Fat Studies: Coming to a College Near You?

The New York Times is on the case of yet another group who’ve been oppressed by The Man and aren’t going to take it any more: the obese are the latest group to stake a claim on a research program within the academy:

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.

Professors in sociology, exercise physiology, history, English and law are shoehorning discussions of fat into their teachings and research.

Alas, some want to stand athwart history shouting Stop!

“In one field after another, passion and venting have come to define the nature of what academics do,” said Stephen H. Balch, president of the National Association of Scholars, a group of university professors and academics who have a more traditional view of higher education. “Ethnic studies, women’s studies, queer studies — they’re all about vindicating the grievances of some particular group. That’s not what the academy should be about.

“Obviously in the classroom you can look at issues of right and wrong and justice and injustice,” he added, “But if the purpose is to vindicate fatness, to make fatness seem better in the eyes of society, then that purpose begs a fundamental intellectual question.”

Or as Big Arm Woman, a blogger, wrote: “I don’t care if people are fat or thin. I do, however, care that universities are spending money on scholarship about the ‘politics of fatness’ when half of the freshman class can’t read or write at the college level.”

There’s further discussion at Althouse.

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Chris Lawrence
About Chris Lawrence
Chris teaches political science at Middle Georgia State University in Macon, Georgia. He has a Ph.D. in political science (with concentrations in American politics and political methodology) from the University of Mississippi. He began writing for OTB in June 2006. Follow him on Twitter @lordsutch.

Comments

  1. Anderson says:

    I don’t care if people are fat or thin. I do, however, care that universities are spending money on scholarship about the ‘politics of fatness’ when half of the freshman class can’t read or write at the college level.

    Universities spend lots of money on relatively useless topics, whether the freshmen can read or not. Get used to it.

    In the world of publishing or perishing, a new fad is a godsend to the less-than-inspired. There are obvious literary stereotypes of fat characters, some of them curiously contradictory: greedy, or jovial? Or both? How does fatness, with its unforgettable emphasis on one’s physicality, fit with the quasi-Gnostic metaphysics we get from Plato and Augustine? Etc., etc.

    In other words: nothing to see here … move along …




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  2. Eric MacLeod says:

    If an animal (or a person) consumes more calories than it (he/she) burns, the remaining energy will be stored by the body in the form of fat.
    Can I have my PhD now?




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  3. Mark says:

    Ah, if only Deam Wormer were a little more enlightened, he would have realized that there was a college program for Flounder after all…




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  4. Anderson says:

    If an animal (or a person) consumes more calories than it (he/she) burns, the remaining energy will be stored by the body in the form of fat.

    If you want to get all *scientific*, fat is actually a legit & potentially lucrative field of scientific inquiry. A real “fat pill” would be bigger than Viagra in sales, so to speak.

    But the post was more about the cultural construction of fatness, including no doubt the phallogocentric scientism of your definition.




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  5. madmatt says:

    obesity is now the biggest health care cost driver…why do you think ignoring the subject will be helpful.

    “Queer Studies” at least we know your position on homosexuals in society…the fringe!




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