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Ms. Magazine
Sunday, November 22nd, 2009
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The Fat Studies Reader

by Esther Rothblum

Weighing In

A review by Jessica Holden Sherwood, PH.D.

With a winning audacity, The Fat Studies Reader announces its intention to serve as the foundation of a new academic field. Its editors present convincing voices from law, medicine, social sciences and the humanities, making it difficult to dismiss their case that the time has come for fat studies. As the student authors of one essay note, the subject overflows disciplinary boundaries the same way their bodies overflow the desks in their college classrooms.

Most Americans have accepted the health-focused conventional wisdom that obesity is a medical condition demanding prevention or intervention because of its risk of causing various other conditions, including diabetes or even premature death. Whether or not one questions the concept that "normal" weight is better and healthier, The Fat Studies Reader demonstrates that this powerful assumption does deserve analysis. Yes, research has found some connections between weight and health, but these correlations do not, the book argues, justify the stigmatization of an entire group of people. It's certainly possible to be heavy and healthy, just as it's possible to be thin and unhealthy.

The United States has a unique history of anti-fat bias, generated in the early 20th century by a confluence of factors: industrialization, which increased the availability of food; a puritanical ethic of denying desires; and scientific and pseudoscientific study of human improvement, as in eugenics. These factors coincided with perceived social threats from suffragists and from non-European immigrants. Thanks to certain scientific and medical professionals of the time, fatness became associated with "other" ethnic groups, the lower classes and those women who couldn't control their carnality.

Things look surprisingly unchanged today: classism and racism live on in antifat discourse. Helping "them" make better choices remains a common mode of intervention in fat people's lives, and just as it was a century ago, whole economic sectors thrive on selling services and products specifically to fight fat. Too many health professionals and community health programs focus not directly on well-being, but on weight loss and "obesity prevention."

In The Fat Studies Reader, there is inevitably some disjuncture among the chapters, and the jargon of an academic niche occasionally appears. The takedown of "traitorous" formerly fat celebrities like Ricki Lake and Carnie Wilson feels more self-indulgent than feminist. But usually, the analysis is undeniably feminist, with fatness placed into larger social contexts. The chapter that follows the money from pharmaceutical companies to researchers to the National Institutes of Health is particularly cogent.

These 40 essays provoke questions aplenty: Does poverty make people fat, or does fatness impoverish? Would public health benefit more by altering the high-fat and sugar-heavy foodscape that consumers confront, or by fighting the stigmatization of obesity? Does cultural attention to fat women's struggles, and to their sexual attractiveness (see mentions of J.Lo's butt and fat burlesque), do harm or good or both? Whether you're interested in women's physical representation in the media, the debate about fitting into airline seats, the intersections of inequalities, or simply the prospect of accepting your body as it is, The Fat Studies Reader has an abundance to offer.

Jessica Holden Sherwood, PH.D., is executive officer of Sociologists for Women in Society.


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