Fat Studies conference an international success

From left: Substantia Jones, Professor Amy Farrell, Dr Jenny Lee, Gurleen Khandapur, Kath Read, Dr Cat Pausé and Julie Howe

Speakers from six countries shared their scholarship and activism at the Fat Studies: Identity, Agency, Embodiment, held last week on the Manawatu campus to 30 attendees on campus, and an additional 80 attending online. Five of the speakers presented remotely, from London and Vancouver.

It was the second Fat Studies conference hosted by Massey University since the first in 2012, says organiser Dr Cat Pausé, from the Institute of Education.

The conference unofficially kicked off with a spoken word event, Fat Out Loud, at the Palmerston North City Library. Organised by Dr Jenny Lee of Victoria University, Melbourne, six readers shared stories about being pregnant while fat, being a fat child, negotiating life with an anti-fat mother, rejecting suiters who won’t be seen with you in public, and the role of chairs in the lives of fat people.

Former Massey staff member Marianne Tremaine was in the audience and was impressed with the works. “Writing about the way you’ve been discriminated against for fatness is an act of courage. But performing, interpreting and owning it is even more courageous and powerful. There is a lot to learn about living life as a person seen first as fat. I was absorbed and moved by hearing the performers telling their truth, speaking their pain,” she commented.

Paper topics on the programme included mother-blaming and maternal obesity, fat pedagogy, fat female agency in arranged marriages in India, fat discourse in online news media, negotiating fat phobia, performance art, radical fat activism, and fat motherhood, among others.

Keynote speakers Substantia Jones, from the United States, spoke on The Adipositivity Project she initiated, and Katie LeBesco presented on physical modification and the politics of acceptance. Ms Jones’ visit was funded through a Massey University Distinguished Visitor Award. 

Senior Lecturer at Jyvaskyla University (Finland), Hannele Harjuen noted, ”Having missed the first Fat Studies conference in 2012, I was determined to get to this one. I enjoyed the conference immensely! The atmosphere was intimate, the people were committed, presentations were thought-provoking, and the social programme with the spoken word event, Fat out Loud, and Substantia Jones' photo exhibition opening, made the conference a well-rounded experience.” 

The conference concluded with the opening of The Adipositivity Project at Te Manawa Museum. Chief Executive Andy Lowe spoke of the importance of museums being places where all people feel represented, and he welcomed Ms Jones to New Zealand and Te Manawa. Palmerston North mayor Grant Smith shared his observations that her work and exhibit had caused quite a stir across the country, provoking some important conversations, including in his own office. 

Dr Pausé spoke about the importance of Fat Studies scholarship. “Fat Studies scholarship centres on the lives and experiences of fat people – unlike obesity scholarship that centres a medical model of disease.” 

She is pleased technology allowed for remote presentations and participation by individuals around the world, and is excited about opportunities for the next Fat Studies conference she plans to host in 2020. “Maybe in 2020”, she mused, “we can have a multi-campus conference, with sites in the US, the UK, and here in Palmerston North.”

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