Are overweight people a victim group? On many campuses they are. Over the past decade “Fat Studies” has shown up on the curriculum at many colleges. The courses have little to with actual study, and a lot to do with identity politics, the airing of grievances and demands for protection from the oppression of the non-fat world.
This week the Yale Daily News carried a report on a study by the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, located on the Yale campus. Sure enough, as it has for many years, the center found widespread and dangerous discrimination. Tatiana Andreyeva, co-author of the study, said weight discrimination was more prevalent than bias based on sexual orientation, nationality, ethnicity, physical disability or religious affiliation, particularly among women. The headline on the Daily News article said “Weight Bias Rivals Race Prejudice,” a very stout claim.
According to the study, 5 percent of men and 10 percent of women say they are suffering from weight-based discrimination. Rebecca Puhl, lead author of the Rudd study, said legal measures are desperately needed to protect against weight bias. When spawning a new victim group, analogies to racial prejudice are important. In the deaf liberation movement, non-hearing people who get cochlear implants are often compared to light-skinned blacks who try to pass as whites. In the weight-discrimination movement, losing pounds to meet the standards of non-fat people is sometimes compared to the use of skin lighteners or hair-straightening products by African-Americans. Severely overweight people who lose 100 pounds or more are sometimes attacked for abandoning their identity group.
On campus, “fat studies,” like most academic fields with “studies” in the title, is mostly about generating cohesion and resentment toward the mainstream. In 2006, the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee added a course listed as “The Social Construction of Obesity,” taught by a professor who takes a skeptical view of the “war on obesity.” Also in 2006, the New York Times reported that proponents of fat studies see it as a sister subject to women’s studies and queer studies, “and it is most often women promoting the study, many of whom are lesbian activists.”
The growing strength of the anti-obesity movement presents a severe political problem for fat activists (many, perhaps most, do not shy away from the f-word). On the one hand, they think that attacks on obesity and pressures to lose weight represent the oppression by the non-fat majority. On the other hand, the activists are reluctant to come out and say that the health risks of being overweight are imaginary or exaggerated. So a certain amount of waffling is called for, usually around the uncontroversial idea that healthy and happy people are found at most weight levels. The word “diversity” pops up now and then. “Weight diversity” usually means that any group or office should have someone representing different weight classes. It also carries a whiff of affirmative action – that a workplace featuring only thin employees must change to include people of substantial weight.
The movement has a chance of getting laws passed. Michigan banned weight (and height) discrimination and Massachusetts is considering it now. More likely litigators will take over, extracting large sums from employers who fire obese people, whether weight was the reason or not.