Fat studies is an interdisciplinary field of scholarship marked by the negative assumptions, stereotypes and stigmas placed on the fat body. The Fat Studies Reader edited by Esther Rothblum and Sondra Solovay (2009) brings together fifty-three diverse voices, including includes scholars from a variety of fields to explore a wide range of topics on body weight. The authors begin with a history of fat in the United States and explore topics including fat studies in health and medicine, fatness as social inequality, sizeism in popular culture and embodying and embracing fatness. Rhetorically examining historical discourse on fat studies is critical, as this discourse has shaped the history of the lived experience in Western culture. As such, many scholars have focused on the history of the fat body in Western culture.
Amy Erdman Farrell (2011) provides a historical exploration of the links between body size and notions of belonging and social status in Fat Shame: Stigma and the Fat Body in American Culture. Farrell states, “connotations of fatness and of the fat person—lazy, gluttonous, greedy, immoral, uncontrolled, stupid, ugly, and lacking in will power—preceded and then were intertwined with explicit concern about health issues” (4).
J. Eric Oliver wrote Fat Politics in 2006 to expand upon the research of the politics of obesity in the United States. Oliver initially set out to write a book about what was causing the obesity epidemic. However, after he dug deeper he discovered his assumptions about obesity were incorrect based on the media portrayals. He posits that the warnings about Americans dying from obesity are loosely based statistical conjecture. Oliver discusses how the body of white women is met with unparalleled scorn. Whereas a large posterior can be seen as a sign of strength in black and Latino populations, for white women in American culture, fatness has severe negative consequences.
Susie Orbach (1978) wrote Fat is a Feminist Issue forty years ago, but the issues she wrote about are still relevant today. Orbach writes about the female body as a lived experience. Through an exploration of the diet and body obsessed culture, Orbach writes about how the fat body is about more than food, it’s a response to our social situation. Orbach (1986) expands upon these ideas in Hunger Strike, delving deeper into the most important area of contention for women: her body. Orbach posits that society alienates a woman from her body by defining it as an object of barter and something in need of continuous improvement. This leads women to seek control over their body, and all it represents: love, nurture, strength and power, and develop anorexia. In developing this disorder, women are addressing two juxtaposed positions, both conforming to societal expectations while also developing a strategy to take back control of their body.
Marcia Millman (1986) builds upon Orbach’s ideas in her 1980 work Such a Pretty Face: Being Fat in America and expands the fat body to the issues of class and privilege, providing data to demonstrate that there are fat people among all classes, there are proportionately more among the poor than the rich. Samantha Murry (2016) contributes to the scholarship on the lived experience of the fat body in The ‘Fat Female Body’. She states, “the ‘fat’ female is not that it is a ‘suffering’ body, but rather, that it is the source of suffering for others”. This attitude about societal expectations of the female body pervades the scholarship on feminist studies of the body.
Many scholars in fat studies have set out to understand the cultural meaning of fatness, including Kathleen LeBesco (2004), who explores identity politics and social construction of beauty in Revolting Bodies?:The Struggle to Redefine Fat Identity and Peter Stearns (2002) who explores the meaning of fat in Western society in Fat History. Stearns explores the misogynist history of body weight and women, focusing on the medical community prejudices towards fat women. While little was said about men’s weight, in the 1920s-1960s medical concern on the body weight of women grew. This concern spilled over to weight gain among pregnant women, which is a key topic within the intersection of the feminist theories of the body, rhetorics and the materiality of motherhood.
Lindal Buchanan (2013) is a prominent scholar who has paid close attention to the pregnant female body and maternal issues of control. According to Lindal Buchanan (2013) in Rhetorics of Motherhood, over the nineteenth century, the maternal body assumed new meanings and ways of control. She states, “The changed religious and legal status of abortion reflected a growing preoccupation with controlling women’s reproductive bodies and protecting the unborn, a trend that has not only persisted but intensified” (Location 1896). Buchanan (2002) continues her research on the maternal body as a place of control in ReGendering Delivery. Buchanan takes Cicero’s five canons of rhetoric, specifically the ‘Delivery’ tenant, and reframes what delivery means. She interprets delivery both literally and figuratively by providing examples of how women rhetors were appraised for their delivery (sexualized) and also how in response, women emphasized their bodily maternal role (as mother/wives/sisters). Jane Bennett (2010) also explores the female body as embodied and material in Vibrant Matter. Bennett discusses how theorists insisted on the material recalcitrance of cultural productions of the gendered body. Her work is influenced by the ethical and aesthetic turn in feminist studies of the body.
While many scholars focus on the social and cultural associations with the fat body, Lynda Birke (2014) connects the biology with feminist theory in Feminism and the Biological Body. Birke seeks to look “inside” the body to explain not only what goes on physiologically, but also the perception of the female body by Western culture. Birke fills the gap in scholarship between feminist cultural analysis and biology.
The issue of food and the body is also a topic garnering recent attention. Carole M. Counihan (2018) applies an intersectional approach to the study of food and the body in The Anthropology of Food and Body: Gender, Meaning, and Power. Her approach to studying food and the body is anthropological and feminist. In this work she chronicles the journey of gendered meanings of feeding the body.
In Food, Feminisms and Rhetoric, Melissa Goldwaithe (2017) highlights works from feminist rhetorical scholars to critically examine the historical and rhetorical significance of women, rhetoric, bodies and food. Elizabeth Lowry’s (2017) essay, “Deconstructing the Plus-Size Female Sleuth: Fat Positive Discourse, Rhetorical Excess, And Cultural Constructions of Femininity in Cozy Crime Fiction” explores the relationship between personal and the political with fat positive discourse in the second-wave feminist movement, specifically by taking a deep look at novels portraying a fat female detective. Lowry’s concluding argument is one of mixed messages, stating that when writing about a fat protagonist, the author should be careful to celebrate excess, but not take it too far, embrace their body while also not focusing too much on their fatness. The connections between food, sex, reproduction and gender across cultures provide insights into societal believes on gender and power.
In contrast to the fat and maternal female body, many scholars have studied feminist theories related to the athletic body. The significance of the sports context to the body and gender is of interest to many feminist scholars and there are bodies of work dedicated to the contradictory implications of women’s embodiment in athletics. Katharina Linder explores the significance of the sports context to the reconstitution of gender and the female body in her article “Bodies in Action” within the Feminist Media Studies journal. Linder expands upon Iris Young’s work in On Female Body Experience: “Throwing Like a Girl” and Other Essays, which posits that “women’s engagement in an athletic activity is potentially empowering, as it allows for experiences of the body as capable and competent in moving through and relating to people and objects in the space surround it” (322). Iris Young (1980) states “On the one hand, there is a sense that women’s engagement in athletic activity is potentially empowering, as it allows for experiences of the body as capable and competent in moving through and relating to people and objects in the space surround it” (8). Athletic activity offers possibilities for agency and resistance, and it can, as Catharine MacKinnon suggests in Feminism Unmodified. MacKinnon states that athletics “give us a sense of an actuality of our bodies as our own rather than primarily as an instrument to communicate sexual availability” (122). Linder expands upon this notion, arguing that the athletic female body is contradictory, as it reinforces normative notions of gender while also granting visibility to non-normative gendered bodies. Linder states “Female athleticism has the potential to destabilize and “trouble” normative and binary understandings of gender”. Ann Hall (1996) attempts to bring feminism to the study of sport in Feminism and Sporting Bodies. Hall argues that while female bodies have been central to feminism, sporting bodies have not. Hall seeks to fill the gap in scholarship on bringing sporting bodies into feminist theory.
In Sport, Rhetoric and Gender: Historical Perspectives and Media Representations, Linda K. Fuller (2009) provided an interdisciplinary approach to studying gender, language and sport. She discusses how hegemonic masculinity rules the world of sports. Given the hegemonic masculinity, women participating in sports must carefully balance femininity and athleticism. A theme identified is that the discourse of women’s sporting bodies communicates that women should desire a “fit” body to fit the socially constructed desire for sexual beauty. Rather than achieving a “healthy” body, women should desire achieving a body that is at the site of sexual satisfaction for men.
Feminist rhetorician, Sarah Hallenbeck (2012), researches the intersection of gender, materiality, and rhetorics of science and technology. In Claiming the Bicycle she studies the historical significance between women and their relationship to the bicycle, leveraging a feminist-materialist methodology. There was very little research on women-specific bicycling groups, clubs and networks while there were reams of information on men’s clubs, therefore she expanded her focus from looking solely at the rhetoric by and for women to look at the entire network in which women began their relationship with the bicycle. Hallenbeck states, “Opposition to women century riders continued, with skeptics often couching their arguments against women’s athleticism in medical terms; as recently as the 1970s, women were barred from similarly strenuous athletic competition, such as long-distance running, on the grounds that their bodies could not withstand the strain” (165). She explores the relationships between the female body, sports and agency emphasizing the adaptability, rather than the weakness, of women’s bodies and minds.