The Next Big Thing? ‘Fat Studies’ Courses, Fat Awareness Groups Spread Across Universities

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Described as an “emerging academic field” that focuses on combating “weightism,” “fat stigma,” and the “weight based oppression” of fat people, “fat studies” courses are popping up on college campuses across the country.

Typically found in women and gender studies departments, fat studies courses don’t study obesity as a leading cause of death in America but rather approach fatness as a “social justice” issue, and usually focus on “fat liberation” movements and activism as ways to combat the “stigma” attached to obesity.

During the winter 2016 term (happening now), Oregon State University is offering a three-credit course simply titled “Fat Studies.” According to the university website, the course “Frames weight-based oppression as a social justice issue, exploring forms of activism used to counter weightism perpetuated throughout various societal institutions.”

Fat studies courses typically advocate against the position that obesity is unhealthy or undesirable, instead calling for understanding and acceptance. One such course offered by the University of Maryland College Park, singles out dieting as a “special enemy” that must be defeated. The syllabus for “Introduction To Fat Studies” states that the field of fat studies “is not concerned with the eradication of fatness, but with offering a sustained critique of anti-fat sentiment, discrimination, and policy.” Reading material for that course included reading something called the “Fat Liberation Manifesto.” Similarly, Willamette University offered a fat studies class this past fall titled “Fat!: The science, culture, and politics of weight.” According to the university website, the course “takes the perspective of the growing field of fat studies—an approach that asks us to suspend the dominant culture’s often reflexive and moralistic negative judgments about fat.” A PowerPoint presentation from the course consistently discourages weight loss and denies that being fat is unhealthy.

Over in Boston, Tufts University is offering a fat studies course this spring titled “Fatness: Body Politics in Modern America.” “Using theoretical lenses such as feminism, queer studies, and ethnicity studies, this course will explore social, cultural, and political considerations and constructions of fat bodies, and how lived experiences are mediated and informed by body size,” the course description reads.

Dickinson College, a private liberal arts school in Pennsylvania, is offering a fat studies course this winter that “introduces students to an emerging academic field, Fat Studies.” The course description claims that students taking the course “will examine the development of fat stigma and the ways it intersects with gendered, racial, ethnic and class constructions…students will become familiar with the wide range of activists whose work has challenged fat stigma and developed alternative models of health and beauty.”

It’s not just the university employees, either: students are joining the fight against “weightism” too. At the University of New Hampshire, for example, students formed a university organization titled “People Opposing Weightism (POW!).” The goal of the organization, according to the university website, “is to spread education, acceptance, and awareness of people of size. We will allow a safe space for people to talk about the issues related to weightism. We will create events that will help people to think about weightism and fatphobia.”

A tumblr page apparently belonging to the student group features dozens of pictures of clearly obese women, some of whom are only wearing lingerie or swimsuits; one picture shows an obese black woman standing in the middle of an intersection wearing nothing but a pair of white heels.The tumblr page includes a description of the group: “We are a new organization forming at the University of New Hampshire. We’re here to educate and spread awareness about weightism and empower fat people and people of size. Everyone deserves to love their bodies. #UNHFatAcceptance #POW_UNH.”

The UNH website actually advertises an internship position for People Opposing Weightism, with a job description that reads “Address issues related to weight bias, fatphobia and body-policing; size diversity; the promotion of the Health At Every Size (HAES) philosophy; and civil and human rights for people of all sizes.”

Follow Peter Hasson on Twitter @PeterJHasson