Sociology Of Fatness — Critical Perspectives For Teaching Sociology (And Anthropology)

Dr. Nowell

Dr. Nowell 

Michaela A. Nowell received her Ph.D. in Sociology from Purdue University, and began as an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Fond du Lac in Fall 2012.  Her research focuses on the intersections of gender, sexuality, and body, as well as race and class, taking a critical lens regarding the sociology of fatness. 

Below, Dr. Nowell offers great tips for implementing a critical perspective on fatness into sociology and anthropology courses.* 

What Is The Sociology Of Fatness?

Critical studies of fatness provide yet another dimension we can add to our teaching and research. Sociology of fatness is related in some way to most areas of research—social movements, education, gender, and religion just to name a few—but it is especially useful for those of us who utilize critical perspectives and/or focus on inequality.

In the Spring 2011 Newsletter for the Body and Embodiment Section of American Sociological Association, Dr. Carla Pfeffer (of Purdue North Central) and I described Fat Studies as “a subfield garnering more attention both within sociology and across other disciplines, [that] is characterized by critical attention to fatness as a social construct, a political and social justice issue, and as identity or lived experience. Fat studies is critical of obesity discourse and trends toward medicalizing the body, and also questions assumptions—both societal and within the academy—about fatness and fat people.”  [Download that essay here.]

In The Classroom — Pedagogy

How might sociology of fatness be relevant in your classroom? First, let’s think about practical classroom and pedagogical issues. Here are some questions you might ask yourself:

  • Are your classrooms and desks suitable and comfortable for students of all sizes? How might your campus accommodate people of size?
  • In your teaching, do you employ metaphors that uncritically construct fatness or fat people as negative, disgusting, or undesirable? (Do you question when students do this?)
  • When talking about the environment or rampant consumerism and excess, for example, do you make uncritical links to “obesity” or “Americans getting fatter”?
  • Have you or your colleagues used imagery similar to the below? This image implies that fat people are fat because they eat fast food and that fat people are symbols of the de-evolution of man. How might images such as this impact the classroom environment for students of all sizes?

  • Do you make denigrating or assuming comments about your students or your own body size?  How do you handle statements about body size in the classroom?
  • Do you take seriously students who feel harmed by weight-related comments or stigma?  A student in Indiana recently wrote me that her professor laughed in her face when she proposed fat stigma as the topic of her project. This student also said to me, about life on her campus, “I feel invisible.”
  • Comments about celebrities or peers like, “She/he needs to eat a hamburger!” are also body denigrating and a conflation of behavior and appearance.

In The Classroom — Questioning The Status Quo

In terms of classroom content and goals, one of the most basic things you can do is to teach students to question assumptions they make about fatness and fat people. Here are some questions you might address:

  • What meanings does the word fat hold for most people and how do we use it?
  • Has fat always been seen as bad? Is fat seen as bad, ugly, or unhealthy in other parts of the world? What can we learn from looking historically or cross-culturally?
  • How do we see fat people represented in the media, in movies, or on television? Does this have an impact on how we perceive fat people?
  • Are our beliefs about fat people grounded in a robust knowledge of empirical evidence? Is there evidence that contradicts commonly held beliefs?
  • In what ways might assumptions and stereotypes about fat people prevent them from engaging in healthy behaviors (ex. physical activity)?
  • Why do we as a society focus on personal responsibility rather than the systemic inequality and stigma affecting fat people? For example, when we talk about fat people’s health, do we consider the evidence that fat people experience pervasive stigma and discrimination in the health care industry or how this negatively impacts their health and quality of care?

What Are The Facts?

You may be asking yourself, “But isn’t being fat bad for you?” Scholars and activists alike have addressed these issues. First, weight science is tricky, and causality is difficult to determine. For example, while Type II diabetes is correlated with weight gain, it’s unproven whether the weight gain causes diabetes, whether diabetes causes weight gain, or if some other factor causes both.

There is also conflicting evidence and multiple angles to consider. Research from the CDC showed that, contrary to popular belief, people in the “overweight” category are better off than those in either the underweight or normal weight categories. Research also shows that while fat people may have a higher incidence of heart failure, they are more likely to survive them. While you may have heard a lot about the “obesity epidemic,” many scholars contest this term, and such sensationalist language often masks the facts. For example, most people assume that we are still getting fatter, when in fact the data for both children and adults in the U.S. indicate that weight has plateaued. And while there is evidence for weight gain over a period of time, no one has established the cause of that pattern.

Stigma Is Harmful

Fat stigma is as pervasive as gender and racial stigma and prevalent in the areas of education, health care, and employment. While fatness is framed as as related to individual behaviors, fat stigma in the health care industry has direct and indirect effects on the health of fat people, similar to the way in which racial stigma affects health. For example, fat people wait longer to go to the doctor and are often treated poorly or denied care “until they lose weight.”

Weight Loss And Health Are Not Synonymous

Even if we were to assume losing weight improves health, there is no proven way to make a fat person permanently thin. In fact, keeping weight off for more than two years is extremely unlikely and people tend to gain back the weight they lose plus more. Repeatedly losing and gaining weight is called weight cycling and is shown to have a negative effect on health. We conflate the notions of weight and health, such that a focus on weight loss tends to take precedence over healthy behaviors and/or indicators of health, actually encouraging unhealthy behaviors and mentalities. Have you ever heard someone say, “I was sick for a whole week, but at least I lost ten pounds!”? Evidence suggests that people of all sizes can be healthy and that those who focus on health behaviors rather than weight loss improve health indicators.

Social Justice Regardless Of Size Or Health

Finally, we live in a society that is rampant with healthism – the notion that health is a moral imperative. We socially construct how we understand health, focus on particular aspects of health over others (ex. physical over mental), and often denigrate those we see as “at fault” for their own health problems. The most severe targets of healthism are usually members of groups who already suffer systematic and institutional oppression, like the poor, African Americans, and Latinos. Our discourse around “health” often functions in classist, racist, and ableist ways. The bottom line is that regardless of someone’s health or health status in any category, people of all shapes and sizes deserve basic human dignity, respect, rights and freedom from oppression.

Further Reading

If you would like more resources on fat studies or ideas for teaching, I put together a resource guide with some colleagues that I am happy to send you.

Crawford, R. 1980. “Healthism and the medicalization of everyday life.” International Journal of Health Services 10(3): 356-388.

Curtis, Jeptha P., Jared G. Selter, Yongfei Wang, Saif S. Rathore, Ion S. Jovin, Farid Jadabaie, Mikhail Kosiborod, Edward L. Portnay, Seth I. Sokol, Feras Bader, and Harlan M. Krumholz. 2005. “The Obesity Paradox: Body Mass Index and Outcomes in Patients with Heart Failure.” Archives of Internal Medicine 165(1): 55-61.

Flegal, Katherine M., Barry I. Graubard, David F. Williamson, and Mitchell H. Gail. 2005. “Excess Deaths Associated With Underweight, Overweight, and Obesity.” Journal of the American Medical Association 293(15): 1861-1867.

Flegal, Katherine M., Margaret D. Carroll, Cynthia L. Ogden, and LR Curtin. “Prevalence and trends in obesity among US adults, 1999-2008.” 2010. Journal of the American Medical Association 303(3): 235-241.

Ogden, Cynthia L., Margaret D. Carroll, Brian K. Kit, and Katherine M. Flegal. 2012. “Prevalence of Obesity and Trends in Body Mass Index Among US Children and Adolescents, 1999-2010.” Journal of the American Medical Association 307(5): 493-490.

Puhl, Rebecca M., Tatiana Andreyeva, and Kelly D. Brownell. 2008. “Perceptions of weight discrimination: prevalence and comparison to race and gender discrimination in America.” International Journal of Obesity 32(6): 992–1000.

Puhl, Rebecca M. and Chelsea A. Heuer. 2009. “The Stigma of Obesity: A Review and Update.” Obesity 17(5): 941–964.  [DOWNLOAD]

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* Note: This essay was originally printed in Critical Mass (Dec 2012, Volume 15, No. 1), the newsletter of the University of Wisconsin Colleges Department of Anthropology and Sociology.  [Download the original article here.]