Laidlaw Scholarship: Women's 'Fat' Bodies in Everyday Life
Post by Dr Kimberly Jamie
Over the last 2 years I’ve been fortunate enough to collaborate with, and supervise, an undergraduate student, Elizabeth Mohr, on a research project about ‘fat’ women’s experiences of navigating everyday life.
Elizabeth’s research is sponsored by the Laidlaw Scholarship in Research and Leadership, which gives undergraduate students the opportunity to engage in, and be paid for, academic research over two summers during their degree.
Elizabeth’s research has been focused on the ways that inhabiting a ‘fat’ female body renders significant parts of everyday life, its mundane activities, and its seemingly humdrum spaces, as problematic. Existing research on ‘fat’ bodies has disproportionately relied on medical approaches, focusing on the causes and effects of obesity, and the potential of public health interventions. Social scientists have questioned this approach and given voice to experiences of ‘fat’ people. Elizabeth’s research involved semi-structured interviews with 21 self-defined ‘fat’ women and draws together sociology of everyday life approaches and work on obesity stigma, to contribute to this sociological focus on embodied experiences.
Elizabeth and I are going to be presenting this research to the British Sociological Association conference in Birmingham in April 2020. We’ll be borrowing concepts from human geography (specifically urban studies) to draw attention to particularly ‘exclusionary spaces’ in which participants’ ‘fat’ bodies became especially ambiguous and problematic. In these exclusionary spaces, we will suggest that ‘fat’ bodies are almost exclusively constructed relationally where the ‘problem’ of ‘fat’ is almost entirely grounded in its perceived impacts on other people, rather than its potential medical and physiological effects. We will demonstrate that the women interviewed negotiate these spaces by becoming hyper-vigilant, by physically making themselves as small as possible, and, in the extreme, avoiding these spaces altogether.
We will be suggesting that this everyday manifestation of fatist discourses intersects with expectations of all women’s bodies in public spaces – to be attractive, to be deferential, and to take up limited space – creating a double burden for ‘fat’ women. We are hoping to generate conversation and debate in order to take this argument forward into an academic publication. Meantime, we are also working together on another publication centred on ‘fat’ women’s reflections on obesity-focused public health campaigns.
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