The fear of fat in the classroom

One of my favourite assignments this semester was designing an undergraduate fat studies course. I was encouraged by the positive responses from a presentation I did in a third-year course and in my CMNS800 class about fat activism and outdoor activities; it was obvious that students are intrigued by fat studies theories and work, and had a lot of questions. I am excited about creating a space where students can ask these questions, be introduced to new ideas, and explore these ideas through both research and creative work.

One of the texts I worked with this semester, however, contained many articles about the politics of a fat studies classroom. Specifically, these articles touched on how the body size of the instructor impacts the classroom, and different ways students may be resistant or uncomfortable in discussions focusing on fat bodies.

Discomfort around fat bodies wasn’t a new idea to me; indeed, my last blog post shows how most people are uncomfortable with fat bodies in public spaces. There is much writing in fat activist circles pertaining to the different ways fat bodies are abused when they dare take up space outside of their homes.

I understand why students might be defensive or resistant to fat activist ideologies. I don’t like it, but I understand. Especially in regards to public health, I feel confident in my ability to create a safe environment in which students can ask questions and together the class can work through fat studies literature that deconstructs and critically looks at institutionalized fatphobia in medicine and fitness industries.

What I have yet to digest, however, is my position as a fat lecturer. From the literature I have read on the topic, there is no simple answer or single approach emphasized. Some authors argue that it is essential to acknowledge one’s identity right off the bat in the classroom, to ease the tension, or “stigma threat”, that a fat professor might bring into the class dynamic.

While I don’t want my hypothetical future students to feel afraid of offending me in our discussions, and therefore want to do what I can to create an inviting environment, I also don’t want to (pun not intended) take up too much space in the classroom. While “the personal is political” mantra of second-wave feminism is something I believe whole-heartedly, I still feel hesitant to assert myself, my feelings, and my experiences in the classroom so bluntly. Perhaps this is because of my identity as a femme-identified scholar, which, because of my gender identity, often pressures me to embody masculine-ascribed qualities of rationality (read: unemotional) in order to assert myself as a legitimate scholar. Or perhaps this is because while the personal is political, it is also traumatic, painful, and complex; characteristics that are sometimes best nurtured in private. Many of the questions I received after my presentation in the third-year course were about how my family and friends felt about my fat activism, and how openly I speak about my experiences as a fat person. This is difficult to navigate in an academic setting, and I can imagine even more so in a situation where there is a teacher-student dynamic.

There are many feelings involved in fat studies, and I don’t believe that all scholarly circles are open to involving emotions in academic work. If this fat studies course is presented only in social justice oriented fields like gender studies or feminist media studies that are open to utilizing personal experiences and emotions as sites of analysis, would this course be preaching to the choir? Or a choir that is already pretty open to fat soloists? How can fat studies infiltrate other disciplines?  How can it reach folks who might not otherwise ever be introduced to fat studies work, while asserting itself as an academic field that, yes, uses feelings as a valid site for analysis?

One of academic departments that I imagine would be hardest to infiltrate with fat studies work would be exercise science. The course I designed was interdisciplinary, and presented immediately in the first few weeks fat studies work in the area of public health. In my research on fat studies pedagogical approaches, many scholars suggest addressing intersections of fat and health right away in order to answer the most obvious questions and address the most common hesitations about fat acceptance. It is my hope that the inclusion of such work catches the attention of students from a variety of backgrounds, so that this information can make its way into other areas of the university, making the classroom more accessible for fat folks of all walks of life, and perhaps even a bit friendlier towards fat lecturers too.

 

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