Editor’s note and disclaimer: For our first post of 2023, I’m so excited to bring you this interview with Derek Newman-Stille, a professor at Trent University in the field of Disability Studies who has also taught a class in Fat Studies. For many of us Spoonies, our weight is often brought up, sometimes as a way of dismissing our symptoms or to shame us into curing ourselves, so I felt it was an important topic to discuss on the Spoonie Authors Network! Also, please keep in mind that Derek and I are speaking from our personal lived experiences, and nothing discussed here is to be taken as universal medical advice.
Content note: mentions of fatphobia and body-shaming (in society and medical circles) and reclaimed ableist words as identities
SpAN Editor: Can you please explain for our readers and listeners what fat studies is? In Disability culture, we often reclaim words used against us, like Crip or Mad. With Fat community, do you feel fat is a word that needs to be reclaimed and celebrated like an identity?
Derek Newman-Stille: Fat Studies is sort of an academic study that stems from the work of fat positivity activists. It is about studying the social meanings and ideas that we attach to fat in our society, and it is also about disrupting systemic fatphobia (the discrimination against fat bodies).
It is so crucial that we reclaim the word “fat” and that we reclaim it as an identity because our society discriminates against fat bodies and presents fat as a “problem” to be dealt with rather than recognizing that fat is an important part of the human experience and is part of our bodily diversity. We are meant to have a variety of bodies and yet our society demonizes fat bodies.
SpAN: So true.
Derek: I often tell my students that fat is not a four-letter word. It is something that is just a descriptor like any other. And the more we use the word “fat,” the more we take away that “forbiddenness” associated with it.
It shouldn’t be a word or an identity that we should be ashamed of, and we can make it something to be proud of by speaking about it, bringing it out of silence and into the world around us.
And, we can celebrate it.
SpAN: Absolutely! How have you personally been affected by what you’ve learned by listening to and studying with body-celebrating advocates?
Derek: I recognize that I am part of the fat community and have been affected by things like medicalized fatphobia (discrimination by doctors based on having a fat body), so the work of fat activists and advocates speaks to me personally. But there is also power in listening to those shared narratives, and I think that is one of the most important things for me about fat activism. Teaching a Fat Studies class in the Gender and Social Justice Department at Trent University, I have been able to hear and share in the stories of my students. It is amazing how many stories come out of our classroom chats and how many times we see ourselves in the stories of others. There are common threads through these stories about exclusion, violence, control, and self-loathing and those stories are ones we can all share in, but also all grow through.
I ended up spending a lot of my lecture time introducing students to fat positive activists and giving them a chance to see that their stories are not in isolation and that others share their experiences and have been struggling with the same questions and concerns and violences for a long time.
It is amazing to see what happens when we suddenly see an activist loving and living in their body and how that models what is possible for us as well.
SpAN: I can only imagine!
Derek: We suddenly see the potential for self body love and for transformation.
SpAN: That’s amazing! And onto medical things…
There’s this joke that was going around:
“Doctor, doctor, I’ve been hit by a car!”
Doc says, “Well, have you tried losing weight?”
How much power do you feel medical narratives play in fatphobia?
Derek: One of the problems with medicine is that it presents itself as though it is free of bias. We are constantly told that science holds no bias… yet we know this is not the case. The people conducting science and medicine are still impacted by the society they grew up in and are still inclined toward assuming that certain “taken for granted as true” narratives are true. So, we see incredible fatphobia in the medical profession partially because it is everywhere in our society and partially because doctors aren’t critically examining their biases because they believe they are unbiased.
SpAN: Oh gosh, this.
Derek: Fat, in particular, has been demonized in the medical profession because it is seen as the opposite of health, and that is something created by our social systems that have, since the 1930s, been looking at fat bodies as personifications of greed and gluttony. So there are moral judgements being made about fat bodies that are not in any way true, but they have cemented some ideas into our social discussions about fat and our assumptions about fat people.
Of course, the impact of this is that when a fat person walks into a doctor’s office, the first thing the doctor sees is fat, and they often ignore anything else that the patient describes.
This has certainly been the case for me, where doctors have told me that things as diverse as a broken finger and a sinus infection are “because you need to lose weight.”
Derek: We take these messages with us too, and we then start to avoid doctors because we know that we are not going to get the treatment we need because they are too focussed on weight and not focussed enough on what we are actually narrating about our body or what our body is ACTUALLY doing.
SpAN: This leads me to my next question, regarding gender: I am a cis woman of the GenX variety. I know there is gender-based fatphobia toward cis women, but do you find fatphobia is hurled against all genders?
Derek: That’s a great question. It is definitely levelled against women’s and gender minority bodies far more than against male bodies. For example, there is such a thing as a “dad bod” and that is still considered attractive, but is there a “mom bod?” No. And “mom bods” are actually far more impacted by the children they carry. Women in our society are under constantly subject to scrutiny (we call this the male gaze). They are constantly watched and assumed to be somehow a problem. Women are criticized for being too fat… but they are also criticized for being too thin. So no matter what women do with their bodies, they are going to be criticized because we live in a patriarchal society.
Women and gender minorities in particular are open to bodily scrutiny because they don’t have a whole social system (patriarchy) that supports them.
Oh, and when I say gender minorities, I am referring to people who are neither male nor female or who fall into nonbinary or genderfluid identities. I also want to talk a bit about nonbinary identities and fat. Nonbinary representation is rare in general, but it also tends to conform to certain tropes. Nonbinary bodies are often shown to be rail thin, to the point where when people talk about the Nonbinary Aesthetic, they mean a thin, androgynous person. But that erases those of us who are fat and nonbinary and ignores the fact that fat nonbinary bodies are very curvy, and it tends to be harder to hide things like breasts because binders can only hide so much. It is important for us to have representation of fat nonbinary bodies so that we recognize that there is more than one way to fit outside the binary.
Derek: But there is definitely fatphobia directed at all fat bodies.
SpAN: So, this is a question I have been aching to ask: For an ongoing health condition, I have had to lose weight in an attempt to alleviate symptoms. And whenever I mention how much I have lost, I hear an enthusiastic, “Congratulations!!!” Even though I understand this is meant to be supportive, the word bothered me. I mean, I guess to me, congratulations are for getting engaged, earning your degree, getting a book deal, and so on. Do you think this sort of reaction from people could be rooted in fatphobia? Why do you think we regard weight loss at the same level as a milestone life event?
Derek: You are absolutely right that this is rooted in fatphobia. At the same time as our society demonizes fat, it celebrates thinness and this thin-centric aspect of our society means that people are celebrated for moving toward thinness. We even talk about this as “getting healthy,” suggesting that to be fat is to be unhealthy (even though this is not the case).
In our society, we have what is called in fat activist circles the “good fatty,” (and although I don’t like the term “fatty,” I understand that it is part of reclaiming language). The “good fatty” is someone who is supposed to constantly try to take up as little space as possible and to constantly aspire to be thin. So we celebrate people who have the objective of being thin, but demonize people who say, “Hey, I’m fine as I am.”
I have personal experience with this too. A couple of years ago, I lost a tremendous amount of weight when I was ill… and I posted about it on Facebook. And people ignored the part where I talked about how unhealthy I was and how scared I was of losing so much weight and instead kept congratulating me IN THE SAME POST.
SpAN: That’s horrible!
Derek: So despite people saying that losing weight is healthy, they will actually celebrate losing weight even when it nearly kills someone.
SpAN: It’s interesting because I am purposely trying not to get too thin. I want an extra ten pounds in case I get ill.
Derek: Fat is also one of those things where random people feel they are health experts and even random people on the street will say things [like], “You would probably not be disabled if you were thinner.”
SpAN: My fat is my protector!
Derek: Yes! Same here!
Fat keeps me safe when I am ill and it also cushions my spine, so I am in less pain when I am fat.
SpAN: And by the way, I’m 18 pounds gone and it is helping my liver condition, but I have exactly the same fibro symptoms.
Derek: Right? Doctors treat it like weight loss is a panacea, but it isn’t, and it can make certain conditions worse.
SpAN: It’s not a cure-all for sure!
What have been your most empowering moments when you embraced your body?
Derek: I think my most empowering moments come from writing body positive poetry… and fat activist poetry. The body positive poetry is great because it embraces the beauty and power of the fat body, while the activist poetry is powerful because it extends a middle finger at the whole establishment of fatphobia in our society.
SpAN: Oh, I love this!
Derek: But I think one of the most powerful moments I had was when a fat activist friend of mine encouraged me and others to play with our bellies. They pulled out their belly in a room full of people and just played with their fat, moving it and shaping it and slapping it, and I just watched in total awe of that celebration of fat.
SpAN: Okay, that’s awesome because we always try to hide our fat.
Derek: Exactly. We look at fat as something unseemly, and we try to hide it and we drape ourselves in fabrics that bury our fat.
We treat fat as something to be ashamed of, and it is so powerful to turn things around and view it as something to be proud of— to look at our rolls and stretch marks and curves as different ways that our body is speaking out and to celebrate what that body has done.
SpAN: I have wrestled with internalized fatphobia all my life. For those who want to defy their internalized fatphobia, what do you think is the first step in the path to body celebration?
Derek: That is such a tough question, because I think it is different for every person. We all have internalized fatphobia, which makes sense because we live in an intensely fatphobic society. But that internalized fatphobia has different triggers and different nuances. For some folks, it is family who triggers their fatphobia the most, and for others, it is being seen in public. It varies depending on the person. I normally suggest that the first step toward body celebration and fat liberation is to share one’s story with others. Knowing that there are others who are also struggling with their internalized fatphobia helps and allows one to feel a sense of community. It’s also really important to work to minimize the role of people in our lives who damage us with their fatphobia where possible. And then, of course, there is the importance of getting comfortable with your body. Taking a look at it and noticing what it does and how it does it and seeing the beauty in it.
SpAN: That’s great advice because so much influences how we feel about ourselves.
Derek: One thing I encourage folks to do is to embrace the word fat as a neutral word. Instead of viewing it as a negative or an insult, take it as a word that is just a description, without moral or personal judgements.
SpAN: I am trying to do this!
Derek: There is so much power in saying, “Yes, I am fat… and…”
SpAN: Yeah! Like saying I am disabled and…
Derek: Exactly. And I think fat and disability have so much in common. Body-disabled and fat bodies are alienated from our physical environment, which favours abled, thin bodies. Both encounter medical bias and assumptions. Both encounter social and political violence.
In fact, my idea of teaching a fat studies course came from teaching my disability studies course, where students were talking about disabilities but also were mentioning medical visits where they were told to lose weight.
I realized that I needed to do something that centred fat bodies and allowed these experiences to be shared.
SpAN: That’s fantastic. And now my final question! Are there advocates, books, and websites that you recommend we follow to learn more about fat pride?
Derek: Absolutely. There are a lot of wonderful fat activists out there, but I will share some of my favourites from a variety of areas. Two of my favourite fat activist poets are Tolonda Henderson and Rachel Wiley. Both do such fascinating and powerful critiques of our fatphobic society.
In terms of dance, I adore the work of Regan Chastain, who performs under the name Dances With Fat.
SpAN: How cool is that?
Derek: I want to highlight the role of HAES (Health at Every Size) for their work on encouraging people to embrace their bodies.
I love the work of several fatshionistas (yes, that is a word and yes it is fabulous), especially Jes Baker.
SpAN: I am a fashionista, from Montreal days too!
Derek: Ah, but are you a FAT-shonista?
SpAN: Ohhhh! I didn’t clue in! Now it’s ten times as fabulous!
SpAN: Indeed! Unfortunately, that’s all the time we have for now. Thanks so much for giving us so much to think about!
Derek: Thank you for doing this interview. I really appreciate it. It’s so important to get our stories out into the world!
Derek Newman-Stille is the nine-time Prix Aurora Award winning creator of Speculating Canada. They are completing their PhD at Trent University, researching representations of disability in Canadian speculative fiction. Derek is the anthology editor of Over the Rainbow: Folk and Fairy Tales From the Margins and the Prix Aurora Award nominated We Shall Be Monsters. Derek has published in fora like Quill & Quire, The Canadian Fantastic in Focus, Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature, Misfit Children: An Inquiry into Childhood Belongings, The Playground of Lost Toys, and Accessing the Future. Their short story Charity™ appears in the Prix Aurora Award nominated anthology, Nothing Without Us. Their latest literary work is Whispers Between Fairies, a collection of fairy tale retellings, written by Derek and Nathan Caro Fréchette.