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Explainer: what is fat studies?

Fat studies is challenging the way that fat human bodies are portrayed and treated. Shutterstock

Explainer: what is fat studies?

Fat studies is challenging the way that fat human bodies are portrayed and treated. Shutterstock

Fat studies is an academic area of research and scholarship. It’s not about fat as a dietary substance, but rather about fat human bodies. Fat studies is an interdisciplinary field, combining perspectives and research methods from the humanities and social sciences. It builds on the tradition of gender studies and queer studies, focusing attention on the social, cultural, historical and political aspects of the ways in which fatness as a phenomenon and fat people are portrayed and treated.

In the late 20th century, concern began to be expressed in medical and public health circles about an apparent “obesity epidemic” in western countries, including Australia. The media reported warnings from doctors and health promoters that an increasing proportion of people in these countries could be categorised as “overweight” or “obese” using the body mass index (BMI) measurement. This was viewed as a public health crisis, as it was calculated that people in these categories would suffer from higher rates of illness and disease, and die prematurely.

One of many examples of the ‘headless fatty’ image used by the media. AAP Image/Dave Hunt

News reports referred to the “ticking time bomb” of obesity, and the subsequent need to wage “a war on fat”. These reports and other media portrayals of fat people, like The Biggest Loser reality TV series, frequently portrayed them as not only unhealthy, but also ignorant, lazy, gluttonous, ugly and a drain on health budgets.

The “headless fatty” image was commonly used in news coverage, showing the body of a fat person with the head cropped off. While news producers may argue that the person’s head was removed to preserve their anonymity, activists have argued that this convention works to further dehumanise fat people.

Fat acceptance

Public health campaigns used by governments to encourage people to lose weight have frequently employed messages and images that portray body fat, and fat people themselves, as disgusting and shameful. It has often seemed that rather than “waging a war on fat”, such campaigns are directly attacking fat people.

In response to these portrayals and the increasing stigmatisation of, and discrimination against, people who were deemed to be too large, activists have called for fat acceptance and body positive initiatives.

Some fat studies academics combine activism with their research to empower those who do not fit the thin mould. Shutterstock

These challenge simplistic assumptions that thin people are healthy, virtuous and responsible citizens, whereas fat people are diseased, morally culpable and unable to control their appetites. Activists have taken up the term “fat”, instead of medicalised terms like “overweight” and “obese”, because of their connotations of unhealthiness and disease.

The use of the term “fat studies” to describe an academic field is a reflection of this preference. There are strong intersections between fat activism as a political movement, and the academic field of fat studies. Some university researchers contributing to fat studies scholarship combine activism with their research.

Another term that is sometimes used by university researchers is “critical weight studies”. This incorporates critical research into all sizes of human bodies, including the extreme thinness of those people living with restricted eating disorders such as anorexia, or the highly muscular bodies of athletes.

Contradictions in the ‘war on fat’

Fat studies scholars are interested in a number of key questions. How is fatness defined and portrayed, and how has that changed over time? How does it differ between geographical locations, between social groups and cultures?

What is it like to be a fat person in a fat-shaming world? What kinds of social and economic discrimination do fat people experience, and how can it be alleviated? What are the political and ideological underpinnings of the “obesity crisis” and the “war on fat”?

Some researchers have engaged in detailed analysis of the medical and epidemiological literature on obesity, drawing attention to discrepancies and contradictions in definitions of obesity, and calculations about its health effects.

For example, in his book The End of the Obesity Epidemic (2010), University of Queensland researcher Michael Gard argues that the “crisis” has not happened according to dire predictions, and that life expectancies are increasing in the Western world. Others have called attention to the “obesity paradox”: fat people with certain chronic diseases are sometimes healthier than thin people with the same conditions.

The media’s stigmatisation of fatness has lead to negative eating habits in young people. Shutterstock

The future of fat studies

The fervid news coverage of the “obesity epidemic” has died down somewhat over the past few years. Experts in medicine and public health are recognising the complexity of body weight and its association with illness and premature mortality.

However, discrimination against fat people continues. Fat children and young people are particular targets, facing bullying, shaming and social exclusion. Young people who are not medically identified as fat are also beginning to hold disturbingly negative views of their bodies. The incidence of eating disorders, disordered eating and body image problems has significantly risen in Australia over the past three decades.

Future research in fat studies is needed to identify, critique and challenge the ways in which fat people are portrayed and treated, highlighting the unintended consequences of anti-obesity, school-based education and public health campaigns.