We're Here, We're Fat, Get Used To It?

Sondra Solovay and Esther Rothblum, co-editors of The Fat Studies Reader, tell Brian Lehrer we need to stop obsessing about weight -- and start accepting fat people.

Brian Lehrer: First off, Esther, we are supposed to use the word fat right this has been reclaimed by the movement.

Esther Rothblum: That’s right. The word fat focuses exactly on what we’re looking at and that’s body fat. For example, if we just talk about weight, somebody who is tall and thin may actually weigh more than someone who is short and fat. If you think about elite athletes like Serena Williams the tennis star, she has a lot more muscle, let’s say than someone who doesn’t play tennis so she would weigh more.

But fat studies scholars use that term just the way other oppressed groups have reclaimed words like people of African decent reclaimed the word black and some young gay men and lesbians are reclaiming the word queer. So what words like fat and black and queer have in common is people are saying let's take a word that really says who we are, perhaps even a word that’s been used negatively and let’s reclaim it.

Lehrer: We have a history, Sonrda Solovay, of increasing obesity in the United State to the point where now the National Institutes of Health defines over 60% of Americans as overweight or obese. That’s a lot more than it used to be. So if we’re going to look at fatness as in the category of civil rights and say that it’s like being black or it's like being queer, can we really go there, because since this is something that behavior is causing?

Sondra Solovay: First of all, I don’t agree with your assumption that this is something that behavior is causing.

Lehrer: At least for a large percentage of obese people, is that not accurate?

Solovay: No, I think it's way more complicated then that simple sentence. I know that the discourse that people have about weight makes it seem just that simple. Calories in, calories out, don’t sit on the couch, don’t eat donuts, you’ll be thin. But, in fact, there have always been fat people and there always will be fat people. And what we do is, we change the definitions of who is fat, literally overnight. The definition of who was fat was changed several years ago, around the time when my first book was coming out, so that people who went to bed not fat, woke up fat just because we changed how we defined that.

Lehrer: But the definition of diabetes hasn’t changed has it?

Solovay: Actually it has. The numbers that have been used to define people who are diabetic or pre-diabetic have actually changed. These are exactly the kind of assumptions that we need The Fat Studies to look at and question.

Lehrer: So certainly people who are fat for whatever reason could be discriminated against in ways that should be seen as unlawful, in ways that should be seen just as not nice. But let me keep challenging you, Esther Rothblum, even on the title of your book Overcoming Fear of Fat. Isn’t there very good reason for individuals to fear, and I’m just talking strict health concerns, to fear becoming fat, and that you don’t want to enable people to engage in very unhealthy behaviors for their own benefit?

Rothblum: Well two things, the title “Fear Of Fat” that book referred to the fat that so many people, especially girls and women, but even boys and men are terrified of gaining weight. Even people who are very thin. As you know, another epidemic in our country has been eating disorders like anorexia, right? So that book really focused on the fact that we are all made to feel very scared of gaining weight, regardless really of our weight.

.... One very interesting thing about weight and health in this country particular, in western countries in general, but most of all in the U.S., fat people tend to be poor and rich people tend to be thin. It’s a very strong relationship. I say to my students, "You could almost replace the word 'poor' with the word 'fat.'" So when we hear things like fat people cost the nation $147 billion or whatever we’re reading, just say poor people cost the nation $147 billion.

In other words, we know especially in the U.S. where we don’t have national health care that poor people don’t have the same resources. If you actually look at fat people who are wealthy you get a very different picture, but of course that’s a very small percentage. So it’s important to keep that in mind. We’re not only talking about fat and thin people, we’re talking about poor and rich people.

Listen to the entire interview:

Read what some of Brian Lehrer's listeners have to say:

amanda from Brooklyn August 04, 2009 - 11:53AM
A 150lb man and a 250lb man might eat the same? No. They might eat the same foods, but I promise you they aren't eating the same amount of it and they are not spending the same amount of time engaged in physical activity. At some level true obesity reflects behavior choices that are self destructive and unhealthy.

Marielle from Brooklyn August 04, 2009 - 12:00PM
My mother lived in Brooklyn for the first 37 years of her life. My parents had one car, which my father took to work. My mother walked everywhere, usually pushing one or more of her four kids in a stroller. She never gained a pound. At the age of 37, she moved to the suburbs and developed a weight problem with which she as struggled for nearly 40 years. One reason (among many) that I have a phobia about the suburbs!

Jonathan from Brooklyn August 04, 2009 - 12:01PM
I am an average-sized male, and I find "anti-fat" discourse simplistic, and often even fascistic (see some of the comments above). To suggest that we should all aspire to the same "ideal" gym-toned body-type *IS* just as offensive as suggesting we should all be white, or christian, or straight, or whatever. If the big person is healthy and happy, why judge them because of their size? If they are unhappy and unhealthy, what good does it do them to add to their misery with scorn and judgement?

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A wait for free health care, obesity is common in Appalachia.(Getty)
A wait for free health care, obesity is common in Appalachia.(Getty)
A man walks past an ad for the Alli weight loss pill. (Getty)
A man walks past an ad for the Alli weight loss pill. (Getty)