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PCA/ACA Fat Studies: Day 1 Recap

This is the first of my recaps from the recent Fat Studies sessions at the Popular Culture/American Culture Association Meetings.

The PCA/ACA conference essentially contained within it a Fat Studies mini-conference. Large enough to fill up your days, but small enough so that you could interact with almost everyone in it for Fat Studies. Every session except one was held in the very same room, so at PCA/ACA Fat Studies folks are able to really develop a sense of community at the conference as opposed to if the area sessions were scattered throughout the conferences. If you're doing Fat Studies, you gotta go to a PCA/ACA national conference. Julia McCrossin told me that they are really getting lots of attention and positive feedback from the organization about the Fat Studies awesomeness and success there.

PCA/ACA Fat Studies 2010: Day 1

1088 Fat Studies: The Social Menace of Fat Bodies
Session Chair: Hannele Harjunen, University of Jyväskylä

Came in late because not only was I running late, I mistakenly entered a different session where an analysis of Twilight was going on.

“Won’t Someone Think of the Children?: Politicized Frameworks in Research on Fat Children’s Academic Achievement”
Heather Brown, Northern Illinois University

I missed Heather's presentation, but according to her abstract she looked at "correlations between weight and academic achievement" from the 1960's up to the present. Articles addressing the academic achievement of fat children were framed in terms of the obesity epidemic and the assumptions about fatness which tend to be inherent in that discourse. Scholars talked about fat children's bodies as though they "ought to be changed for their own good." The studies she found were primarily quantitative and therefore silenced "the voices of fat children about their own experiences as learners." So, as usual, the problem is the fat children, not the stigma placed upon them. The target is children and weight loss instead of anti-fat culture and structural inequities. *sigh*


“Men, Morals, and the ‘Obesity Epidemic’ Discourse"
Kate Mason, University of California, Berkeley

Really wish I had heard more of Kate's presentation, but I was very happy to see someone studying men's ideas about bodies and weight using interview data. As someone who studies gender and masculinity, I found her analysis fascinating. She found that men talked about their relationships with their bodies in ways that cast them as masculine. Often men constructed their relationships with their bodies against the idea of the "failed, unhappy fat woman" who is preoccupied with body. Interestingly, several of the men she interviewed tried to help their mothers diet. They also contrasted their relationships with their bodies to that of body-builders' bodies. Capitalizing on the idea that body-building men are too body-obsessive (obsessing about the body being a "woman" thing to do), they constructed themselves as having a masculine relationship with their body. This seemed perfect for Connel's theory of masculinity. Overall, men had a fear of being un-masculine and Kate said that discourses about women's bodies benefit men and their sense of masculinity.

“Too Fat to Mother: The Legal Discourse of Removing Fat Children from Their Home”
Tali Schaefer, Columbia University Law School

Holy crap, Tali was so on top of it. And she was clearly passionate and angry. I loved it. She spoke of different cases in which children had been removed from their parents' custody for being fat and ways in which fat parents got constructed as unfit parents. She said one of the main premises for taking these  children  away is the idea that their current fat (obviously the fault  of parents) is a future risk--and so legally they are treating "future  risk" as a  current emergency. The one case she spoke of was unbelievable (well, you know what I mean). A fat girl in New York who had already been taken away from her mother once was taken away again despite improving HEALTH because she wasn't losing weight...and despite the fact that her mother was making every sacrifice possible to conform to the court's demands. And the kind of demands that courts make in these cases are very costly--in terms of money and time. The case was overturned, but the whole thing was just such a striking example of how fat can blind the smartest people of all sense.

“‘Obesity’ as a ‘Symbolic Illness’: Creation of a Troubled Group”
Hannele Harjunen, University of Jyväskylä

Did you know that in Finland in order to get your PhD you have to publish four articles and write a summary article from your dissertation work? I mean, I think I might die if I thought I had to do that. But Hannele has done it and her work is all about fat. So exciting! For her dissertation, Hanelle focused on normalization, medicalization, stigmatization, and fatness and liminality; she also used an intersectional perspective. She looked at fatness as "a mulitfaceted, gendered, socially constructed phenomenon and experience." This presentation, based on her post-doctoral work, focused on "obesity as metaphor." Hannale drew on Susan Sontag's "Illness as a Metaphor" and "AIDS and its metaphors" and Barry Glassner's "Culture of Fear."  She also used Beverly Skegg's work related to fat. Hanelle argued that "obesity" is "used as a metaphor for both individual and macro level concerns." She also said that "body size is increasingly used as a demarcation line between "normality" and "abnormality" and between "us" and "them."

1154 Fat Studies: The Politics of Weight Loss and Ideal Body Types
Session Chair: Lynne Gerber, University of California, Berkeley

“‘Eating Dialog’-A Unique Program for Fat Studies”
Ayelet Kalter, Licensed Dietitian, Eating Dialog Study and Therapy Center

Ayelet is a badass. This woman has her own Fat Studies/HAES training program for dietitians, nurses, doctors, and other medical practitioners. IN ISRAEL! She says a lot of people take the year-long program just to prove to her how it's all bullshit, but they often come out thinking very differently. Ayelet told us about the different methods she uses to get students to question their deep-seated assumptions about fat and health. The object of her program is to "enhance social, political, critical, and economical points of view" about fat and health. Her program utilized 20 lecturers and has existed for two years, with a total of 440 hours. Ayelet wants students to shift from a weight-centered approach to a health-centered approach. She has utilized ACT or Acceptance & Commitment Therapy in the construction of this program in order to help students make the shift--which she feels has to happen on a personal level in application to their own lives before they can apply it to people more broadly.  I was very pleased to hear, personally, that her students learn about the sociology of fatness. Yes, keep me in business! Anyway, she said that students who complete the program can "see people as a whole."   I have to say the whole presentation, let alone the fact that such a program exists, was quite inspiring and made me very hopeful. Her website is and if you don't speak Hebrew translate it through Google Translate to read it. Do you think Kate Harding realized her Illustrated BMI Project was on a website for a Fat Studies/HAES program in Israel?

“Not Losing, My Religion: Fat, Excess and the Project of Weight Loss”
Lynne Gerber


This was an amazing paper applying--or playing with applying--the theories of Georges Bataille (in my notes, spelled, Btai) to ideas about fatness and weight. I was so into her analysis, but I fear I will butcher it if I try to recount it. One of my favorite quotes was "diets have their own excesses...[from a certain perspective] dieting...looks like indulgence." Apparently, Bataille believed that in early capitalism the "central problem [was] abundance." He disagreed with the capitalist idea that excess should be put back into the system to serve "productive" purposes. He said excess is always dispersed somehow, and that can be through productiveness or through intimacy. He believed, howeved, that excess "must be spend gloriously" in ways that have nothing to do with production or work and everything to do with creating intimacy, as in the case of feasts where people bond together (I may be getting this so wrong). He believed in "squandering" excess. Lynne talked about how Bataille's theory may help us "distinguish between fat on bodies, fat people, and the kinds of thins fat is associated with" for our own theoretical purposes. She wants to explore how Bataille could potentially be used for "fat transgressions." Lynn also talked about how dieting IS "expending excess" (in terms of time and spending, etc.) "even when it purports to be about eliminating excess." During the discussion, Elena Levy-Navarro wanted to extend the idea to our scholarship--that scholars are so focused on our scholarship being productive that we could use a bit of excess. She contrasted this to the traditional focus on measurement and outcomes, but I'd argue this could be applied to how we treat our careers. In addition, in what ways can we squander our excess as scholars instead of feeding it back into work? I love the word squander. This presentation made me love it even more. Indulgent, excessive, extravagant squandering. I think she's on the right track trying to use this theory for fatness.

Afterward a bunch of us went across the street to the Under/Over for dinner. We talked of Oprah, Monique, Rosie, Tyler Perry, Kirstie, and so many other fat-related people and things. What else would we talk about? And it's where I first heard the story of the fat fortune cookies. I'll recount that later, perhaps.

Note: All accounts of research presentations and events are from my recollections, which are potentially flawed and/or biased by my academic perspectives and social location.
Note, the second: Quotation marks may indicate either paraphrasing or direct quote, and I tried to use them whenever I felt they may be applicable. In my notes I tried to put quotations around all direct quotes, but note-taking can be a precarious task.

QUIT IT!!!! | Living while fat

Viola's picture
April 18th, 2010 | Link | This is great, thanks! I'm

This is great, thanks! I'm going to read it later on when I have time. I feel bad that you had to sit through some seminar on Twilight, but I'm glad you took one for the team.

mujergorda April 18th, 2010 | Link | Thanks so much for posting

Thanks so much for posting this! I haven't had a chance to read it all yet, but it's awesome to have info about other fat studies academics and their work. Thank you!

FatSavage's picture
May 12th, 2010 | Link | I wish I could have been

I wish I could have been there. I'm working on two papers in the field of fat studies and going to the conference would have helped me so much! I've also started playing around with the idea for a documentary about fat and fitness and how you can be a sport participant or an athlete and still be fat and healthy.

If you came across any presentations dealing with that subject specifically I would love to get contact information on the presenter.

Good write up on your experiences. Thank you so much!

A word after a word after a word is power.
~Margaret Atwood

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