by Mikalina Kirkpatrick
I am a Women, Gender, and Sexualities Studies (WGSS) major at Portland State University in Oregon. I concluded my junior year with a 2016 Spring term of Fat Studies immersion. I was the teaching assistant for an online class called Gender and Body Image and I took an online senior capstone class called Embracing Size Diversity. I then decided to round out the term with a last-minute eight hour bus ride to Vancouver, BC to attend the fourth annual International Weight Stigma Conference.
After a lifetime of fat phobic schooling, this was 10 weeks of incredible, unusual, validating, and empowering education. If education has the potential to reshape the world, it’s really exciting to think about the next generation of gym teachers, nurses, teachers and others who work with kids going through this kind of educational experience.
The Way It Usually Is
Classrooms are important settings where people’s experiences can either be validated or denied. Those of us in the Social Sciences know this well. So many teachers and classes from kindergarten to college follow established curricula that reinforce the dominant paradigm. It takes a brave teacher, and maybe even a brave institution, to challenge the lessons that laud Christopher Columbus as a hero and promote thinness as the ideal standard of beauty and health.
One of the best things about taking a Fat Studies class was getting to have so much of my experience legitimized. For those of us who have grown up in a fat phobic society, a fair amount of our life experience is defined by our fatness. We have felt shamed, ostracized, and othered. We’ve been the butt of jokes on TV and in our own homes. We’ve been desexualized and dehumanized. We’ve been bullied in school by classmates as well as fat-hostile educators and curricula. I remember the panic and shame that burned in me when my teacher announced that we were going to calculate our BMIs in health class. I thought everyone was staring at me when he talked about the health dangers of fatness when we covered human anatomy. In every classroom setting where I was told my body was wrong, that I was wrong, I wanted to disappear over and over again.
A Different Set of Readings
In our Embracing Size Diversity class, we read a lot of great material. We kicked it off with The Fat Studies Reader chapter, “What is “Health at Every Size?” by Deb Burgard, the “Hunger” chapter from The Beauty Myth, Fikkan and Rothblum’s article, “Is Fat a Feminist Issue?” and Biltekoff’’s article, “The Terror Within: Obesity in Post 9/11 U.S. Life.“
But the reading that really got me was chapter three from Sondra Solovay’s Tipping the Scales of Justice, “But Names will Never Hurt Me: Growing Up Fat.” In this chapter, Solovay discusses several factors that lead to fat kids experiencing stigmatization and objectification. In short, it’s a reading about the many ways in which it’s really painful and hard to be a fat kid in American society. Parents policing eating habits, sneaking food when parents restrict, feeling shame about being seen eating and moving, all the internalized self-hatred that comes from living in a fat phobic society—and it starts when we are still kids! It felt so amazing to read these pages in an academic setting, for the wisdom of Health At Every Size® (HAES) to be shared by an institution of higher learning, to have my own lived experience finally validated.
I was one of two people in the class who were “out” as fat. As an online class, we had a lot of agency about how much of our identity we shared. We could choose to have a picture of ourselves or not and we could choose to talk about our own personal experiences as they relate to the readings or not. In our introductory post we introduced ourselves, identified our majors, and articulated why we enrolled in the class. I noticed that a lot of the folks in my class were Health Studies majors. These are future gym teachers, health teachers, physical therapists, and community health workers. Exactly the people we want to be entering the workforce already knowing about the power of HAES to change lives for the better. Our class had the opportunity to work with the Association for Size Diversity and Health (ASDAH) by making an infographic for the organization for our final project. The project was great exposure to the organization and its resources for many folks who had never heard of HAES before this class started.
Watching from the Other Side
My teaching assistant duties for Gender and Body Image, a class taught through WGSS, included overseeing and participating in the online discussion forums. It was so beautiful to see young women and men begin to grasp how the ideal thin body type is manufactured by our capitalist society. It took time, but exposure to materials such as Body Respect by Bacon and Aphramor, the film Killing Us Softly 4, and the “Body Politics” section of WearYourVoice.com led to a number of students talking excitedly about reclaiming their relationships with their bodies, feeling liberated from mainstream expectations of beauty, and embracing themselves as they are. People openly admitted that this class changed their lives and that they were passing on the materials to their friends and family members. It was thrilling!
The Time is Ripe for Fat Studies
These classes serve as both damage control and as a roadmap for a way forward. Both classes provide a place of education and healing from the dominant paradigm that tells us that our bodies must conform to a narrow standard to be worthy. They help us understand how we are being sold solutions to problems that are created by advertising agencies. They illustrate how fat discrimination mirrors and reinforces other forms of prejudice and discrimination in our society. They spell out how we’re not being told the whole, or even the real, story when we tune into the mainstream media’s messages of health, wellbeing, beauty, or the value of a human being.
The time is ripe for cross-disciplinary Fat Studies classes in undergraduate education. Let people who are interested in feminism, social justice, health sciences, and activism come together in classrooms to learn about a different way of being. Future gym teachers, nurses, parents, and public health workers who are savvy to the message of HAES can save a next generation of fat kids from the shame and humiliation so many of us have had to endure.
Editor’s Note: As the author calls for more Fat Studies education, one resource for instructors interested in teaching this material is The Fat Pedagogy Reader. In addition, a special issue of Fat Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Body, Weight, and Societyon Fat Pedagogy is due out next year.
Mikalina Kirkpatrick is a fat, white, queer, married, middle class woman. She is a writer and a student in the Portland State University Women, Gender, and Sexualities Studies Program. She lives in Portland, Oregon. She blogs at https://mikalinamikalina.com/.