Fat Studies and Thin Privledge

Abigail C. Saguy ’92. Photo: Dotan Saguy.

Abigail C. Saguy ’92. Photo: Dotan Saguy.

In her new book, What’s Wrong with Fat?,   (Oxford University Press) Abigail C. Saguy ’92 provides a corrective to America’s misplaced obsession with weight.

When I tell people about my research examining why we have come to understand fatness as a public health crisis and the social costs associated with this dominant perspective, they are curious to know how I came to work on this topic. I politely explain how this research builds on longstanding intellectual interests I have in the issues of gender (first cultivated in the College of Letters at Wesleyan), social movements, and how social problems are constructed.

They yawn. “Yes, yes,” they say, conveying with their bored expression that this is not what they meant. They want to know if I have a personal stake. I don’t look especially fat at 5’3″ and 125 pounds. Had I lost a large amount of weight in the past? Was there some exciting personal story that could account for my interest in weight-based discrimination and all this talk of the so-called obesity epidemic?

I do not have such a dramatic tale to tell. My adult Body Mass Index (BMI), which is measured as one’s weight in kilograms divided by one’s height in meters squared, has fluctuated somewhat over the past 25 years, but it has always fallen within the “normal weight” category.

This means that I have never personally suffered weight-based discrimination or stigma. I have never worried about being turned down for a job or promotion because I was fat. I have never had strangers comment that I shouldn’t be eating an ice cream cone or buying chocolate. I have never had food flung at me or been subject to verbal abuse because of my weight. When I visit doctors, I am not told that my headaches or sore throats must be a result of my weight. I only know these sorts of experiences, which are commonplace for fat women and men, secondhand.

In fact, I have benefited from thin privilege (as well as white and middle-class privilege), in that people tend to attribute positive traits to me and other thin people solely because of our body weight. Because of my relative thinness, I am often unfairly considered a more objective—and thus more credible—commentator on debates over fatness, in that people assume that I have no personal axe to grind. (That a thin person might be equally biased regarding the subject, but in another direction, is rarely taken into account. In this sense, thinness in our culture is what sociologists call an “unmarked category.”)

Yet, exposure to pervasive cultural messages that women can never be thin enough has nonetheless contributed to difficult personal struggles with eating and body image at different points in my life, including when I was a student at Wesleyan. In this respect, my story is similar to that of many women (and men, who struggle with pressures to be muscular). To the extent that the war on obesity is about convincing us that fatness is a pathology that we need to fight in ourselves and in others, it affects many of us on a very personal level.

I have, for instance, a stake as a mother of two young children whose weight hovered around the 85th percentile for their sex and age (the current cutoff for “overweight”) during the time that I was conducting the research for this book. I have struggled with how best to speak to my children about body weight. I know that fat kids are often targets of bullying, and, like many parents, I want to protect my children from pain. Sometimes I have been tempted to encourage them to lose weight in an effort to shield them from potential bullies. Yet, I worried that this would emphasize the importance of thinness, which could lead to problems with self-esteem,  and body image, and even to eating disorders down the road. It might even make my children feel more justified in teasing others who are heavier than they, thereby contributing to intolerance, hatred, and pain for other people’s children. These are difficult issues!

So yes, I do have a personal stake in this issue, just not the one people initially assume. Indeed, I venture to say that we all do, in that we all inhabit bodies that are marked by—among other things—their size and shape. And yet, while there is growing attention to how racism, sexism, and homophobia shape our lives, the discussion about fatphobia has yet to take off.

One of the reasons we don’t discuss weight-based discrimination and bullying, I believe, is because we think of fatness as a medical issue and public health crisis: the so-called obesity epidemic. Arguments about the importance of valuing size diversity are countered with claims that “obesity” is a health risk, a disease, and a public health disaster waiting to happen.

What’s Wrong with Fat? explains how this particular way of understanding bigger bodies has come to dominate in the contemporary United States and elsewhere. It further examines how and why the news media and doctors routinely blame individual fat people for their weight, despite scientific evidence that body size is tightly controlled by genetics and influenced by social factors beyond individual control. It shows who benefits from dominant perspectives on body size (e.g., pharmaceutical companies) and who pays the price: ordinary people of all shapes and sizes. I hope this book gets people thinking about body size in new ways!

Abigail Saguy is associate professor and vice chair of sociology and associate professor of gender studies at UCLA. She also is the author of What is Sexual Harassment?: From Capitol Hill to the Sorbonne (2003), and many articles in scientific journals. She has contributed op-eds to The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and The Huffington Post. To read more about her work, visit www.abigailsaguy.com.