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Fat studies: Get a degree, not a diet

Ask Sheana Director for a detailed description of herself, and chances are the word "fat" will come up. It is not uttered with shame or ire or any sense of embarrassment; it's simply one of the things she is, fat.

"Why should I be ashamed?" said Director, 22, a graduate student in women's studies at San Diego State University, who wields the word with both defiance and pride, the way the gay community uses queer. "I'm fat. So what?"

During her sophomore year at Smith College, Director attended a discussion on fat discrimination: the way the supersized are marginalized, the way excessive girth is seen as a moral failing rather than the result of complicated factors. But the academic community, she felt, didn't really give the topic proper consideration. She decided to do something about it.

In December 2004, she co-founded an organization called Size Matters, whose goal was to promote size acceptance and positive body image. In April, the group sponsored a conference called Fat and the Academy, a three-day event at Smith of panel discussions and performances by academics, researchers, activists and artists. Nearly 150 people attended.

Even as science, medicine and government are targeting 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 America 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. "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.

Professors in sociology, exercise physiology, history, English and law are shoehorning discussions of fat into their teachings and research.

At the New College of California School of Law, Sondra Solovay, a diversity lawyer and author of Tipping the Scales of Justice, talks about weightism in her torts classes.

Out of the classroom, students on at least a dozen campuses are organizing groups focusing on fat politics and acceptance.

Nearly 120 people, including many academics, belong to a fat studies Listserv e-mail group on Yahoo, which was started in 2004 by activist Marilyn Wann, the author of Fat!So?

Studying or venting?

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.

"The academic world, like the American government, has a system of checks and balances that makes change very slow to happen," she said.

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 said. "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."