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The philosopher Peter Singer once described a liberation movement as something that "demands an expansion of our moral horizons, so that practices that were previously regarded as natural and inevitable are now seen as intolerable." Though this passage was written almost forty years ago in defense of the animal liberation movement, which was then just being established, it is apropos of the current fat liberation movement, which is the subject under discussion in Rothblum and Solovay's recently published collection of essays. What currently seems natural is that fat is a disease and that fat people are at risk for a whole host of health related problems, from diabetes to atherosclerosis, and that fat people are themselves to blame for the condition they are in because they are lazy and can't control their appetites. The solution, then, to the current "global obesity epidemic" is to get fat people to loose weight through diets and rigorous exercise regimes.
At the heart of fat studies and liberation is the deconstruction of the above claims, as well as the presentation of different constructions of what fat is and what fat people ought to do in the face of anti-fat attitudes. As Wann puts it in the Foreword to the book: "The field of fat studies requires skepticism about weight-related beliefs that are popular, powerful, and prejudicial…. Unlike traditional approaches to weight, a fat studies approach offers no opposition to the simple fact of human weight diversity, but instead looks at what people and society make of this reality" (x).
There are many ways in which one might distinguish between the various aspects of fat studies. The editors of The Fat Studies Reader have separated the field into six different lines of investigation, but due to space constraints, I'll discuss the field along two broad foci. On the one hand is an examination of the relation between fat and health, which is the focus of Part II of the book. On the other hand, are sociological, psychological, and philosophical questions about fat, which examines how society currently stigmatizes fat and the effects this has on fat people including the issue of how people can come to accept and enjoy their bodies irrespective of weight.
Several articles in Part II (25-112) argue that weight is not in fact a significant factor in determining poor health. Height-weight tables, such as the currently favored BMI (Body Mass Index), are quite arbitrary, have changed considerably over the years, and were in fact the product of insurance companies looking for ways to further profits rather than the result of health researchers. As Burgard says, only "about 9% of the outcome of whether someone has a health problem or not is somehow related to BMI," and even here it's important to note that the problem is "correlated to [fat] but not necessarily caused by it" (43).
According to many within the fat liberation movement, the driving force behind claims that fat people are unhealthy and need to loose weight is money. As Lyons points out, "[b]y 2004, forty-six billion dollars was being spent annually on weight loss products and programs, not including weight loss surgery" (77). This is particularly unfortunate because almost no one looses weight and keeps it off. As Gaesser points out, "of those who intentionally loose weight, most will regain about one-third of their weight within the first year, and virtually all will return to their baseline weight within five years (38). When physicians and other health care workers prescribe weight loss for their patients what they are in fact doing is prescribing weight cycling, or yo-yo dieting. Ironically, there is little debate that such weight cycling is incredibly unhealthy.
As an alternative to this line of 'treatment' some within the fat liberation movement have argued for "health at every size," which is the subject of Burgard's contribution (41-53). This movement attempts to promote health through (1) accepting weight diversity, (2) eating well and taking pleasure in one's eating, (3) encouraging enjoyable physical activities appropriate for one's weight, age, and preferences, and (4) ending weight bias.
The Fat Studies Reader contains two Parts addressing the issue of Western Society's attitudes toward fat: (1) "Fatness as Social Inequality" (113-222), and (2) "Size-ism in Popular Culture and Literature" (223-298). Contained here are articles on such diverse topics as bullying fat children, stigmatizing school weight loss programs in Singapore, airplane and classroom seat sizes, and the fat body in Hollywood films and literature. These articles do an excellent job of demonstrating why weight acceptance is so incredibly difficult in our society given its obsession with thinness and its abhorrence of fat. How to deal with these attitudes is dealt with first in a section on "Embodying and Embracing Fatness" (299-326), which contains articles on fat burlesque and fat fitness, and finally, a concluding section on "Starting the Revolution" (327-340), a call to arms of sorts for fat political activism.
Despite many positive features, The Fat Studies Reader is not without fault. I found it repetitive at times and hence in need of some article pruning, particularly in Parts II and III. Oddly, Parts IV and V were far too brief. Surely, there is much more to say about fat people coming to accept their bodies than a discussion of fat burlesque and fat aerobics. And the last section on political activism contains only two articles and one of those, from fat activist Charlotte Cooper, is actually a critique of the movement – and its focus on America at the expense of fat issues in the rest of the world -- rather than about fat activism per se. Actually, Cooper's article points to another weakness in the book. Although the field of fat studies is in its infancy, an anthology containing 40 essays surely could have found room for more than one self-reflective and critical article. As an example of an issue that stands in need of being addressed is the apparent disconnect between what one might call the 'fat and fit' and 'fat and proud' aspects of the movement. The former relies heavily upon a rather straightforward acceptance of positivist science, albeit in the discrediting of many of the claims made by the weight loss industry about the health dangers of fat and the possibility of sustained weight loss. Consider, e.g., Gaesser's work here. The fat and proud, or fat acceptance side of the movement, however, tends to be radically anti-positivist and accepts a thoroughly post-modern and deconstructionist framework. Kathleen LeBesco's "anti-essentialism" approach is representative of this. This is not to say that this disconnect represents an intractable problem for the fat studies movement, but it is an issue that needs to be considered.
Having said this, I heartily recommend this book. It is, so far as I know, the first book of its kind on fat studies and hence represents essential reading for those who want to know what fat studies is all about as well as for those who have working in some component of the field but want a collection that deals with a vast variety of issues and places the movement in a wider context.
© 2010 Robert Scott Stewart
Robert Scott Stewart, Ph.D., Professor of Philosophy, Cape Breton University, Sydney, NS, Canada