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Back to School: Bringing the Fat Revolution to College

Updated: Oct 8, 2019

At the risk of sounding like I'm writing a pumpkin-spice-latte-white-girl-fluff piece on the joys of fall, I’d like to spend some time discussing why fall is a turning point for this fat professor. Stick with me, I promise there’s a real point in the end.

Let’s be clear. It’s not that I don’t love other seasons, I do. But, there is something about the long exhale into fall that feels incredible, like I’m unclenching a fist I’ve been holding tight for three months solid. Gone are the worries about chub rub, instead I revel in the embrace of tights on my thighs and a cardigan wrapped around my shoulders. As I discussed in my June blog post, summer presents me with a set of anxieties that I always have to push through. I’m happy to report that this summer I wore sleeveless shirts, bought my first pair of shorts in over a decade, and spent time in a swimsuit--these are minor victories that feel enormous. BUT, it’s fall and there’s a part of me that now has permission to be slightly less visible, and less brave in my sartorial choices. And, without all of the, largely self-imposed, pressures to be brave and visible, I now also have time to do a little reflection as we start up yet another academic year. As a professor, it might not make sense that this is the season for reflection--after all, we’re entering my busy time of the year. But, there is something about returning to my routine, the cooler weather, and settling into my academic rhythm that is soothing. Also, there’s apple cider doughnuts.

Although the university is not a perfect place, it is a place that I know intimately. I know its secrets, its hostilities, its dark places, but I also know it can provide opportunities for incremental change, for small moments of inspiration, and for camaraderie among likeminded folx. And, while I (and many of my colleagues) have been working steadily over the summer, the return to fall feels like a renewed commitment to work, and now, perhaps more than ever, this work matters.

A student asked me the other day how in the face of all of the bias, discrimination, and, let’s face it, bullshit, that is part of the make up of the university, how do I keep doing the job? Part of my response was to explain that I have to believe that this work matters and I have to believe that I’m not alone. Rather, I fiercely believe that the invisible mycelium of activism that runs through, past, and around academic spaces binds us together. While I love many of my colleagues, I’ve become increasingly drawn to and inspired by the powerful educational work that is taking place outside of academic spaces. For example, I’ve been blown away by the AllGo Blog and, in particular, the sharp critique of academic spaces by Meaghan O’Riordan. Equally impressive is the “F-Word” series from Teen Vogue and their work to complicate conversations about fat by exploring a wide range of issues from multiple perspectives.

It’s so much, but it’s not enough. In the months since Dr. Laurie and I began this work, more and more colleagues have begun to ask me, “What should I know about fat acceptance and fighting weight stigma?” and “What can I do to promote body diversity in my classes?” My answer is simple, treat all of your students with kindness and respect. If you want to do more, then buckle up.

Start paying closer attention to how academic spaces do not accommodate all bodies. Then, notice how students talk about their bodies and other peoples’ bodies. Look around at the flyers for weight loss, the getting “healthy” messaging, and the studies on bariatric surgery that are posted in public spaces around campus. Hear the cautions about the “freshman 15.” Consider how the cramped spaces in residence halls might not be comfortable for all students and how this might lead to a feeling of not belonging. Believe your students when they share their secret discomforts, their feelings of failure, their shame at not fitting into these academic spaces. Then, start calling this shit out. Call it out in your classes, call it out in your department meetings, call it out in committees, call it out in ALL THE PLACES. This is the revolution that could take place every fall on every campus.

And, it’s not just about fat. It’s also about all of the other social justice issues we need to be agitating for as well. It’s about vulnerable bodies in vulnerable spaces and it’s about systems of privilege that erase the rights of some while empowering those who already have too much and who already take up too much space (and not in a lovely fat way).

Will this fat revolution work? Will our resistance bear fruit? Time will tell. But, on a personal level, this is 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. Believe me when I tell you that fat solidarity has changed my life. In the four months since I wrote about fat solidarity and fat visibility, I am feeling more--more myself, more for others, just more. And, I’ve started asking not just what I need, but what do we need--from each other and from ourselves? What are we able to give? What are we courageous enough to ask for? What are we brave enough to take?

I spend a lot, probably too much, of time in my head. But, occasionally an event, a person, a moment pulls me out of myself and I look around. Sometimes I’m shocked by the ugliness I see, but then other times I’m blown away by the beauty of a wet fall day and a single student holding a sign that says, “Believe survivors.” Because I’m built for optimism, I continue to see these academic spaces as spaces of promise and possibility. This is my home and you’re all invited.

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