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Pedagogy Matters: Addressing Size Diversity through Critical Education

by Erin Cameron, Ph.D.

How do we learn to live well in the world? This question has intrigued me for many years now; it is why I pursued a Bachelor of Education and eventually a Ph.D. in Education. Over the last four years, my work has focused specifically on developing teaching/learning strategies that promote size diversity and acceptance.  What I have learned most through this work is that how I teach is just as important as what I teach, if not sometimes more. In other words, the content alone doesn’t teach, but it’s also how I deliver the content that significantly influences the learning experience.

Pedagogy refers to the science and art of teaching, where learning theories serve as tools for educators in order to create valuable learning experiences. When I first started teaching about size diversity I was a passionate educator wanting to change student’s knowledge and assumptions about weight and health. What I quickly found out is that my passion was met with strong, sometimes overt, resistance from students and learners. I have had to unlearn much of how I was taught to teach and to explore new strategies. In the following paragraphs, I will endeavor to share what I have learned through this work.

For my PhD research, I explored how 26 faculty from 5 countries in both the sciences and social sciences were challenging dominant obesity discourses and addressing size diversity in the classroom. I was interested in exploring the pedagogies of well-known scholars in the field. What I learned through this research is that addressing size diversity is both a personal and professional journey. This clearly stood out in the four main themes to emerge from the research.

The first theme focused on “Bodies that teach”. Participants spoke about how teaching about size diversity put their own bodies and the bodies of others under the microscope. They spoke about how educational settings are entrenched with size privilege and that doing education around size diversity forces one to either “out” as fat or as having thin privilege. For instance, one participant remarked, “People can see that I’m fat. I’m not slightly fat. I could just say this is the research and it’s not anything on my experience, but I would be lying. If I were a thin person, maybe I could pull that off.”

The second theme focused on “Why I teach”.  Participants talked about how they felt drawn to teaching about weight bias because of personal and/or political reasons. Overwhelmingly, participants spoke about encountering resistance within the Academy but that due to the growing community of scholars in fields such as critical obesity scholarship and fat studies, that they felt that there was a shift happening that they felt inspired to be a part of. For example, one participant suggested that while other social justice issues have become more common in higher education, sizism is so new and provocative that it immediately challenges students to think differently. “I think, just in terms of where we are in history about talking about this topic, just raising it, it’s like shooting fish in a barrel now. Just raising it and talking about it is to teach them something. Nobody’s ever talked to them this way before. It might be like teaching LGBTQ studies twenty or thirty years ago or something like that.”

The third theme focused on the “What I teach”. Participants talked about the limited teaching resources related to weight bias and so many of them shared the diverse topics, resources, assignments, and activities they have found useful in teaching that challenges dominant obesity discourses. This work has been published in the Fat Studies Journal and offers some practical resources for teachers and educators.

The last theme focused on “How I teach”, what others and I are now calling “fat pedagogy”. Here participants spoke more broadly about how they approached teaching about weight bias and the type of pedagogy they used to engage students in learning about weight bias. This work has also been published in the Fat Studies Journal. In exploring this idea of fat pedagogy, four major things became clear.

1) First, how we frame the experience is critical. In other words, recognizing one’s context and intentionally creating an atmosphere of body-inclusivity is huge in the field of weight bias. This can be challenging, as one participant articulated, “I want it to be a place where we can talk and think and not be afraid to ask a question, but at the same time, not be offensive, yeah, not be offensive and sometimes that can get tricky too.”

2) Second, we need to layer the information, which in educational literature is something we refer to as scaffolding. We need to gauge what our audience already knows and build upon that knowledge, slowly increasing complexity of topics and analysis.

3) Third, we need to connect people to new ways of knowing. We need to engage different theories and perspectives of weight that allows them to access new ideas. For example, one participant articulated this well, describing how she used four different ways in which obesity can be presented: as a medical problem, as a food environment problem, as a moral problem, or, consistent with the fat acceptance movement, as not a problem at all.

4) Lastly, we need to teach content that draws attention to how language, history, and power are used in the construction of weight-based oppression.  As one participant explained, “The whole class is about kind of challenging and having them think a little bit more critically, about what is health in general, but more than just how much someone weighs and whether they exercise or eat well, and we talk a lot about what are the social determinants of health. So access to food, being able to live in safe housing and a safe neighbourhood, all of those elements…We talk about and I critique the idea of healthism and health discourses. I draw attention to how we read bodies and assign moral values to bodies often by their shape and size.”

Many of these pedagogical approaches are not, in fact, new to anyone with knowledge of educational theory and practice. They echo what has already been articulated in constructivist and student-centered approaches to education. However, what is new is that education and educational research could help to inform weight bias research. Like gender, race, and class, weight acts as another mark of difference that is being used to reinforce devaluation, status loss, and social marginalization; the very things that define stigma.

pedagogy reader

I recently co-edited a book, The Fat Pedagogy Reader: Challenging Weight-Based Oppression through Critical Education, which brings together 34 international authors who, over 26 chapters, explore pedagogical strategies that address weight bias. Leading scholars in critical education, such as Richard Kahn, suggest this book helps expose how weight is being used as a site of oppression. The book highlights the need for more stories, evidence-based practices, and new ideas for the future.

The book ends with a call to researchers and practitioners alike to consider the core elements of an emerging pedagogy to reduce weight bias. This manifesto is summarized, in part, here:

  • Weight-based oppression affects us all
  • Starts with our lived experiences of oppression and privilege
  • Makes weight-based oppression visible in all its complexity
  • Is grounded in research and scholarship that is multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary
  • Understands no “one size fits all” approach – context matters
  • Starts where people are and then helps them build skills so that they can acquire a critical consciousness
  • Recognizes unlearning weight bias is an ongoing process

The book provides more detail and outlines all the aspects that should be considered in an emerging pedagogy. Perhaps this can be the focus of another blog. In the meantime, I’d like to conclude with two key messages.

  1. Firstly, pedagogy matters. Whether we are doing a presentation to healthcare professionals or working one-on-one with patients. How we approach the situation matters.
  2. Secondly, information alone, is not enough to address weight bias. In education we use the saying “Tell me and I’ll forget. Show me and I’ll remember. Involve me and I will understand.”

Erin Cameron is an Assistant Professor in the School of Human Kinetics and Recreation at Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada. As a retired professional athlete and public speaker on health and wellness, her research interests are interdisciplinary and span across the fields of sport development, health and physical education, health promotion, and critical pedagogy. Erin’s most recent research examines strategies to reduce weight bias and discrimination in diverse settings such as education and healthcare. She recently co-edited the Fat Pedagogy Reader (Peter Lang, 2015) and is involved in local, national, and international efforts to reduce weight bias. Through her research, Erin endeavors to create safe spaces for everybody, regardless of weight, shape, and size, to pursue active and healthy lives.

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