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Emerging 'fat studies' conference challenges supersize stereotypes

Monday, July 16, 2012
By Neil Sands, AFP


WELLINGTON -- Cat Pause proudly describes herself as “fat,” can live with euphemisms like “curvy,” “chunky” or “chubby,” but baulks at what she believes are value-laden labels such as “overweight” or “obese.”

The U.S.-born academic is a pioneer in the emerging field of fat studies, organizing New Zealand's first conference on the topic at Massey University's Wellington campus on Thursday and Friday.

Fat studies, she explains, is an academic discipline just like history, English or political science, but it examines attitudes toward fat people and challenges the assumption that anyone with a bulging waistline is unhealthy.

At the conference, scholars from as far afield as the United States and Australia discussed papers such as “Fat hatred and the Left in the time of 'the obesity epidemic'” and “The role of diagnosis in marginalizing corpulence.”

“One of the reasons we're so fearful and hateful of fat is that we believe we can read people's bodies,” Pause told AFP.

“So when people look at a fat body like mine, it tells them I'm unhealthy and that this is a diseased body. It tells them I don't ever exercise and eat nothing but junk.”

Pause said the reality is that some people are just bigger than others and fat studies highlighted the need for society to accept the fact, rather than constantly judging fat people and pushing them to lose weight.

One of its first tasks, she said, was to reclaim the word “fat” so it was not used solely as an insult, in much the same way the gay community adopted the term “queer.”

People now call themselves fat activists and speak of fat pride, refusing to accept what they say is pressure from the multi-billion weight loss industry to strive for a skinny ideal.

This explains Pause's aversion to “overweight,” which she says implies she is above her perfect weight. She says she has not weighed herself for years and last time she did she tipped the scales at about 130 kilograms (237 pounds).

Similarly, she says “obesity” is a term “used by the medical community to pathologize fat bodies, making it a disease.”

'Exploiting insecurities'

Massey University lecturer Andrew Dickson said the weight-loss industry was built around exploiting the insecurities of fat people.

“We know 95 percent of people who attempt to lose weight will fail to do so, therefore, there is not a weight-loss industry, what they do is sell solutions to weight anxiety,” he said.

“We're getting this horrible, obsessive anxiety about weight issues.”

Dickson himself said he had never been as stressed as when he reduced his weight from 130 kilograms to 86, obsessively completing endurance runs, dieting constantly and taking prescription medicines to slim down.

Now weighing 100 kilograms, Dickson says he is healthy even though conventional weight charts would classify him as obese, still running about 60 kilometers (37 miles) a week and referring to himself as “the fat athlete.”

“I don't do them fast and I'm never going to win ... (but) it's not all about looking like Usain Bolt,” he said.

Critics say asserting that obesity is not necessarily a major health problem flies in the face of medical evidence about diseases such as diabetes and other issues, a claim disputed by fat activists.

“It's not just how much you weigh for your height, it's where it (fat) is in the liver, pancreas, and places that you can't see,” Auckland University of Technology nutritionist Elaine Rush told TVNZ this week.

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