Conference explores fatness in society


Visiting US fat activist and photographer Substantia Jones


Scholars from seven countries will be at Massey University’s Manawatū campus this month for a fat studies conference – an emerging field that confronts mainstream ideas about fatness.

A highlight of the June 29-30 event, titled Fat Studies: Identity, Agency, Embodiment, is renowned American photo activist Substantia Jones, a keynote speaker at the conference. It is one of several events during her month-long trip to Australasia, which includes a lecture at the Wellington campus this Thursday, being MC at a spoken word event at the Palmerston North City Library, and the launch of a photo exhibition at Palmerston North’s Te Manawa Museum.

Conference organiser Dr Cat Pausé, a senior lecturer at Massey’s Institute of Education and well-known New Zealand-based fat studies scholar and activist, says the conference will explore “how society conceptualises and pathologises fat bodies”.

“Fat studies scholars identify and discuss mainstream and alternative discourses on fatness, analyse size as a social justice issue at the intersection of oppression, and critically appraise size oppression as it is manifest in various societal institutions (medicine, media, education, etcetera).”

Fat discrimination and fat fears discussed

Topics by scholars in psychology, politics, education, health, and women’s studies from Canada, USA, Britain, Chile, Finland, Australia and New Zealand include: how the media conveys the complexity and nuance of issues around fat embodiment and public health; intersections between race and fat discrimination; the politics and ethics of how food corporations blamed for childhood obesity are marketing themselves as part of the solution; and how the word ‘fat’ is the first – and most feared – insult for young girls growing up.

Dr Pausé is “absolutely thrilled” that Ms Jones will be one of the keynote speakers because of her high profile as the creator of The Adipositivity Project (www.adipositivity.com). The project aims to “combat size-ist bigotry and weight-related misinformation, and to promote recognition of an individual’s body autonomy, critical thinking about the role of commerce in medical science reportage, and discussion of body politics,” she says.

“Seeing fat bodies in her work – especially naked fat bodies – is revolutionary. We’re used to seeing them as headless fatties in the media – the fat torso without a head that accompanies most stories in the news. But seeing them as she presents them, with dignity and respect, and sometimes beauty, shifts the way you see all bodies, regardless of size,” she says.

Seeing beauty of all bodies - regardless of size

The Adipositivity Project comprises various written and spoken forms, but primarily uses photography to “subvert this tool commonly used in promoting body shame, and using it instead to demystify the fat body and give it the respect and visibility too often denied it by the media and popular culture,” says Dr Pausé. “The message is to love your body, and allow others to love their own.”

A New Yorker, Ms Jones is planning to photograph fat people across New Zealand and Australia, and says she’s had an enthusiastic response so far. “I’m delighted to have Kiwis and Aussies join the hundreds of others represented by the project. I get mail from all over the globe, and often people tell me they’d like to participate, but can’t get to me in NYC,” she says. So far, photo shoots have been arranged in Auckland, Palmerston North, Wellington, Dunedin, Queenstown, Christchurch, Melbourne, and Sydney.

The Adipositivity Project has received media coverage across the world, including a video piece by TIME magazine in April 2016. Selected images from The Adipositivity Project will be on display at Te Manawa Museum in Palmerston North from 1 July – 29 August.

“Inclusive museums are not only about being places where all people feel represented but it’s also about being a place where all people are involved,” says Te Manawa chief executive Andy Lowe. “Stories that challenge us are as important as those that inspire us if we are to drive meaningful conversations about our diverse communities. Te Manawa is proud to host another exhibition which presents some stunning photography, and provokes important discussions about shape and acceptance.”

  • For more information about Substantia Jones’s work and visit to New Zealand, contact adipositivity@gmail.com.
  • For more information on Fat Studies: Identity, Agency, Embodiment conference, please contact fsnz16@massey.ac.nz
  • For more details on speakers at the conference click here.
  • Information on the Te Manawa Museum exhibition here.

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