Colleges fit 'fat studies' into curriculum
By Debra Erdley
Published: Sunday, April 21, 2013, 11:00 p.m.
Deborah Christel wants the next generation of college students to think outside the box labeled “plus size.”
The West Virginia University professor will debut a course called “Fat Studies” this summer. The Morgantown campus is in a state where the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified nearly a third of residents as obese and about two-thirds as overweight.
“Fat people are discriminated against a lot in our society,” Christel said, pointing to websites devoted to dumping on people who are overweight.
Class posters showing body outlines progressing from normal to obese triggered responses that illustrate negative stereotypes, she said. “People have written names and painted arrows on some posters.”
Christel, 28, became aware of biases against overweight people while studying at Oregon State University, one of the first schools in the nation to teach fat studies, and because of her background in active-apparel design.
Her course, approved for credit in WVU's Women's Studies and Fashion Design & Merchandising programs, examines weight, shape and size as an area subject to privilege and discrimination. It is part of an emerging movement to question assumptions about fat and the stigma attached to it in a society obsessed with thinness.
Obesity often is referred to as an epidemic, or America's No. 1 health problem. The National Institutes of Health encourages people to calculate their body mass index, or BMI, saying it can be “an estimate of body fat and a good gauge of your risk for diseases that can occur with more body fat.”
Traditional medical research links overweight and obesity with conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, and even cancer.
The CDC continues to warn about health risks associated with excess weight.
Yet Linda Bacon, author of “Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight,” has questioned the health stereotypes associated with weight during her scientific research over 15 years. A biology professor at City College of San Francisco, she has master's degrees in psychotherapy and exercise science and metabolism, and a doctorate in physiology.
“I've come to the conclusion that the notion that fat is killing us is much more damaging than fat itself,” Bacon said.
Contrary to accepted attitude, Bacon said, people labeled merely overweight “are the ones that tend to live longest.”
A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in January reached a similar conclusion.
In the JAMA study, the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics researchers analyzed 97 recent studies on weight and mortality involving nearly 3 million people. They found that being overweight or slightly obese was linked to about a 6 percent lower risk of dying, compared with people considered “normal weight.” But severely obese people had a nearly 30 percent higher risk of death.
Those with a BMI of 30 to 35, considered to be in the first stage of obesity, had a 5 percent lower risk of dying, a finding the researchers said was not statistically significant.
Bacon said she regularly consults with Kaiser Permanente, one of the nation's largest managed-care organizations based in Oakland, Calif., and receives inquiries from major health insurers.
“Slowly, we're changing things,” she said.
Indeed, a “fat acceptance” or “fat power” movement seeks to change anti-fat biases and discrimination against overweight people. As a subculture, the movement offers people support through conferences, fashion and arts events, sports clubs and other activities.
Classes such as Christel's could play an important role in making people rethink concepts that appear to be ingrained in the American psyche — that fat is inherently unhealthy and thin is good.
Although several courses at the University of Pittsburgh skirt issues such as body image, weight and health, none tackle it head on. Students seem open to the idea.
“It might shed light on different issues and change some perspectives,” said Amanda Smoluk, a Pitt freshman from Philadelphia who is majoring in history and environmental studies.
Steven Kohler of Cranberry, a Pitt law student, said fat studies could add interesting perspectives on legal issues such as discrimination.
Jacqueline Johnson, who has taught a course in fat studies at George Washington University in Washington for four years, said her class attracts students of all shapes and sizes.
With a background in exercise science, Johnson witnessed how harmful weight stereotypes could be when her overweight aunt became ill.
“Doctors kept telling her to lose weight, that it was her weight,” Johnson said. When they no longer could ignore her aunt's pain, the doctors delved deeper and discovered a tumor so advanced that she died six months later.
Fat studies and the “Health at Every Size” movement — a belief system that promotes intuitive eating rather than dieting — are gaining traction, Johnson said.
Although Michigan is the only state with a law barring discrimination based on weight, an increasing number of cities are considering such measures.
Debra Erdley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7996 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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