MAKING ROOM FOR FAT STUDIES IN WRITING CENTER THEORY & PRACTICE
Eric Steven Smith
Fat Studies is “an interdisciplinary field of scholarship marked by an aggressive, consistent, rigorous critique of the negative assumptions, stereotypes, and stigma placed on fat and the fat body” (Solovay and Rothblum 2). This field is growing rapidly and seems as important from an activist’s perspective as it is from a scholar’s. Organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Fat Acceptance (NAAFA) combine scholarship and activism to support fat people in all aspects of their lives, from living healthily to dealing with an anti-fat society. Scholarly texts like the Fat Studies journal and The Fat Studies Reader are working to promote awareness and solidify the place of fat studies in academia. Thus, fat people—people considered “overweight” or “obese” by societal standards1—have acquired some status as an affinity group: activists bound by ideology, shared social experiences and concern for civil rights. What’s more, the term “fat”—considered a mere descriptor and not an insult (Wann xii)—may be the latest label under the “diversity” umbrella. Fat Studies, then, should join the various identity fields rightly consulted for more informed writing center theory and practice.
Many readers may be surprised that consideration of fat students, teachers, and tutors should be an imperative, but fat discrimination has substantial effects on both its victims and perpetrators. Books like Paul Campos’ The Obesity Epidemic, Peter Stearns’ Fat History, and Amy Farrell’s Fat Shame are just a few of the texts that discuss the nature and rhetoric of fat stigmatization and the connection to other modes of discrimination. Scholars like Eleana Andrea Escalera, Ashley Hetrick, and Derek Attig discuss fat discrimination in education specifically. These works suggest that body size may deserve as much attention as race, gender, disability, and sexuality in writing centers. How administrators and tutors choose to incorporate Fat Studies must be a situational endeavor, but some consideration is necessary.
Like other minorities, fat bodies are in opposition to the traditional academic persona, which Patricia Bizzell has described as agonistic, skeptical, precise, European, and male (10-11). According to Hetrick and Attig, “thin” can be added to that list. Hetrick and Attig insist that thinness is a marker of middle-class whiteness, which “not only privileges the mind over the body, but also expects the former to rigidly restrain the latter as an ultimate, visible, and recurring testament of the invisible mind’s power” (200-201). To be fat, then, is to fail at the rigid discipline expected of the genuine academic persona. Fat students and educators are a quasi-minority, at the very least.
Because weight induces societal prejudices about character and ability, the fat experience should be considered in writing centers. One must take into consideration the distinct experiences a fat person may bring. Just as tutors may be trained to consider and understand the experiences of racial, gender, sexual, and disabled demographics, they could be trained to understand that inhabiting a fat body brings with it marginal points of view that could inform one’s acquisition of academia and academic discourse. Additionally, tutor trainers may do well to discuss how fat tutors themselves can be stigmatized: how do fat tutors deal with student perceptions of what it means to be fat? Fat Studies in the writing center, like anywhere else, must deal with society’s anti-fat bias and the decidedly pro-thin culture of academia.
As a writing center administrator, I hope to create awareness of Fat Studies and introduce the fat experience as a valuable subject position with its own ethos and critical standpoint. Like any other consideration of diversity in writing centers, fat students or tutors should not be essentialized. However, recognizing the value of the fat experience may be as valuable as recognizing that of other groups. Fat Studies is an issue of diversity, and diversity must be a priority in writing center theory and practice.
Fat as an Identity Group
Fat Studies, like other academic fields, was born through activism. The Fat Acceptance Movement began in 1969 as a form of activism directed toward social equality for fat people (Rothblum 3), especially women, who continue to dominate both academic and activist factions of the movement.² The field has since grown into concern for the legal and medical rights of people deemed “fat,” as well as the fair treatment of fat people by employers, proprietors, and society at large. Fat Studies deals with all these issues and is taken up by an eclectic set of scholars across the social sciences and humanities. Nevertheless, Fat Studies flies under the radar of academic recognition.
This almost negligible recognition of Fat Studies stems from a general opinion that fat people are not oppressed. In fact, fat people may suffer from “mystified oppression” (Fishman). Unlike race, gender, and sexuality, fat people are, in a sense, supposed to be stigmatized and marginalized, at least until they lose weight. Based on societal assumptions, fat people themselves are culpable for their fatness. An apparent lack of discipline, self-respect, and morality—perceived as causes of fat—justify stigmatization (Farrell, location 2821). That is, fat people are commonly believed to deserve their oppression. In addition, the health detriments associated with fatness give many the go-ahead to criticize and shame fat people in the name of “tough love”; if fat people feel shame for their bodies, they will lose weight and gain health (Fishman).
Despite society’s sense of entitlement when stigmatizing fat people, its reasons for doing so are not entirely valid. When we prejudge a person based on that person’s body, we are merely making assumptions. A person can exercise, eat well, and have a generally active life while maintaining a fat body (Bacon, location 367). Even correlations of fat to type-2 diabetes are questionable (Campos 22-23).³ Many even fail to realize that aesthetics are social constructions and that many people deem fat bodies attractive (Stearns 89-93).
We can gain more insight into the nature of weight discrimination by exploring the parallels between the stigmatization suffered by fat people and that suffered by the disabled. I must stress that I do not consider fat necessarily a “disability,” but I do acknowledge that others may behave toward fat bodies as they would bodies deemed “disabled” by the Americans with Disabilities Act, which considers a disability to include the following: (A) “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of such individual”; (B) “a record of such an impairment”; or (C) “being regarded as having such an impairment” (U.S. Department of Justice). Based on this definition, newly constructed in 2008, extremely tall people could be considered disabled in certain contexts. A 7’ ceiling would definitely impair a 7’1” person’s level of comfort. Yet, this person does not fit the common conceptions of “disabled.” Not only is fat—like tall—a floating signifier of sorts, but our constructed assumptions about fat bodies often do not match the reality of fat bodies.
Like the term “disabled,” “fat” is seen as a condition that impedes physical activities when it actually does not. For one, many fat people are “able-bodied” in that they can often out-perform their thinner counterparts: they are award winning dancers (e.g., Ragen Chastain), Olympic Athletes (e.g., Cheryl Haworth and Holly Mangold), and professional athletes (consider NFL linemen). So, one can see how Disability Studies could inform Fat Studies: one cannot judge the level of a body’s ability by sight alone.
Again, I am not suggesting that Fat Studies and Disability Studies are exactly the same. In fact, their differences may show that Fat Studies is more akin to studies in bigotry. A major difference between society’s view of disabled bodies and fat bodies is the conception that fat people are “to blame” for fat, which suggests that there is something inherently deviant about fat and the fat person’s character. Pattie Thomas, in Taking Up Space: How Eating Well and Exercising Regularly Changed My Life, writes that being fat is a potentially silencing effect, because, to many, a fat body is considered proof of incompetence, laziness, etc. This eradicates ethos, in general. Thomas speaks of fat adulthood: “It was no longer the occasional bully or routinely insensitive kid, it was colleagues and superiors showing a lack of respect for my work or utter shock when they discovered I could think and speak reasonably well” (location 500). The invisibility experienced by Thomas may be keener in the classroom, where classroom desks “make fat students visible in order to, eventually, make them invisible in a crowd of identically conforming bodies” (Hetrick and Attig 198).
More important for our purposes, however, are the effects of prejudice and stigma on fat students and tutors. Shame can be quite debilitating and can lead to stifling depression, which is inimical to creativity. Writing centers, if they are true to a democratic and equitable mission, will do well to make sure such debilitation can be adequately dealt with in tutorials and workshops for both tutors and students. Thus, the potentially debilitating shame can be transformed into something beneficial.⁴ Writing centers can help students and tutors effectively use their fat experiences to realize a critical and, perhaps, innovative standpoint when both writing and tutoring.
Fat, Writing, and Tutoring
All these considerations involve looking at writing centers through the lens of Fat Studies, but do we have a clear understanding of what it means to be a fat writer or tutor? Weight is just one of the dynamics that structure identity, but it garners little attention in writing center theory and practice.
Harry Denny, in “Queering the Writing Center,” lists several binaries that “overflow” in writing centers. Out of the 18 proposed binaries, none is fat/thin. (His concluding “et cetera,” however, suggests its possibility.) However, Denny’s use of queering and his ideas that students of all creeds may discursively “pass” and “come out” may be helpful. Of course, since “fat” is a relatively new identity group, a fat discourse is not as readily available.⁵ However, I argue that fat students are expected to “pass” as the traditional academic, who, as mentioned above, is likely thin. Thus, fat students have to ignore a significant aspect of their material existence, like queer students who are often expected to ignore an aspect of their sexual realities. How would a fat writer and tutor “come out” in a tutorial?
Expectedly, the answer may be found in collaboration and social construction. Both tutor and student writer, whether one or both is fat, can negotiate an ethos appropriate to a particular assignment. That is, having a fat body can be constructed into a particular standpoint that accentuates the power of critical thinking. In fact, feminist standpoint epistemology may lend some guidance. Besides Fat Studies’ predominantly female participation, feminist standpoint epistemology may provide an excellent bridge between Fat Studies and writing center theory and practice.
Feminist standpoint epistemology, according to Abigail Brooks, is a theory of knowledge construction that seeks to understand viewpoints of women and apply knowledge gleaned from that understanding to social change. This theory “requires the fusion of knowledge and practice. It is both a theory of knowledge building and a method of doing research—an approach to knowledge construction and a call to political action” (55). Appropriating this theory for our purposes is valuable because there is much innovative and critical potential in the idea of placing fat people “at the center of the research process,” having their “concrete experiences provide the starting point from which to build knowledge” (Brooks 56). By “concrete experiences,” Brooks suggests traditionally female lived experiences, from homemaking to working in a male-dominated industry. The “fat experience” may have its own concrete experiences, like relating to the physical environment, relating to mainstream values, and dealing with perceived negative characteristics.
Feminist standpoint epistemology’s relevance in the context of a writing center is to apply what is learned from concrete experiences to particular writing situations. Since students may not want to draw attention to their bodies, student writers and tutors can work together to focus on the marginal subject positions concomitant with fat experience. Brooks, referencing Kathryn Anderson and Dana Jack, calls this “the interactive approach,” an attempt “to talk about their daily activities with an interested party and [struggle] with how to put their thoughts and feelings about their daily activities into words” (57). So, a tutor can assist a student in focusing on a critical standpoint that can be lifted from the student’s own concrete experiences. Of course, this method is not new to writing center theory and practice, where collaboration and social construction are mainstays. What is different, however, is the nature of fat stigma in society. Unlike racism and sexism, fat stigmatization is not itself stigmatized. That is, where racist or sexist statements are frowned upon, if not completely ostracized, “fattist” statements are given significantly more leeway, and many fat people feel shame and guilt about their bodies instead of pride and defiance against an oppressive status quo. Social construction of a fat subject position, then, may have to be carefully co-constructed.
This co-construction can happen by asking students to focus on ways they are marginalized and use the inherently critical outlooks gleaned from that marginalization to address particular writing assignments. Brooks writes,
Some feminist standpoint scholars argue that women’s subordinate status in society, and their capacity for double consciousness that evolves from it, places them in a privileged position from which to generate knowledge about the world. This feminist standpoint concept, sometimes called ‘strong objectivity,’ teaches us that women are more capable of producing an accurate, comprehensive, and objective interpretation of social reality than men are. (66)
Fat students may have similar outlooks based on their subordinate statuses. A constructed fat discourse may consider these experiences and place them into writing in obvious or surreptitious ways. According to standpoint epistemology, there is power in marginalization. From concrete experiences and a DuBoisian “double consciousness” (seeing oneself through one’s own eyes as well as those of hegemony), fat people may have developed skills unknown to hegemonic subjects. Thus, a writer can “fatten” discourse by applying experiences and insights—overtly or covertly—derived from open discrimination, a move that may be inherently critical . . . and, thus, academic.
This is how a student may “come out” as a fat person in academic writing, but what of the fat tutor? Going back to Denny, a fat tutor can encourage standpoint epistemology through self-disclosure—not necessarily of fat experience, but of marginal experiences. Denny writes about how tutors may handle the risks felt by students who are either reluctant to talk about specific experiences or clueless about how to articulate them:
Such risk can be mitigated if tutors themselves engage in a sort of coming out, thereby fostering a transactional dialogue in which knowledge is shared and consumption and transmission of it is not one-sided. By narrativizing their own concurrent experiences with joining academic discourse communities, tutors help students demystify the process as well as make their own struggles less individual and isolating. (280)
Denny goes on to point out the risk the tutor takes in such disclosure. But, as mentioned before, such disclosure can be coded in a general discourse of marginalization, a standpoint epistemology that reflects experiences of blatant discrimination /stigmatization and the various ways such experiences can shape an approach to an assignment or text.
So, the fat experience, like other experiences, can be a source of power in academia: fat experiences can help shape and buttress a powerful academic subject position, even if (especially if) the traditional subject positions are criticized. Harold D. Lasswell, in Power and Personality, provides a simple but effective outline for creating personal power in specific contexts:
On Resources. (17)
The capitalized and italicized words are really variables in which we can plug in more specific terms. Lasswell describes scholarly values as promoting “Enlightenment,” which he defines as “the finding and spreading of knowledge” (17).⁶ So, for our purposes, we can specify Lasswell’s outline thusly:
A Student Writer
On Fat Standpoint Epistemology.
There is power in the fat experience.
Fat in the Writing Center
Since diversity is a common goal in most writing centers, challenges of inclusion are nothing new. Several texts exist on aspects of diversity, from race to sexuality. Studies have shown that those who harbor “strong anti-fat bias have also been found to express more racism (in an overarching tendency toward intolerance for deviation from the norm)” (Escalera 206). We can expect to see overlap in issues of racial discrimination and fat stigmatization, so educators concerned about fat acceptance may gather tips from work focused on other marginalized groups.
For clarity’s sake, I would like to first discuss the issue of fat students followed by that of fat tutors. Although I will speak of them separately, I want to point out what each has in common: they do not match the typical image of the successful college student or educator. This may affect the ways, or the comfort with which, students and tutors communicate their thoughts. As Jacquelyn Jones Royster writes, interpretations of traditional academic standpoints “embody ways of seeing, knowing, being, and acting” that “tend to have considerable consequence in the lives of the targeted group, people in this case whose own voices and perspectives remain still largely under considered and uncredited” (613-614). Fat is a marginalizing feature in our society, and with marginalization comes relative silencing. Writing centers must be spaces that guard against this.
One silencing tactic can be seen in the “physicality” of academia. Most desks are not comfortable for bigger bodies; some cannot accommodate fat students at all (Hetrick and Attig 198). Little is done about this in the classroom. Fortunately, writing centers often have space more conducive to fat bodies. Desks are replaced by tables, chairs, and even couches. Nevertheless, being denigrated as stupid, lazy, or undisciplined is unfortunate in any situation, but especially when walking into writing centers, a context already considered “remedial” (read: “deviant”) space by many. What’s more, writing centers, both materially and pedagogically, may be seen as weaker alternatives to classrooms, where rigor and disciplined conformity are valued (Hetrick and Attig 198). Writing Centers, already deemed “feminine” or “queer” spaces by scholars like Mary Trachsel⁷ and Harry Denny, respectively, may also be construed as “fat” spaces through the lens of Fat Studies.
Beyond having a body that could limit one’s “major life activities,” if fat people are even “being regarded” in ways that pathologize their bodies, perhaps tutors should be invited to explore the reasons and sources of such negative views. Writing Center tutors must be aware of these stereotypes to better avoid them. Most tutors know they are expected to harbor no preconceived notions based on race, sex, or gender (even if they actually do), but few realize the need to treat fat people similarly. During training, tutors can be made aware of the misconceptions about fat people by studying information like that found on the “Association for Size Diversity and Health” (ASDAH) or “Health at Every Size” (HAES) websites.
After discussing health/fat correlations, tutors can be invited to explore the term “overcome” in some aspect of their formal training. In Disability Studies, this term has become a bit of a four-letter word. As Margaret Price, in “Writing from Normal: Critical Thinking and Disability in the Writing Classroom,” writes,
Disability studies rejects the notion of ‘overcoming’ in relation to disability, arguing that this locates disabilities in individuals who are then charged with ‘overcoming’ their disabilities in order to avoid being treated as tragic less-than-humans. (69)
Tutors who refuse to stigmatize fat people may think that pity and sympathy are steps in the right direction, but this assumes that fat is something to be overcome. Tutor trainers can invite tutors to normalize fat bodies and see weight as something not to be overcome, but as another aspect of diversity and a source of innovative thought.
Lastly, an exploration of embodiment may be helpful. Amy Lee, in Composing Critical Pedagogies: Teaching Writing as Revision, suggests, like Escalera, that students (in our case, tutors in training) be given chances to write about the actual physicality of learning environments: their bodies and the positions of their bodies in academic contexts. Whereas Escalara suggests “anonymous five-minute reaction papers” about body perceptions (207), Lee recommends that “we need more discussions that represent and take into account the range of subjects and subjectivities that populate any actual site of writing instruction” (55). Lee reminds her students of this by reconfiguring desks in her classroom throughout the semester and asking students to discuss reactions to each configuration. For instance, what does sitting in a circle “allow for or encourage? How does it affect [the student’s] position in the classroom in relation to [the instructor], to one another and to the subject/object of study” (55)? This is to say that the fat body is only fat in relation to thin bodies and vice versa; we would do well to interrogate the experiences of each. No one need “come out” as a fat or skinny person in this experiment; I believe affect is key. That is, students should explore their initial feelings in response to these questions and inductively apply these to broader aspects of their lives. This exercise may assist tutors in considering the effects of body type in any context, including writing centers.
Fat tutors must also have some training on ways to deal with stigmatization from students. Research shows that students admire and positively evaluate thinner educators. (I include tutors under the general category of “educator.”) In “Stigma Threat and the Fat Professor: Reducing Student Prejudice in the Classroom,” Escalera writes that an educator’s fatness can derail learning because “stigma threat” can “cause people who perceive a stigmatized person to feel anxious and threatened” (206). What’s more, “attractiveness makes a person more persuasive . . . so if fat is seen as an unattractive trait, this could work against the fat professor as communicator” (207). Where do we go from here?
Again, awareness is important; education about fat and fat people would be beneficial. As Judith Kilborn suggests in “Cultural Diversity in the Writing Center: Defining Ourselves and our Challenges,” having the Writing Center sponsor or even perform diversity-centered events will show the campus community that the writing center is a space open and (hopefully) conducive to particular groups. Workshops featuring the kind of information provided by NAAFA, HAES, and ASDAH, followed by discussion, may be ideal.
As writing center directors and tutors, we must help student writers find their own voices and transcribe them adequately and appropriately for academia. We are told time and again that stereotypical views of student writers and tutors are anathema, and we are also told that ignoring the influence societal status may have on writing is antithetical to good tutoring. Good tutoring, in theory, can be found at the nexus of these two imperatives. However, one does not think of fat people when considering these best practices, even though two-thirds of the United States population can be considered “overweight” or “obese” (Farrell, location 267). As the field of Fat Studies gets larger, writing center directors would do well to inform tutors—as potential perpetrators and victims—about the field’s purpose and relevance to writing center theory and practice.
1. Who is fat? I define a fat person as someone who is deemed “overweight” by societal standards, regardless of whether he or she self-identifies as fat. Of course, one’s status as overweight is contextual. Activist Marilyn Wann writes, “Fat functions as a floating signifier, attaching to individuals based on a power relationship, not a physical measurement. People all along the weight spectrum may experience fat oppression” (xv). However, the aforementioned societal standard is based on notions of obesity based on popular norms. Disregarding measurement systems like the Body Mass Index, which has various problems with accuracy, I leave the definition of fat to one’s own discretion: my point is not to define fat but to discuss the implications of being deemed fat in our society, in general, and in writing centers, specifically.
2. From its inception, the Fat Acceptance Movement has been a predominately female crusade. It has roots in second-wave feminism, but, like other sub-groups within feminism, has become an aspect of a non-mainstream or third-wave feminism, a movement that
advocates working with the particular differences that constitute women’s positions at the local level, inviting the expression of hybrid identities, while developing strategies for working productively across differences based on a coalitional politics of affinity rather than equivalence. (Budgeon 5)
Fat, like sexuality, race, and socio-economic status, provides a marginalized perspective unacknowledged, if not unaccepted, in second wave feminism. Thus, Fat Studies is marginal on different levels: originally marginalized fields like feminism have marginalized it. Its recognition as a field, and fat people’s recognition as an affinity group, is minimal.
3. Several sources explain how the correlations between fat and disease are questionable and based more on assumption than science. The texts by Bacon and Campos deal with this succinctly, but texts on size acceptance and activism most certainly address this.
4. Elspeth Probyn, in Blush: Faces of Shame, insists that shame can be a benefit. Taking her cue from psychologist Sylvan Tomkins, Probyn writes that “shame alerts us to things, people and ideas we didn’t even realize we wanted” (14). Often, a tutor’s job is to help students realize their interests in specific topics. Marginalized statuses, and the possible moments of shame produced by hegemonic acts of oppression, could be a fecund source of such realizations. Probyn continues, “[Shame] highlights unknown or unappreciated investments. Viewing shame in this way must disabuse us of shame’s reputation as a miserabilist condition . . . [Shame] is always productive” (14-15).
5. In this essay, I do not wish to hybridize a fat discourse with academic discourse in the ways Bizzell hybridizes alternative cultural discourses with traditional modes of academic writing, although such an endeavor is worth exploring.
6. This term is not to be confused with the period of Enlightenment and its paradigms of rationalism and objective thought. Although not completely divorced from the principles of “The Age of Reason,” Lasswell’s use of the “Enlightenment” is closer to its original meaning: realization and self-actualization.
7. Trachsel explores the place of women in academia and concludes that writing centers may be feminized spaces.
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