence reflected whether I was up or down in weight from the day before. It seems so silly to me now. From this class, I take away a new outlook on body diversity. I will evaluate who I am for what I do and not represent myself with a number. I’m going to have my cake this time, and actually eat it too!

Finally, students described ways in which they might carry the concepts from Fat Studies into their future professions:

I want to go to law school. This model is something I will work toward in the fight for social justice.

As a teacher and teacher of teachers, I plan to incorporate discussions on size diversity and how this should be addressed within the field of adapted physical education.

I do not know how I would have gone forward if I had never taken this class. I probably would have continued to use weight loss as an effective measure of success for both nutrition and physical activity interventions. I will never be able to think about the obesity prevention movement in the same way.

Since I am working toward being a clinical psychologist, I don’t want to have a client who is pursuing weight loss and then blindly believe that they need to lose weight. I’d rather be of the mindset that every person is unique, and that there are other markers of health at every size.

Jones and Hughes-Decatur (59) call for increased scholarship illustrating and evaluating critical body pedagogies so that teachers might provide students with tools to critique dominant discourses, helping them forge healthy relationships with their own bodies in the process. As such, this paper describes elements of a Fat Studies class that other instructors may choose to adopt. It additionally presents qualitative data suggesting that students came to think about fat and fat people in new and divergent ways. Qualitative responses also suggest that students developed better body image and more adaptive eating and exercise behaviours throughout the term. Although no students have yet described lasting adverse effects from the class, one stated that she would have preferred less of a focus on health and more of a focus on issues such as fat fashion. Indeed, some Fat Studies scholars (e.g., Lee) advocate separating discussions of weight bias from discussions of health status to avoid stigmatising fat people who do experience health problems. While concerns about fostering healthism within the fat acceptance movement are valid, as a behavioural health professional with an audience of students training in these fields, I have chosen to devote three weeks of our ten week term to this subject matter. Depending on their academic background, others who teach Fat Studies may choose to emphasise different aspects such as media representations or historical connotations of fat.

Nevertheless, the preponderance of positive comments evidenced throughout students’ assignments may certainly be a function of social desirability. Although I explicitly invite critique, and in fact assign readings (e.g., Welsh 33) and present media that question HAES and Fat Studies concepts, students may still feel obliged to articulate acceptance of and transformations consistent with the principles of these movements. As a more objective assessment of student outcomes, I am currently conducting a quantitative evaluation, in which I remain blind to students’ identities, of this year’s Fat Studies course compared to other upper division/graduate Psychology courses, examining potential changes in weight bias, body image and dieting behaviour, adherence to appearance-related media messages, and obligatory exercise behaviour. I postulate results akin to those of Humphrey, Clifford, and Neyman Morris (143) who found reductions in weight bias, improved body image, and improved eating behaviour among college students as a function of their HAES course. As Fat Studies pedagogy proliferates, instructors are called upon to share their teaching strategies, document the effects, and communicate these results within and outside of academic spheres.


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Fat Studies; Health At Every Size; Pedagogy; Weight Bias

Copyright (c) 2015 Patti Lou Watkins

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