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Harvard Professor Susan Greenhalgh speaks on stigma of fat

By Elianna Spitzer

Section: News

October 9, 2015

Susan Greenhalgh, a professor at Harvard University, shared her views on the cultural and personal effects of what she calls “fat-talk,” the obsession with being skinny and the prevalence of “fat-shaming” in America.

Through her book, “Fat-Talk Nation: The Hidden Costs of America’s War on Fat,” published this spring, Greenhalgh starts a new conversation about what she has identified as “America’s war on fat.” Her book has garnered national attention by news sources such as National Public Radio and the New York Times.

During her Friday, Oct. 2 visit, she said, “America’s antipathy towards fatness is nothing new. In the last few decades though, there’s been a critical cultural shift in our concern about fatness from self-control or virtue to quote ‘health.’ Because health is a super value in our culture, one that trumps all others, the [diseasification] of excess weight has had huge societal consequences,” said Greenhalgh.

Few anthropologists before Greenhalgh have studied this topic at length. “The issue of corpulence and its control has garnered remarkably little attention from sociocultural anthropologists. Sociologists of education, in sport, have taken up the obesity epidemic, but they have not used ethnography to see how it’s playing out in individual lives,” she said.

The war on fat is a relatively recent issue that Greenhalgh says has been a phenomenon for a little over a decade. Greenhalgh explained that in 2004, “the message was that it was not only un-American to be fat, but that hostility towards fat people was warranted, necessary and beneficial to us all.”

Greenhalgh began her research at the University of California, Irvine where she taught for 15 years. In 2010 and 2011 she proposed an addition to her course, The Woman and the Body, on the politics of obesity.

For extra credit, Greenhalgh asked her students to write an essay about “how diet, weight and the BMI played out in the life of somebody they knew well.” The essays shocked her. “Assigning the essay as a pedagogical tool, I was not prepared for what I received: tales of childhoods dominated and often devastated by battles over weight, the essays were eye opening, disturbing and in many cases, heartbreaking to read,” said Greenhalgh.

The responses spurred her to look deeper into “America’s War on Fat.” For the past five years, Greenhalgh has studied the politics of weight in Southern California. She’s used her findings to represent the current state of the country as a whole when it comes to obesity.

“Although body pressures on Southern Californians are intense, their bodily ideas are the same as those found in mainstream culture around the country, making Southern California a microcosm of the country as a whole,” she said.

“Fat Talk Nation” features over 200 ethnographic narratives from her class at UC, Irvine. She uses historical and cultural data to place the essays in context.

At the seminar, Greenhalgh stressed just how normal fat-shaming has become in American society. “In ‘Fat Talk Nation,’ I argue that the intensified concern about the so-called obesity epidemic is producing a parallel epidemic of fat talk in which important individuals in the social world of young people, as well as the larger media culture, participate in naming who is fat, ridiculing them and cajoling them to lose weight,” said Greenhalgh.

She said that even the congratulatory recognition of lost weight reinforces the idea that the person was not of a good enough weight to begin with.

Greenhalgh ended the seminar on a proactive note. When asked what could be done in the face of such an epidemic she said, “We can listen to our own fat-talk.” She thinks that fat-shaming needs to be stopped on personal, community and national levels.

Greenhalgh is the most recent speaker in the Brandeis Anthropology Research Seminar (BARS) series. The next BARS seminar is Friday, Oct. 23 with Laurence Ralph of Harvard University, who will discuss police abuse, mass incarceration and the drug trade in relation to disease, disability and premature death for urban residents.

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