FINALLY! A summary of my research
First, I gotta say how incredibly difficult it is to fit almost 100 pages worth of thesis into this tiny box. What is below is the summary I sent to the participants in my study. It doesn't even get into the lit review, the epistemological framework (feminist critical disability theory), the methology, or even the discussion (maybe a wee bit at the end - very wee!). But I really wanted to share this with all of you. It's quite academic (duh?) but I hope you enjoy and I'd love to hear your thoughts.
Here we go...!
My research began with the idea that fat people tend to live from the neck up – they rarely engage with the rest of their bodies. I was interested in talking to female-identified people who also identified as fat about their relationships with their bodies and how (if they do) do they live in an embodied relationship. I conducted semi-structured one on one interviews with six fat female-identified people, all of whom identify as fat activists or “on the edge” of the fat activist community.
Fat people are subjected to oppression including weight stigma, medical “obesity” rhetoric, and fat discrimination which may affect their relationships with their bodies. Diet culture and normative beauty ideals reinforce this systemic oppression, all of which create social consequences for fat people. I believe these consequences often result in a disconnected relationship from their bodies.
Research questions: How do fat female-identified people who are a part of the fat acceptance and/or body positive movement understand their connection to their bodies? How do fat female-identified people develop an engaged connection with their bodies?
Dehumanization, or being made to feel as though one is an “inadequate human”, as one participant put it, is something that every participant reported experiencing. The participants discussed feeling particularly dehumanized in medical/health settings, but also in body positive community settings, at the movies, online, in restaurants, in change rooms and when shopping for clothes. When they interacted with medical professionals, the participants expressed that they were treated as though their fat bodies needed to be “fixed” (i.e.: they needed to lose weight), or that some and/or all of their medical issues were not taken seriously and attributed only to being fat. Each participant had experiences where the focus on their fat bodies meant participants’ knowledge about their own bodies was discounted or ignored, and they were faced with healthist assumptions.
Participants also described the struggle they have to engage in to feel as if they have the right to exist in the world, primarily in social settings. One participant stressed that for her, fat activism is not about body love or being considered beautiful, but about the right to exist and move in spaces without facing discrimination. It appears to me that the judgement and treatment received by living in a fat body makes the participants feel that they are not measuring up as humans.
Generally, when the participants were able to come to a place of acceptance of their bodies, they were able to gain control over their own lives, and this empowered them to engage in acts of resistance which had the possibility to affect organizational and societal structures. The above figure suggests this occurred in a linear fashion; this was not necessarily the case with all of the participants. They shifted from acceptance to empowerment to resistance and between these three concepts.
Acceptance of (the fat) body
The participants talked about the struggle towards self-acceptance as a fat person in a society which actively encourages the fat body to be eradicated through healthist means such as diet culture and other medical interventions. It became increasingly obvious that the participants were not simply talking about self-acceptance, but acceptance of their bodies – their fat bodies. Generally, the participants defined acceptance of body as moving away from hatred and/or rejection of their fat bodies to acceptance and/or love of their fat bodies. Acceptance of body was accomplished in three primary ways: through community acceptance or by feeling acceptance from an individual person, through seeing oneself represented in another person, and by using one’s own personal resources to come to a place of acceptance.
There were times when each of the participants felt disempowered; this was most apparent before they found fat acceptance community. In the data, the concept of empowerment was sometimes difficult to disentangle from the concepts of acceptance and resistance. Empowerment is perhaps a way of “gaining control” over their lives, of the participants recognizing their own power to resist how stereotypes, dehumanization, and reductive understandings of fat bodies influence their self-perception. Personal critical reflexivity, academic learning, and learning from and with community were strategies that led the participants to acceptance and consequently empowerment. Three central notions regarding empowerment arose for the participants: finding empowerment in individual actions created or developed by themselves, finding empowerment in community, and feeling empowering for others.
It would seem then, that when the participants feel secure in who they are, when they are feeling empowered, that this enables them to sometimes do what they want without worrying about what others think, and this in itself is understood by participants as a political act – an act of resistance. The act of resistance is not always without consequence; in fact, participants described knowingly placing themselves in situations where they might face physical or emotional violence. Importantly, the act of resistance does not necessarily imply a lack of vulnerability on the participants’ part; they are sometimes impacted by the discrimination and violence experienced. All the participants described using their critical thinking skills by exerting the necessary intellectual energy it requires to engage in resistance.
Resisting dominant constructions and judgements of fat bodies, refusing to conform to normative standards and pressures to lose weight, and existing in the world as a fat person without apology are all means of political resistance practiced by the participants.
How participants describe their relationship with their bodies is on a continuum with disembodiment/disconnection from (as well as rejection/hatred of) one’s body on one end and embodiment/connection with (and also acceptance/love of) one’s body on the other, as Figure 2 depicts. I have chosen to name this theme “disßàembodiment” to represent this continuum of the participants’ process of engaging with and moving between these two concepts. The process of movement on this continuum is fraught with tension, as the “line” underneath the graphic suggests (see Fig. 2). Participants variably describe this movement as: “a struggle”, “a work in progress”, “a vicious cycle”, “complicated”, “hard”, “a process”, “always shifting”, “conflicted”, “tender”, “sometimes cruel”, “a constant journey”, “a space of flux”, “challenging”, “three steps forward and five steps back”, “endless labour”, and “constant work”. What is apparent both to me in speaking to the participants, and as voiced by the participants, is that the process is non-linear and in a state of continuous change and flow. Participants utilize their intellectual abilities, sometimes resulting in disembodiment, to cope with the discrimination experienced as a fat person in a fatphobic society.
As fat-identified people, body relationship was identified by the participants as fraught with tension and involved consideration of their “non-normative” positionality (ie: existing in a fat body, one seen as not “normal” in Western culture), the value and importance of community, and a considerable amount of emotional labour. This research suggests that even with the support of community and a critical analysis of our fatphobic culture, the participants’ relationships with their (fat) bodies remains complicated and challenging.