Archive for the 'Research' Category

Fat on the air

Yesterday, I was interviewed on Triple J’s Hack program. For those of you outside Australia, Triple J is the national youth radio station. It’s part of the government funded Australian Broadcasting Corporation, it plays a lot of alternative music not heard on commercial radio, it fosters unsigned Aussie talent and it’s generally very cool. Hack is their current affairs program.

For context: On Wednesday, the Heart Foundation and the Cancer Councils in Australia released the results of their National Secondary Students’ Diet and Activity survey. The research surveyed 12,000 students in years eight to 11 across 237 schools to determine their dietary and physical activity behaviours. The research memos can be found here and they make for some interesting reading.

Unfortunately (unsurprisingly?), the conclusions the organisations drew from the research fixated on the inevitable, detrimental effects of obesity. Despite finding that adolescents across the board weren’t meeting the recommended amounts of fruit/veg intake or the recommended levels of physical activity, the organisations chose to recommend the implementation of a “comprehensive obesity strategy”. Cancer Council Australia CEO, Professor Ian Olver, even trotted out the tired old line “We may see today’s teenagers die at a younger age than their parents generation for the first time in history” (an unnecessarily alarmist statement that has never been supported by any evidence).

This story got a run on Hack and, being the enterprising young go-getter that I am, I wrote to host Tom Tilley in the hopes of getting on the show to present an alternative, fat positive view. It worked like a charm! I even dragged in the coolest academic on the block, Dr Samantha Thomas, to provide some academic rigour to the proceedings.

Click here to check out the story on Hack. (I bloody love that the title is ‘Fat Defenders’ as it makes me sound like a superhero.) I sound Very Serious in this interview because I was sweating bullets. (My nerves were not helped by the fact that Lindsay MacDougall, the object of my deep pubescent desire when I was 14, was recording in the booth next door.) It’s mainly Fat Acceptance 101 stuff, but it’s amazing how contentious the idea ‘fat people are people too’ can be.

This whole thing is a pretty big deal for me. Triple J is awesome and this was my first go at live radio. (Luckily, Tom and the Hack crew are ace. Thank you again, guys!)

As is my way, I spent the entire night after the interview thinking about all the things I should have said. Above all else, I wish I had said this:

Even if all fat people are the way they are due to their bad choices, even if every single fat person is unhealthy, that does not justify sub-standard treatment. How can the health of strangers possibly inspire such vitriol? If you remain convinced that others’ bodies are your business and that people must justify their existence to you, perhaps you should consider the possibility that you are an arsehole.

Obesity and disgust revisited

You may remember that in May of this year, I blogged about a study conducted by Dr Lenny Varatanian that found that negative attitudes towards ‘obese’ people are based on an emotional response of disgust. The study was fascinating as it confirmed what fat people had long been aware of: that fatness, due to the notion that body size is infinitely malleable, was seen as disgusting as it transgressed people’s morals.

Dr Vartanian followed this research with a study, published in the journal Eating and Weight Disorders, into whether the use of the terms ‘fat’ or ‘obese’ impact societal attitudes. In the study, a target group of 425 undergraduate students (side note: I do wish that Dr Vartanian would test a more diverse group than undergraduates, but that’s a rant for another day) were asked to answer questions about a range of social groups, including overweight individuals. Compared to ‘fat’ people, ‘obese’ people were rated as less favourable and more disgusting. In addition to this, participants saw themselves as being less similar to obese people and less likely to become an obese person than a fat person. Dr Vartanian posits that this is due to ‘obesity’ being a medical term, whereas ‘fat’ is more familiar.

I would add that media reporting of obesity is also a strong factor in these attitudes, given that the vast majority of obesity-related articles and stories are accompanied by grossly objectified ‘headless fatties’. After all, it’s difficult to identify with something portrayed as less than human.

So far, so interesting. Unfortunately, the coverage of the story descended into the medicalisation of fatness. A Sydney Morning Herald article about the study stated that Dr Vartanian believed that ‘obese’ should continue to be used medically to refer to those who have a body mass index of 30 and above and those people “are at increased risk of type two diabetes and heart disease … [Fat] doesn’t have a place in (public health) forums, and while obese might be seen more negatively and as less desirable to obese individuals themselves, at least it has an official definition.”

It pains me that, despite his research into societal attitudes towards fatness, Dr Vartanian still does not/will not/cannot question the usefulness of the BMI. The BMI is a deeply flawed concept and not at all reliable indicator for determining the health of a population, let alone an individual. The medical profession and health policies should be moving away from its reliance on the BMI, not continuing its use – and further stigmatising fat bodies – because it provides a convenient definition. My body is not a medical condition.

The Overdue Recap: 2010 Australian Fat Studies Conference

I know, I know. It’s been over two weeks since the inaugural Australian Fat Studies Conference and my recap is long overdue. I haven’t been faffing about; I have drafted and redrafted this post many times over and I am still not much closer to organising my thoughts. Not in any coherent manner, anyway.

In a nutshell, it was an overwhelming couple of days. I’ve been trying to think of an adjective, or even a series of adjectives, that adequately describe the conference but I haven’t found any yet. The best description I’ve got is this: My heart is full. Every time I think about the people I met or the presentations and performances I saw, I feel fit to burst with love and energy and sadness. I’m thrilled to have all these stunning new friends and inspiring new ideas, but it’s such a drag knowing that I can’t be surrounded by those amazing people everyday.

Because my thoughts are in a jumbled mess, I’m stealing Charlotte Cooper’s idea of listing her stand-out moments. Here are my lasting memories of the conference:

Cat Pausé’s presentation on coming out as fat
Erving Goffman, in his 1963 work Stigma, proposed three methods for managing a stigmatised identity: passing (rendering the characteristic invisible e.g. as I am on the small end of fat, I am able to ‘pass’ as straight sized), covering (managing the characteristic e.g. a fat person explaining what they’re doing to lose weight) and withdrawing (for a fat person, this can be due to social pressures or through physical barriers, such as not being able to fit in seats). Cat introduced a fourth method: coming out.

Confession time – until I was featured in that magazine article, very few people from my real life knew about Corpulent. The Boyfriend knew, as he knows everything there is to know about me and, more selfishly, I make him take all of my outfit photos. My big sister knew, because no one keeps secrets from her. But I kept the online life I had cultivated for over a year a closely guarded secret. Once the article came out, passing wasn’t possible anymore. Basically everyone found out about Hey Fat Chick and Corpulent: my family, my best buds, my work colleagues, distant friends on facebook. Some struggled to understand why I would keep what was obviously a big part of my life a secret for so long.

It wasn’t that I was ashamed; I was scared. I was scared that my nearest and dearest would read what I had to say and would feel nothing. I was scared that they wouldn’t understand, or that they wouldn’t try to understand, or that they would think fat acceptance was pointless in comparison with all the other, more worthy social movements out there.

Cat’s presentation spoke volumes to me, because I had just come out in the most spectacular way. She came out via a facebook status – “Cat Pausé is a proud fat feminist” – and even though she was announcing it to her family and friends, it still took a lot of nerve to type those 33 little characters. She understood. She got exactly where I was coming from.

Charlotte Cooper’s keynote presentation on fat activism
I was super excited when I first learnt that Charlotte would be one of the keynote speakers at the conference. She is fiercely intelligent and just plain fierce – let’s not forget she is in a very intimidating girl gang. I just knew her presentation on fat activism would be something special. But when I saw that her presentation was titled ‘Kick Out the Jams‘, I was absolutely beside myself. Of course Charlotte Cooper is punk rock.

Charlotte’s presentation covered the dominant obesity paradigm, research, the history of fat activism and revealed her own activist projects. What I loved about it was that it made fat acceptance less scary. As Charlotte explained, activism is just “doing stuff”. It need not be a grand gesture that literally stops traffic; the deeply entrenched fat phobia in our society means that a statement can be made just by “walking down the street eating an ice cream”. When dealing with Big Social Issues, it’s easy to get bogged down in the depressing details of prejudice and discrimination. Activism gives us an outlet; a means of fighting back.

Charlotte has put her slides, notes and an audio recording of her presentation online and y’all really should check it out.

Bodies Abound
Bodies Abound was an event held on the Friday night. It was the perfect accompaniment to the conference, exploring the politics of fat and body diversity through spoken word, performances, visual representations and art. As I’m not one for art-y events I really didn’t know what to expect, but it was incredible. It felt like a proper grassroots event and there was a fantastic sense of community (it helped that the place was chockers – apparently the venue was over capacity). The performances were honest and raw - hearing the lived experiences of fat articulated so clearly was intense. Some readings made me laugh, some made me choke up and some made me cheer with all my might.

I enjoyed it so much that I’m going to another queer, size positive celebration in a couple of weeks, Fierce Flesh. If you’re in Sydney, come along! It’ll be great fun.

The people
Oh my stars, the people. I fell in love over and over again with all the rad fatties, and rad fat positive allies, I met. I don’t have many fat friends (I had almost none before I started blogging) and it dawned on me pretty quickly that this was the first time I’d been in a fat space. It was freeing to be surrounded by fatties and allies that understood me, that didn’t need an explanation of my politics, that didn’t need an apology when my fat touched them as I walked past.

I met my blogging crew and was finally able to hug the people I’ve been friends with for months online: Sam, Kath, Natalie, Nick, Bri and Jackie. I met Stella North, who is doing an amazing PhD thesis on fashion (seriously, her theoretical framework blew my mind) and is investigating fatshion for one of her chapters. I met Jess Young, who was a bundle of energy and passion and has the sweetest Kiwi accent of all time. I met Barbara, who was radiant and said lovely things about Hey Fat Chick. I met Dani Barley, who is much much cooler than me. I met Kelli Jean Drinkwater, who was such a good sport when I fangirl-ed all over her. I met the Fat Femme Front, who have been doing spectacular fat acceptance work in my city and I had absolutely no idea. There were so many others – if I met you and I didn’t mention you, please know that I thought you were ace but my memory is like a sieve. I didn’t meet far too many people and would have been quite happy for the conference to go on for two months instead of two days.

The best part of picking all these brains is that our batteries were completely recharged. There are some cool things in the works as a result of this conference: an Australian fat podcast is being developed and, inspired by Sydney’s Aquaporko, fat femme synchronised swimming groups are being set up in Melbourne and Brisbane.

On a smaller, more personal level, I feel renewed. I feel more confident in my role as a fat acceptance advocate. I feel a greater sense of purpose and have more energy for Corpulent and Hey Fat Chick. This tingling excitement isn’t a result of me dropping a wad of cash to go to a fancy pants conference, it’s due to being surrounded by some truly amazing people.

Fat acceptance is hard work. We spend a lot of time defending, arguing, educating and activist-ing and, if we’re not careful, we can burn out. That’s why you need a support network. It can be anything – organise a fatty picnic or beach day, set up an all fatty soccer league or just go to a pub together. Whatever it is, it will remind you that you don’t need to fight fatism on your own. Find your community. Hang out with your people. And come to next year’s Australian Fat Studies Conference so I can meet you too.

A Recap in Photos: 2010 Australian Fat Studies Conference

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Sam of The Discourse and Kath of Fat Heffalump

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The beautiful Scarlett O'Claire. I wanted to steal her outfit.

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Typical. Fatties always congregate around the snacks.

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The Perkinses. Nothing says love like a reassuring pat on the head.

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One of my favourite photos from the conference, beaten only by...

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...this one. Sam, Kelli Jean Drinkwater, Natalie and me pouting like the sexpots we are.

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The most fabulous lady in the room, Lala.

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Charlotte Cooper kicking out the jams (MOTHERFUCKERRRRRRRRR!)

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Natalie of Definatalie and Axis of Fat

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The brand new love of my life, Cat Pausé

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Aqua Porko and the Fat Femme Front

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Hi Barbara!

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Aqua Porko and the Fat Femme Front with Sam Murray and Natalie

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See why I love her? Cat's beautiful.

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Sarah is a DOLL. She had the best outfits both days.

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Jackie of Fatuosity and I, one cocktail down

And, for those playing at home, here is what I wore on the second day. This (fucking AMAZING dress) is in keeping with my winter uniform.

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Jacket: Jibri
Dress: Asos
Tights: We Love Colors
Custom necklace: Cupcakes and Mace
Jazz shoes: Bloch

Countdown to the Australian Fat Studies Conference

The inaugural, hopefully annual, Australian Fat Studies Conference kicks off in Sydney on Friday. THIS FRIDAY! I’m less than 48 hours away from learning from/working with/bear hugging some of the coolest fatties I’ve met through the fatosphere.

I’m planning on posting a recap of the conference, but if you want a running commentary of the two days Twitter is your best bet. Here’s a list of the fatties you should be following:

Fat Studies online hub
Fat Dialogue @FatDialogue

While you’re at it, check out FatDialogue.com. The site was specifically established to reach those who could not attend the conference and to enable the continuation of conversations begun at the Fat Studies conference. FatDialogue.com will be officially launched at the conference but is currently live, so clickety click your way over there.

O captain, my captain (aka the amazing woman who organised the whole thing)
Dr Samantha Murray @interloped

Keynote speakers
Dr Karen Throsby @thelongswim
Dr Charlotte Cooper @thebeefer

Presenters
Jackie Wykes @sizeoftheocean
Natalie Perkins @definatalie
Kath Read @fatheffalump
Bri King @fatlotofgood
Dr Samantha Thomas @TheDiscourse

Attendees
Nick Perkins @nicholosophy
Me! @awesomefrances

 (If I’ve left anyone off the twit-list, please let me know in the comments.)

The hashtag to look out for is #sydfatconf.

Obesity really is disgusting…

A new study, to be published in the International Journal of Obesity, has found that negative attitudes towards ‘obese’ people are based on an emotional response of disgust.

Previous research into negative attitudes towards fat people had centred on perceived controllability of body weight. That is, fat people were blamed for being lazy and lacking self-control which led to negative attitudes in the wider community. However, even when a person’s beliefs about the cause of obesity were shifted, their attitudes towards fat individuals were not impacted. This suggested that the weight bias was not based in logic, but in emotion.

As Dr Lenny Vartanian - who led the new study – states, “Although the scientific community acknowledges biological, behavioural and social contributors to body weight, a common belief in society at large is that one’s body weight is almost infinitely malleable. The problem with this idea of willpower is that we chalk it up to a moral weakness.” What’s so interesting about Dr Vartanian’s study is that it indicates the association between weight and morality is borne from the emotion of disgust and may help explain why negative attitudes towards fat people are so difficult to change.

The research involved three studies. In the first, 300 American university students completed questionnaires asking how favourably they rated various social groups and how much they believed being part of that group was under an individual’s personal control. Participants rated obese people, along with 15 other groups, including African Americans, smokers, lottery winners, welfare recipients, drug addicts, homosexuals, the mentally ill, and people who were elderly, homeless, rich or religious. Finally, they were asked to rate the feelings of disgust they held towards each group.

In general, the social groups rated most negatively and with the highest levels of disgust were those perceived to have an element of personal control over being a member of that group. Obese people were among the most negatively viewed groups, on par with homeless people (which is incredibly problematic, but that’s a rant for another day) and politicians.  The only groups rated as more negatively and as more disgusting were drug addicts and smokers.

A second study with 125 different participants from the same university used the same questionnaire, except that the term “fat people” was used instead of “obese people”. The results were identical.   Finally, in the third study, 99 students from an Australian university completed slightly different questionnaires but again with an identical result to the first two studies.

So how can this be changed? If no matter how much we hit people over the head with HAES, we will still be seen as disgusting, what direction should our activism go in?

My preferred solution: bust the beauty ideal. Dr Vartanian states in his article that “disgust [is] related to a process of moralization in which preferences are converted to moral values.” Smoking was all the rage 60 odd years ago and the results of this research indicate smokers are now one of the most disgusting population groups in our society. Similarly, as the size of the female beauty ideal has wittled down over the past few decades, negative attitudes towards women that lie outside this ideal have increased.

We fat bloggers are regularly accused of normalising obesity. As it turns out, normalisation may be exactly what we need.


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