Valuing Fatness

Valuing Fatness

A Fat Studies scholarship reading list, because it matters for fat people to be the ones writing about fatness.

Rachel Fox
no. 6, The Fat Issue
Spring 2022

“Articles that try to correct people’s preconceived notions about ob*sity do not start with these assertions. But then again, articles like these are not usually written by fat people and are almost never written by fat Black people. Articles like these are not usually written by anyone with any real skin in the game. But mine is. I’m in the thick of this. In writing this to you, I am fighting for my life.” — Marquisele Mercedes, No Health, No Care

The stakes of writing about fatness are high. The more doctors, public health officials, and policymakers write about the threat of the “obesity epidemic,” the narrower our lives become, both literally and figuratively. The problem is, of course, that fatness and fat people can’t be separated, so all writing about fatness is about us, actual fat people, whose lives are profoundly shaped by this writing. The more totalizing the rhetoric, the more fat oppression seems justified; the more powerful the argument that we do not deserve accommodation or comfort, the harder it is to imagine a world where fat people get to live in peace. It matters for fat people to be the ones writing about fatness. It’s a fight for our lives.

The fancy academic term for the study of who gets to speak authoritatively about what is “epistemology.” Epistemology is often invisible; there are some kinds of knowledge that seem “right,” “objective,” or “true,” (like science and numbers) and other kinds that seem “biased” or “subjective” (like memoirs or blog posts). Fat studies scholars and fat activists make the implicit epistemology of fat knowledge visible, challenging the idea that the best knowledge about fatness comes from “obesity experts” rather than fat people ourselves. We argue that the best knowledge about fatness — the kind most likely to help us build networks of care and kinship, explore new possibilities for fat life, and break down the enormous forces of fat oppression — comes from fat people writing for other fat people.

Nearly every piece on this list comes from a fat author who values fat people. As you read, you’ll see that valuing fat people opens up vast and thrilling possibilities for new kinds of thought, leading to rigorous, innovative scholarship.

Fat studies is held together by a common commitment, but it’s also far-reaching and diverse. The list below cannot and should not be considered a comprehensive overview of the phenomenal scholarship in this field. Instead, I’m offering some points of salience within this broad network, meant as a warm invitation for you, reader, to throw yourself into a new and wondrous world.

If you’re new to this area of inquiry, start with the top five — these are books that are both brilliant and accessible, any one of which will start you down a good path. For more in-depth recommendations, including scholarly works, explore the other topics:

Five Great Books for People New to Fat Studies

General Overviews

Edited volumes are a great way to introduce yourself to a field. The introductions often provide brief but comprehensive overviews while the chapters offer mini-deep dives into a variety of topics. These three volumes were each written during a different era of fat studies scholarship:

Bodies Out of Bounds: Fatness and Transgression
ed. Jana Braziel & Kathleen LeBesco

This volume contains some of the earliest “formal” fat studies scholarship, meaning scholarship that explicitly focused on theorizing fatness from a non-obesity perspective. The field has grown exponentially since this book came out in 2001, but this collection remains a classic. Some of my favorite chapters include Joyce Huff’s “A ‘Horror of Corpulence’: Interrogating Bantingism and Mid-Nineteenth Century Fat-phobia,” about one of the earliest explicitly weight loss diets and Le’a Kent’s “Fighting Abjection: Representing Fat Women” for its excellent analysis of before-and-after images in media.

The Fat Studies Reader
ed. Esther Rothblum & Sandra Solovay

The Fat Studies Reader is where most people start their journey into the field, and for good reason! This award-winning 2009 anthology helped fat studies coalesce into what it is today. The foreword from Marilyn Wann highlights just how inseparable fat studies and fat activism are and the 40 (!!) chapters cover everything from public health to fiction, plane rides to fat suits, and beyond.

The Routledge International Handbook of Fat Studies
ed. Cat Pausé & Sonya Renee Taylor

Published last year, this handbook has an explicitly international focus and includes scholars and activists, reflecting the hybrid academic-activist character of fat studies. It covers a little bit of everything, including, “epistemology, ontology, and methodology of fatness, with attention to issues such as gender and sexuality, disability and embodiment, health, race, media, discrimination, and pedagogy.” I haven’t finished reading it yet but I already tell it will be an invaluable resource. (Note: thanks to the mechanics of academic publishing, this one is pricey.)

These are also great:

Fat Epistemology

Academia is overwhelmingly hostile to scholarship about fatness that does not conform to the “obesity epidemic” narrative. My primary recommendation explains, “fat people have turned to other media to produce counter-narratives to the dominant discourse around fatness. . . These media, such as zines, theatre, poetry, and Web 2.0 tools, have allowed fat people to share their truths — their stories — and build a collective knowledge that disrupts the production from science. They have built a fat epistemology.” Read books and articles, but don’t forget that other forms of fat creativity are valuable sources of expertise.

‘Nothing about us without us’: Fat people speak
Ratnadevi Manokaran, Cat Pausé, Mäks Roßmöller, & Tara Margrét Vilhjálmsdóttir

Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement
Charlotte Cooper

Check out the “Undoing” and “Doing” chapters in particular.

Ray of Light: Standpoint Theory, Fat Studies, and a New Fat Ethics
Cat Pausé

For a less academic read, check out Cat’s original essay on fat epistemology, now archived on the wayback machine.

Belly of the Beast: The Politics of Anti-Fatness as Anti-Blackness
Da’Shaun Harrison
Honestly, I could include this in every recommendation category.

Fatness and Media

Media has been a central focus of fat studies because of the power it holds to shape the world. Social media platforms both enable new forms of fat community and provide an easy way for trolls to harass fat people, often without repercussions. Traditional news media has stoked panic over the “obesity epidemic” and distributed inaccurate information about the relationship between weight and health, yet television is also a crucial site of positive fat representation. Some of my favorite pieces about the relationship between fatness and media are:

Headless Fatties
Charlotte Cooper

News media constantly present images of fat people from the neck down, often focused on our stomachs or backsides. This is dehumanizing and Cooper explains why.

No More Stitch-Ups! Developing Media Literacy Through Fat Activist Community Research
Charlotte Cooper

Journalists wield a lot of power to shape the narrative of the stories they publish, but they often feel the need to juxtapose fat people talking about fat oppression with “obesity experts” talking about how terrible fatness is. The “both sides” convention in journalism is meant to make news media seem neutral, but what it actually does it discredit fat people, who will always appear less authoritative than someone repeating a typical anti-obesity talking point. Cooper calls for an end to this kind of harmful and unethical “stitch-up.”

Fat People of Color: Emergent Intersectional Discourse Online
Apryl A. Williams
An analysis of the Fat People of Color Tumblr examining the intersections of fatness, race, and online resistance.

We’re kind of devolving’: Visual tropes of evolution in obesity discourse
Francis Wray White

Fat people are dehumanized through the visual representation that we are “reversing” evolution and making humanity “regress.”

Killer Fat: Media, Medicine, and Morals in the American Obesity Epidemic
Natalie Boero

Chapter 2 explores how mainstream media overwrite more nuanced information on the relationship between weight and health with the “common sense” that fatness must be bad.

What’s Wrong with Fat?
Abigail Saguy
(Note: Saguy is not fat, but this book is a good resource.) See chapter 4 for the history of how the media spread inaccurate and sensationalized statistics about fatness and mortality, then refused to spread the corrected data or admit wrongdoing.

Lessons from the Fat-o-sphere: Quit Dieting and Declare a Truce with Your Body
Kate Harding & Marianne Kirby
Part self-help, part archive of fatness online before 2010, all delight.

Fat people have also made our own media for decades! The National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA) has been releasing newsletters since the 1970s and the (now defunct but still available through the wayback machine) website Largesse has a collection of editorials published by fat activists in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. And the Fatties Against Fascism collective Fat Rose is currently digitizing hundreds of documents to make a Fat Zine Archive!

Know Your Fat History

Taking a historical view can mean investigating the history of fatness, or investigating the history of fat thought. Both face the same issue: many people don’t know (or don’t believe) that there is a historical element to either. A common narrative about fatness is that it is a distinctly modern “problem” resulting from an “obesogenic environment.” It’s not — fat people have been around as long as people have been around, and if you go looking, the evidence is there. Likewise, fat activism began decades ago, not with the online “body positivity” movement.

The erasure of these two histories is related: erase fat people historically and you can erase a history of racism and oppression on the basis of body size. Erase fat activism and you can do the same. The texts below are a welcome correction to this record and provide an overview of how long fat people have faced racialized oppression and fought back.

Belly of the Beast: The Politics of Anti-Fatness as Anti-Blackness
Da’Shaun Harrison

This book is a little bit of everything — theory, method, history, interview study, anti-self-help manifesto, and more. Chapter 5 in particular documents the intertwining histories of the US “war on drugs” and “war on obesity,” showing how both systematically exclude fat Black people from “health” and provide the eugenic justification for eliminationist public health policies.

Read excerpts from chapters 2 and 5
of Belly of the Beast.

Fat Shame: Stigma and the Fat Body in American Culture
Amy Erdman Farrell

Another account of the racialization and class dimensions of fat oppression, plus an excellent overview of the ways “scientific knowledge” has been built on non-consensual data extraction from fat people.

The Embodiment of Disobedience: Fat Black Women’s Unruly Political Bodies
Andrea Elizabeth Shaw

The many ways Black women’s bodies have been used and exploited across time and media, and how they have resisted this exploitation. Deeply researched and theorized.

Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia
Sabrina Strings

An extremely thorough history of the relationship between anti-fatness and anti-Blackness in Euro-American history. Strings is not fat but this book is too good to leave off the list.

And on the history of fat activism:

Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement
Charlotte Cooper

A thorough history of fat activism with meditations on fat epistemology as well.

Shadow on a Tightrope: Writings by Women on Fat Oppression
ed. Lisa Schoenfielder & Barb Wieser

A collection from some of the oldest fat activism in the US. The eloquence is breathtaking, but it can be disheartening to face the evidence that fat activists have been making the same critiques for 40 years.

Life In The Fat Underground
Sara Golda Bracha Fishman

Fatness and Medical Knowledge

“Obesity experts” and concern trolls weaponize health against fat people, while some branches of body positivity alienate disabled and chronically ill fat people by insisting that fat people can be healthy, and we should be exempted from medical discrimination for that reason. Fat activists label “obese” a slur because it has been used to dehumanize, us and our mentions teem with people arguing that it can’t be “because it’s a medical term.”

These conversations are exhausting, and repeat cyclically as new people discover fat activism, body positivity, or Health at Every Size principles. I would be remiss if I did not include some of the excellent scholarship on how fatness became “obesity” and “an epidemic.”

Fat Blame: How the War on Obesity Victimizes Women and Children
April Michelle Herndon
The “war on obesity” is a convenient way to disguise traditional forms of marginalization such as racism and sexism; targeting fatness means targeting people who are already oppressed by structural forces.

Weighing in: Obesity, Food Justice, and the Limits of Capitalism
Julie Guthman

See chapter 2 for a breakdown of how the BMI doesn’t measure obesity — it creates it.

Also great are:

Fat Subjectivities

Another goal of fat studies has been documenting what it’s like to be fat. Fat subjectivities, meaning the different ways fat people exist in relation to the world, are diverse and delightful. Fat stories are worth telling. Fat lives are worth documenting in the academic literature. As our corpus grows, so too do the possibilities of what we can do with it: invite new people into our communities, develop our collective political consciousness, show again and again the toll of anti-fatness, and revel in the expansiveness of fat futurities.

Neoliberal Bodies and the Gendered Fat Body
Hannele Harjunen

Neoliberal capitalism has deeply structured how we think about fatness, gender, and citizenship. Through neoliberalism, fat people are turned into “failed citizens” and reframed as “burdens on the national economy.

You Aren’t What You Wear: An Exploration Into Infinifat Identity Construction and Performance Through Fashion
Calla Evans

We often make ourselves through what we wear. What happens when those possibilities are limited? A sorely-needed exploration of people who plus size fashion still leaves out.

The Good Fatty Examined
Stacy Bias

Fat people often feel boxed into certain “roles” to prove our worth – “I may be fat but I’m healthy!” or “I’m not fat, I’m thick!” How can we account for what these roles enable and foreclose? How can we make sure we’re not leaving anyone behind?

The Dys-Appearing Fat Body: Bodily Intensities and Fatphobic Sociomaterialities When Flying While Fat
Bethan Evans, Stacy Bias & Rachel Colis
Flying while fat doesn’t have to suck as much as it does! Infrastructural choices create hostile spaces for fat people in transit.

Against progress: Understanding and resisting the temporality of transformational weight loss narratives
Rachel Fox

Before-and-after weight loss transformations can make it difficult or even impossible for fat people to cultivate ourselves as we are, in the present. Weight loss diets depend on us thinking “I’ll do that when I’ve lost [X] pounds!” It turns out this kind of thinking can bend the way we experience time, and it has a long history. Deeply inspired by Kate Harding’s phenomenal essay “The Fantasy of Being Thin.”

Also great:

None of us do this alone. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, lean on (or find!) your fat community. It’s incredibly difficult to hold your ground on valuing fatness in a hostile world that would prefer we sacrifice our joy, comfort, time, and energy just to be a little thinner. But fat studies and activism are practices, and we do them — we can sustain them — together.

Rachel Fox is a Ph.D. candidate in Communication, Science Studies, and Critical Gender Studies at UC San Diego.

Thanks to Barter Member Alexis Notabartolo for proofreading this piece.