- Obesity in Canada: Critical Perspectives ed. by Jenny Ellison, Deborah McPhail, Wendy Mitchinson
Jenny Ellison, Deborah McPhail, and Wendy Mitchinson (eds.)
Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016, xii + 483 p., $67.50
The critique of normative bodies defines any number of academic fields today: women’s and gender studies, ethnic studies, disability studies, citizenship studies, to name but a few. “Fat studies,” or “critical obesity studies,” may be less known to some people, but it is also a burgeoning site for critical examinations of understandings of normativity. As the editors of this important new anthology point out in their rich and eminently readable introduction, ideas about body size and shape are central to assumptions about nutrition, health, beauty, morality, ability, family, identity (such as gender, race, and class), nation, culture, and so on. Conceptualized as “an interruption to mainstream obesity discourse,” Obesity in Canada is a welcome, and much needed, addition to the study of the fat body as a cultural, social, political, historical, and representational artefact – that is, as a medium through which one can explore a range of fascinations and anxieties not only about bodies and body size but also about the many and varied contexts through which they move (22). Fat, in this book, is never just a description of some bodies but always a designation that signals particularities of power relations in need of exploring and challenging.
Ellison, McPhail, and Mitchinson, as well as the many contributors to the 16 articles in this collection (many of which have several authors), all take as their starting point the multiple and changing meanings attached to the “fat” body, noting that while the term “obese” is often preferred by those focusing on medicalized discourses, “fat” draws attention to the social and cultural production of bodies deemed non-normative in size. This is one of the strengths – and attractions – of this book: its refusal to think of fat bodies only as empirical or biological objects, knowable through scientific knowledge, [End Page 538] and, instead, to favour recognizing that body size is always a constructed category and one that carries much social significance. Even the first section of the book that focuses on “obesity science” never takes the category of obese for granted but, rather, constantly questions its varying historical and contextual production and mobilization.
Fat, like many other characteristics of bodies, is clearly a vector of much social oppression (and stigma, stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination) – that always intersects with other identity categories such as gender, race, and class. Through a range of quite different sites of investigation – from genetics and diabetes, to dietetics and food ways, to family and schooling, to reality television and online dating – the authors analyze how ideas about fat are culturally and materially produced in ways that never seamlessly add together. Indeed, throughout this book, fat is never monolithic in either definition or meaning. Rather, the authors all argue for the importance of being specific about the sites of its production because those different meanings have very different implications for people’s lives. This is an important observation and one that runs throughout this anthology as it moves between examining constructions of fat as a category and recognizing the consequences of those construction for people deemed fat. To say fat is a constructed category is not to say that it is does not have very real lived effects (and affects) – a point that the editors clearly keep at the forefront of all of the contributions.
If fat marks a locus of social oppression, though, it is also often the site of resistance to that oppression – a point that too often gets overlooked in many mainstream popular approaches to body size that fixate instead on how to alter the individual body. All of the contributors here share a resistance to thinking about fat bodies through the lenses of the individual alone – as evidenced, for instance, in the varied critiques of “healthism” offered several times here. Instead, they insist on seeing the fat body (and, indeed, all bodies) as a way of locating, exploring, and challenging broader social relationships – within families, with larger communities around us, with different ways...