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Media attention suggests fat may be the new sexy

A usual academic event had a rather unusual impact earlier this month – a conference drew international media attention. Fat Studies: Reflective Intersections took place at Massey University in Wellington…

It’s not often that academic conferences get attention from anyone other than academics themselves. Kevin Mullett

A usual academic event had a rather unusual impact earlier this month – a conference drew international media attention.

Fat Studies: Reflective Intersections took place at Massey University in Wellington, New Zealand on July 12 and 13. The international conference attracted respected academics from three continents, and highlighted the range of scholarship taking place within the discipline. Geographers, nurses, sociologists, historians and activists shared research, discussed methodologies, and engaged in rich conversations about how their work intersected within the discipline.

But unusually, this small academic conference drew an enormous amount of media attention after Massey University published a press release about it. Stories about it were found both close to home (the conference ran as the cover story, above the fold, in the Dominion Post in Wellington, one of the nation’s largest newspapers), and across the Pacific in the United States.

An article written by the AFP (perhaps the most accurate piece on the event), was republished in the Philippines, Singapore, South Africa, and the United Kingdom.

The conference Fat Studies: Reflective Intersections recieved an extraordinary amount of media attention. Ria Pugmire

Television coverage included New Zealand morning shows (TV One “Breakfast” and 3 News, and Firstline). Radio on both sides of the Tasman got into the game, and #FatStudiesNZ2012 trended briefly on Twitter. With all this coverage, one thing was clear – if sexy is what sells, then fat is the new sexy!

The media coverage was a bit of a mixed blessing – lots of stories about fat pride and discrimination against fat people; little coverage of the actual conference. Factual errors were common. Many outlets identified New Zealand as the third fattest country in the world, for instance. New Zealand is actually the third fattest in the OECD (a consortium of 30 post-industrial countries). According to data from the World Health Organisation (WHO) (which tracks over 190 countries), New Zealand doesn’t even make the top 20.

Unfortunately, much of the media coverage missed the point, misrepresenting the event as a “fat pride convention” (which I would be happy to organise and attend), instead of an academic conference. While this did allow for a broader conversation about fat hatred and discrimination, it didn’t promote any further understanding of critical areas of study in academic scholarship – something many lay people are often confused about.

One of the roles of universities is to provide a social conscience. Lia/Flickr

For some, academic fields, such as Fat Studies, Women’s Studies, Queer Studies or Māori Studies sound like a waste of public investment and an opportunity for whiners to come together and insist the rest of the world engage in politically correct language and behaviours. What they fail to appreciate is that disciplines such as these are critical to scientific, social, historical, political, and ideological discourse.

Such areas of study usually emerge in direct response to a negative dominant narrative about these identities, and scholars commit themselves to asking critical questions, and demanding ethical and fair research practices. And they risk being raked over the coals when their analyses do not agree with what is “known”. Researchers working in these fields push back against once-held empirically-based beliefs that women are biologically inferior to men; that Māori are naturally more inclined to criminal behaviours than white New Zealanders; or that identifying as a member of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer community is an indication of a mental illness.

One of the roles of universities is to provide a social conscience, and scholars throughout history have been engaging in debates over what is “true” and “known”. Those of us working in Fat Studies consider ourselves lucky that they no longer burn heretics at the stake, although the public hazing we often endure feels a bit like the fire nipping at our heels.

For people interested in learning more about the field of Fat Studies, I recommend The Fat Studies Reader or the newly-launched Fat Studies Journal. And if you’d like to learn more about the research presented at the conference, Fat Studies: Reflective Intersections, you can still register as an online delegate.

This article has been amended. The author has noted an omission and “empirically based beliefs” has been changed to “once-held empirically based beliefs”. Thanks for those commenting below for pointing out that words were missing.