ASK Sheana Director for a detailed description of herself, and chances are the word fat will come up. It is not uttered with shame or ire or any sense of embarrassment; it’s simply one of the things she is, fat.
“Why should I be ashamed?” said Ms. Director, 22, a graduate student in women’s studies at San Diego State University, who wields the word with both defiance and pride, the way the gay community uses queer. “I’m fat. So what?”
During her sophomore year at Smith College, Ms. Director attended a discussion on fat discrimination: the way the super-sized are marginalized, the way excessive girth is seen as a moral failing rather than the result of complicated factors. But the academic community, she felt, didn’t really give the topic proper consideration. She decided to do something about it.
In December 2004, she helped found the organization Size Matters, whose goal was to promote size acceptance and positive body image. In April, the group sponsored a conference called Fat and the Academy, a three-day event at Smith of panel discussions and performances by academics, researchers, activists and artists. Nearly 150 people attended.
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.
At the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, the subject has emerged in a course, “The Social Construction of Obesity,” taught by Margaret Carlisle Duncan, a professor in the department of human movement sciences, who takes a skeptical view of the “war on obesity.”
At the New College of California School of Law, Sondra Solovay, a diversity lawyer and author of “Tipping the Scales of Justice,” talks about weightism in her torts classes.
Out of the classroom, students on at least a dozen campuses are organizing groups focusing on fat politics and acceptance.
Nearly 120 people, including many academics, belong to a fat studies list serve on Yahoo!, which was started in 2004 by activist Marilyn Wann, the author of “Fat!So?”
And the first “Fat Studies Reader,” an anthology of scholarly research on fat, is being shopped to university presses. It covers a range of topics, from the intersection of fat, gender, race, age, disability and class to fat heroines in chick lit, the role of fat burlesque dancers and the use of fat suits in film. Chapter titles include “Access to the Sky: Airplane Seat and Fat Bodies as Contested Spaces”: “Jiggle in My Walk: The Iconic Power of the Big Butt in American Pop Culture,” and “The Roseanne Benedict Arnolds: How Fat Women are Betrayed by their Celebrity Icons.”
Esther Rothblum, a professor of women’s studies at San Diego State University, said she received more than 80 letters from people, mostly those with Ph.D.s, interested in contributing to the book, though she and Ms. Solovay, her co-editor, had room for only 45. “We were bowled over with the response,” she said.
As with most academic disciplines that chronicle the plight of the disenfranchised, fat studies grew out of political activism over body size. In 1973, a group of women formed the Fat Underground, a faction of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, which was founded four years earlier. In 1983, they published “Shadow on a Tightrope,” a collection of essays, articles and memoirs on fat liberation that’s viewed as the seminal work in this field.
It has taken a few decades for the subject to shift from public finger-wagging by fat advocates to study in the classroom. Susan Koppelman, a retired professor of women’s studies and editor of “The Strange History of Suzanne LaFleshe,” a collection of essays on body politics, likened it to the other social and political movements of the last century that gained credence on college campuses.
“How far back does the black civil rights movement go in America before we have a field called African-American studies?” Ms. Koppelman said. “The academic world, like the American government, has a system of checks and balances that makes change very slow to happen.”
Others argue, though, that a movement does not make a scholarly pursuit and that this is simply a way to institutionalize victimhood.
“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.”
If fat studies proponents have an underlying agenda, it is to challenge what they consider the alarmist message of the health community about the obesity epidemic in America. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, 66.3 percent of Americans are overweight or obese; 32 percent of Americans are obese. Overweight is defined as having a body mass index of 25 to 29.9, and obese is an index of 30 or higher.
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.
“When you look at the data you realize that the claims are completely exaggerated and in some places misleading based on the actual science,” said Dr. Abigail C. Saguy, a professor of sociology at the University of California in Los Angeles. “That raises really interesting sociological questions: Why has this become such the concern that it is and why are we so worried about weight?”
But the surgeon general of the Public Health Service, groups like the American Heart Association, individual researchers and doctors all say the health risks from obesity are real.
“It’s scientifically proven that if you’re overweight you have an increased risk of coming down with numerous medical conditions,” said Dr. Howard Shapiro, a New York weight loss specialist and author of the “Picture Perfect Weight loss” books. “It’s a no brainer, and anyone who says that it’s discriminatory is just trying to protect themselves.”
Sheldon Krimsky, a professor at Tufts University whose work focuses on the links between science, ethics and public policy, said it is well and good to question scientific assumptions — but up to a point.
“People sometimes use the fact that there are controversies in science to disparage all of science or to neglect the fact that there’s also a lot of consensus in science,” Professor Krimsky said. “Sometimes people on the margins that are critiquing the mainstream can be right. You have to have permeable walls in science. But that doesn’t mean the critics of today are going to be the mainstream of tomorrow.”
THE destigmatization of fat people is the thread that runs through fat studies pursuits. The subject is most likely to show up on campus as a focus of a paper or thesis, or be incorporated into a broader course curriculum.
Anna Kirkland, an assistant professor in women’s studies and political science at the University of Michigan, discusses it in classes on gender, identity and the law.
“We talk about the classic occupants of antidiscrimination laws — race and gender — and then I bring in transgender discrimination and fat discrimination,” she said, adding that Michigan is the only state where it’s illegal to discriminate on the basis of a person’s weight. (The cities of Santa Cruz, Calif., San Francisco and Washington have laws on the books).
In a few cases, fat has emerged as a theme through research, the traditional academic route.
Robert Bucholz, a history professor at Loyola University, in Chicago, has spent years trying to figure out why Queen Anne, the British monarch who reigned from 1702 to 1714, has gotten so little attention. Britain prospered under her guardianship yet, “few people even think about her,” he said. Finally, he figured out why: She was fat.
“I didn’t even realize that what I was talking about was fat studies,” said Professor Bucholz, who presented a paper on the subject at the popular culture association’s meeting last month in Indianapolis. “I didn’t know that I was onto something that other people were onto.”
But others see fat studies as a necessary response to the articles and television programs detailing the evils of fat.
“You can be a cigarette smoking junkie but as long as you’re thin, people will think you’re healthy,” said Cookie Woolner, 32, a graduate student in humanities at San Francisco State University.
Ms. Woolner, who is a Size 18 and is a burlesque dancer, wrote her undergraduate thesis at Hampshire College on positive representations of fat women in fanzines and underground media. Her interest arose from her desire to find positive likenesses of herself, she said.
Indeed, most people land in the field because of a personal interest. But not all are fat.
This came up recently when Kathleen LeBesco, a professor of communications at Marymount Manhattan College and author of the 2004 book, “Revolting Bodies: The Struggle to Redefine Fat Identity,” lost more than 70 pounds.
“Size acceptance is something I believe in, and it doesn’t matter what size you are,” Professor LeBesco said. So when her weight loss was the focus of a June 2006 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, she was appalled, she said.
“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.
Whether activism is an appropriate goal for academia is a controversial notion. Joseph B. Juhasz, a social psychologist who teaches at the University of Colorado, said the possibilities are endless.
“Certainly we have not reached a point where we can do away with queer studies or race studies or women’s studies,” Professor Juhasz said. “But where do you draw the line? Is there going to be a department of man-boy-love studies? Do we need polygamy studies? At which point do you say, enough already?”
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.”
Fat scholars believe they are serving justice and many hope that one day fat studies will be as ubiquitous on campus as Shakespeare. Professor Bucholz said he sees the attention on “groups that have been ignored” as crucial to improving their lot.
“There’s an element of trying to right the balance,” he said. “It’s time for the fat to receive their due.”