People are Getting Fatter and Living Much Longer

An interview with Esther Rothblum, co-editor of our upcoming The Fat Studies Reader, appeared in the 9/11/09 edition of the San Diego Voice.

Is there resistance because this sort of movement could encourage people not to address potential health problems associated with being overweight?
In terms of academia, most people are unaware of fat studies. There’s no department of fat studies anywhere. Universities, contrary to what the general public believes, love it when there is controversy over new areas.

In terms of health, the most fascinating thing to me — and I’m not a health educator — is that people are getting fatter and people are living much longer. We are living 20 years longer on average than people born in the 1930s, compared to people born now. As one of our authors says, we’re getting fatter and we’re getting healthier. That is so counterintuitive to what the general public believes. …

Another factor about the health issue is that in this country weight and income are so strongly associated, especially for women. Poor people tend to weigh more and rich people tend to weigh less. The reason that is so important is that … poor people in this country have poor health care. When you’re comparing fat people and thin people on health, you’re really comparing poor people and rich people. So you’ve got to either focus only on fat and thin middle class people or you have to control statistically for income. But that is a big issue that we never seem to think about.

So what kind of challenges does that pose to the field?
Well the early years of fat studies were focused on trying to prove the health stuff and the lack of effectiveness of dieting. … What’s happened more recently is people have said, let’s focus on fat characters in movies and films. Let’s talk about the history of fat across countries, fat literature, and so on. …

We tend to get so obsessed with the health and dieting area that we forget all the other stuff.

How do you elevate the discourse to be more inclusive of all these elements?
With every group that has fought for its rights, there is a long history that we’re often not aware of. We tend to think about the recent past.

What has been difficult for fat studies maybe more than some other groups are the enormous markets that most companies stand to gain by trying to get people to be unhappy and lose weight. When people stop focusing on their appearance, it affects millions of people. The potential that millions of people could stop dieting, buying diet food or going to health spas is very threatening.

Almost every time I’m interviewed by the media, the last two paragraphs of the article will interview somebody who does weight loss surgery or diets, who will say that dieting is good and that people who are fat are unhealthy. It shows that we’re still at a point where there has to be this last word by the status quo.

A colleague of mine will say, it’s always, “P.S., we hate you.” Somehow fat studies is still so radical. … So many people just can’t believe that fat can be good. It’s kind of shocking in a way.