For many college students, deciding what to major and minor in is a chance to explore one’s interests and identity. From race, gender, and sexuality classes to gerontology, you can find some niche where you belong. But despite all these options, there seems to be one very clear category missing: fat studies.
It’s no secret that American society views being fat as a negative trait. In TV shows and movies, the fat person is nearly always the butt of the joke or the bad guy. However, recently there has been a push for more diverse, fat stories. Shrill is one of the first tv shows that comes to mind when thinking of a well-rounded storyline about a fat person. The story doesn’t solely focus on the character’s weight but deals with her flaws and accomplishments. As we move more towards acceptance of fat identities, there needs to be a reevaluation of what it means to be a fat person.
What is fat studies?
Fat studies look at the different aspects of what it means to be fat. While not all fat studies courses will be the same, many may choose to look at society’s perception of body size throughout the years, media’s portrayal of fat characters, and the development of fat acceptance and activism.
However, that is just the tip of the fat studies iceberg. Topics like diet culture to the intersections of race and body size can be analyzed in a course like this. It’s important to discuss these ideas as fatphobia has a hold on society, and it influences many facets of life.
Why use the word fat?
The word “fat” is actually quite important to fat studies. While previously, it might have been considered offensive, it has been reclaimed. It now holds a neutral or positive connotation depending on who you ask. Other words like “obese” and “overweight” are harmful as they stem from the pathologization of fatness. Essentially, those words treat fatness as a sign of being unhealthy rather than viewing it as just another body type. That is also why fat studies scholars are critical of the Body Mass Index (BMI) since it treats certain bodies like they are diseased, which helps further the oppression of people in larger bodies.
The beginning of fat studies
More and more, we see academic spaces make room for new areas of interest. It was as recent as the 90s that many colleges started implementing LGBTQ studies. Thus, it’s not that far of a reach to expect within the next few years to see fat studies being adopted into different college programs. We already see this happening with certain colleges, like Montclair State University, which is hosting its first fat studies course in fall 2021, led by Professor Claudia Cortese. I got a chance to talk to Professor Cortese and find out about what led her to fat studies and what she plans on doing with her course.
Understanding fat studies
Claudia Cortese’s passion for fat studies started about 10 years ago when The Fat Studies Reader first came out: “I heard about the book…And I bought it and read it from cover to cover, and it changed my life. I was like, oh…fatness is an identity, and you can study this.”
It was from that point that she started participating in fat activism and writing about fatness. She claims her personal connection to fatness has definitely influenced her passion. Now, she wants her course to educate students while also providing healing for whatever trauma they may have faced.
“Maybe they were bullied in school, or they were told to lose weight by a doctor or body-shamed by friends and family or harassed while working out, or harassed walking down the streets and had people yell fatphobic things of that, or have gone to the store and not be able to not be able to find clothes in their size, and not seeing themselves represented positively in the media because there are very few fat people in the media. And so, I also just want to tell students like what you experienced isn’t your fault…And there’s a name for it….it’s fatphobia.”
What to expect from the course
Professor Claudia Cortese plans on taking advantage of current events in her course. Between COVID-19 increasing anti-fat rhetoric and body positive movements taking off on social media, the course will analyze how all of this plays a role in society’s perception of fatness. Intersecting identities will also be a focus of the course, along with exposing misconceptions about body size: “This class will debunk myths about fat bodies—myths that harm people of all sizes—and map the racist origins of anti-fatness, revealing how weight stigma today often serves as a proxy for racism, misogyny, class stigma, ableism, and queerphobia.”
Not only will the classwork to educate students, but it will also be a space for positivity. Through different media like film and tv, students will get to see fatness celebrated rather than criticized.
The importance of intersectionality
It’s important to note that this course will deal with a variety of intersecting identities as seen by its name “Fat Studies: Race, Class, Gender, Queerness” and will be included in the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer Studies Minor.
According to Cortese, this intersectionality was crucial for the fat positivity movement: “I wanted to look at the intersections of fatness and queerness because that history has been lost…you know fat positivity wouldn’t exist without queer activism because queers were involved in the early fat liberation movement.”