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Meet the two professors leading the way in ‘fat studies’

Seeking to elevate ‘fat scholars and activists’

Two professors at a midwestern university are working to develop and legitimize the field of “fat studies,” a discipline that examines the cultural and sociological phenomenon of overweight and obese human beings.

Laurie Cooper Stoll, a professor of sociology, and Darci Thoune, an associate professor of English, are both leading scholarly research in this field from the University of Wisconsin – La Crosse. Their website, “Two Fat Professors,” declares that the academics are “fighting fatphobia with education, community-building and a lot of sass.”

The College Fix reached out to both professors numerous times seeking comment; the pair did not respond to requests through their website, through email, or through messages left on their university phones. Their website and publications, however, offer an illuminating look at their burgeoning research.

‘Fat scholars and activists’

Broadly speaking, the two scholars are working off a thesis that postulates the voices of obese individuals are absent or sidelined in contemporary research on obesity and health. To remedy this, the professors have argued for the incorporation of “standpoint theory” into fat studies. “Standpoint theory,” according to the two, stresses “the importance of situated-knowledge and the epistemic advantage of marginalized groups.”

Stoll and Thoune argue that this discipline will “[elevate] the voices and research of fat scholars and activists.” They further affirm that standpoint theory can be used as a vessel by which “fat” scholars can “challenge…positivistic notions of science that suggest researchers can and should be ‘value-free.’”

In the spring of 2020, according to their website, the professors will be editing a special standpoint theory-centric edition of the journal “Fat Studies.” That edition will feature essays such as “Thick Bodies, Thick Skins: Reflections on Two Decades of Sociology in Fat Studies” and “The Lumps and Bumps of Aesthetic Labor: Rethinking Fat Talk in Plus-Size Retail.”

Challenging ‘diet culture’

The two professors have written extensively on their website’s blog. Last month Stoll published an essay in which she described the experience of “flying while fat.” The professor slammed “tiny regional jets” that are “in no way accommodating for fat flyers.” She relayed her experience having to request a seatbelt extender on one flight, an incident she described as “some kind of fat milestone” due to what she described as “a public acknowledgement that I didn’t fit.”

In October, meanwhile, Thoune, heralding the possible rise of a fat-based “revolution,” urged readers to rally in part against “flyers for weight loss” and “getting ‘healthy’ messaging” on campus.

This past semester was “the first year I’ve returned to school without thinking about whether I gained or lost weight over the summer and how that might affect what my colleagues think about me,” Thoune wrote.

In a forceful essay from September, Stoll argued against “diet culture” and suggested readers could “push back” by “trusting ourselves enough to become our own teachers.”

Stoll wrote about discovering doctors who have “weight-inclusive” practices. (The website Empowered Eating defines “weight inclusivity” as an approach that “allows for a decrease in weight stigma and body shaming” and focuses on an “overall improvement to psychological well-being.”) She also praised the “Health at Every Size” initiative, one that “celebrates body diversity” and “honors differences in size, age, race, ethnicity, gender, dis/ability, sexual orientation, religion, class, and other human attributes.”

There is a wide abundance of research on overweight individuals from a multitude of diverse sources that indicates obesity is not healthy in any capacity. The National Institutes of Health, Harvard University, and Johns Hopkins University have all certified the elevated health risks faced by obese individuals.

Widespread medical opinion on the issue of obesity indicates that it is a growing epidemic that increases risk of mortality through augmenting the probability of diseases such as type 2 diabetes and coronary artery disease. The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, examining an extensive library of research on the topic, claims that that “excess weight, especially obesity, diminishes almost every aspect of health.”

MORE: University event to tackle ‘fatphobia,’ ‘fat-shaming’

MORE: ‘Queer’ your food for ‘liberation,’ says lecturer

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About the Author
Mukil Pari -- UCLA