Sunday, November 26, 2006

Coming to a university near you: Fat Studies.

Edumacation: Via NYTIMES and Althouse. Someday every quirk, grievance and behavioral trait known will have some sort of study devoted to it to make it alright.

Even as science, medicine and government have defined obesity as a threat to the nation’s health and treasury, fat studies is emerging as a new interdisciplinary area of study on campuses across the country and is gaining interest in Australia and Britain. Nestled within the humanities and social sciences fields, fat studies explores the social and political consequences of being fat. For most scholars of fat, though, it is not an objective pursuit. Proponents of fat studies see it as the sister subject — and it is most often women promoting the study, many of whom are lesbian activists — to women’s studies, queer studies, disability studies and ethnic studies. In many of its permutations, then, it is the study of a people its supporters believe are victims of prejudice, stereotypes and oppression by mainstream society. “It’s about a dominant culture’s ideals of what a real person should be,” said Stefanie Snider, 29, a graduate student at the University of Southern California, whose dissertation will be on the intersection of queer and fat identities in the United States in the 20th century. “And whether that has to do with skin color or heritage or sexual orientation or ability, it ends up being similar in a lot of ways.” Fat studies is still a fringe area of scholarship, but it is gaining traction. Three years ago, the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association, which promotes scholarly research of popular culture, added a fat studies component to regional and national conferences.
As with every subject designed to make a person into a victim, it is linked to the civil rights movement in someway.
As with most academic disciplines that chronicle the plight of the disenfranchised, fat studies grew out of political activism over body size. In 1973, a group of women formed the Fat Underground, a faction of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, which was founded four years earlier. In 1983, they published “Shadow on a Tightrope,” a collection of essays, articles and memoirs on fat liberation that’s viewed as the seminal work in this field. It has taken a few decades for the subject to shift from public finger-wagging by fat advocates to study in the classroom. Susan Koppelman, a retired professor of women’s studies and editor of “The Strange History of Suzanne LaFleshe,” a collection of essays on body politics, likened it to the other social and political movements of the last century that gained credence on college campuses. “How far back does the black civil rights movement go in America before we have a field called African-American studies?” Ms. Koppelman said. “The academic world, like the American government, has a system of checks and balances that makes change very slow to happen.” Others argue, though, that a movement does not make a scholarly pursuit and that this is simply a way to institutionalize victimhood. “In one field after another, passion and venting have come to define the nature of what academics do,” said Stephen H. Balch, president of the National Association of Scholars, a group of university professors and academics who have a more traditional view of higher education. “Ethnic studies, women’s studies, queer studies — they’re all about vindicating the grievances of some particular group. That’s not what the academy should be about. “Obviously in the classroom you can look at issues of right and wrong and justice and injustice,” he added, “But if the purpose is to vindicate fatness, to make fatness seem better in the eyes of society, then that purpose begs a fundamental intellectual question.” Or as Big Arm Woman, a blogger, wrote: “I don’t care if people are fat or thin. I do, however, care that universities are spending money on scholarship about the ‘politics of fatness’ when half of the freshman class can’t read or write at the college level.”
In the end, its all about "dues"
Whether activism is an appropriate goal for academia is a controversial notion. Joseph B. Juhasz, a social psychologist who teaches at the University of Colorado, said the possibilities are endless. “Certainly we have not reached a point where we can do away with queer studies or race studies or women’s studies,” Professor Juhasz said. “But where do you draw the line? Is there going to be a department of man-boy-love studies? Do we need polygamy studies? At which point do you say, enough already?” Elena Escalera, an assistant professor of psychology at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, Calif., vehemently disagrees with the idea that fat studies perpetuates a victim’s mentality. “This is not about victimhood, but about becoming empowered,” she said. “Did Martin Luther King and Malcolm X espouse victimhood? Did Susan B. Anthony? It’s really easy for people to feel that fat people are trying to find an excuse.” Fat scholars believe they are serving justice and many hope that one day fat studies will be as ubiquitous on campus as Shakespeare. Professor Bucholz said he sees the attention on “groups that have been ignored” as crucial to improving their lot. “There’s an element of trying to right the balance,” he said. “It’s time for the fat to receive their due.”
There is no doubt that being fat leads to health problems, this movement to push your weakness as a strength that society is being too mean about is ridiculous.

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