My Geography of Fatness: Introduction

I’ve been often fascinated by the various Geography of Obesity posts and infographics, and even journal articles that have floated around Twitter and other social networks over the past few years. Indeed, fatness has become something of a hot-button issue, getting plenty of coverage in various news outlets because of social costs. With the prevention of childhood obesity becoming a major part of First Lady Michelle Obama’s agenda and with 2/3 of Americans considered obese or overweight, it’s not likely to go away anytime soon.

One commonality for each of the maps and studies I linked in that first paragraph is the reliance on quantitative data. Now, I’m not one to dive right into one of the bigger divides in the social sciences (okay, maybe I am), but quantitative data does not and cannot tell the entire story of geography and fatness (or any other human phenomenon). A set of statewide percentages of obesity (note here, “obesity” is a medical term) amongst the population can be useful, but it says nothing about who these people are, what they experience, and how their lives change because of their condition. Importantly, it says nothing of how fatness causes obese individuals to perceive and interact with space and place differently than a non-obese person.

And, that’s where this series of blog posts comes in. I have a particular interest in geographies of fatnessfor a pretty obvious reason. I am a geographer, and by nearly every measure that exists, I am also morbidly obese. You’d think that this would be a fairly common occurrence, but observation at our latest AAG meeting in New York seemed to show otherwise. Between my height and my weight, I realistically dwarfed 99% of the convention-goers in both measures. But more seriously, I would say only approximately 10% of geographers could be considered obese by the numbers. We geographers are, as a whole, a fairly fit and healthy group. Beyond this, as a discipline a majority of geographers tend to not jump into social theory and other such analyses, and perhaps that’s why I haven’t yet read something quite like this.

What Do I Have Planned?

This is intended to be a not-quite-formal, “N=1” study from an autobiographical perspective, exploring how experiencing fatness has changed my behaviors, perspectives, understandings of and interaction with space and place. In it, I will be composing essays that either follow one of two models: 1) a specific experience that I’ve planned to have this week; or 2) will be a composite story of of a number of true individual experiences into a single narrative. The idea behind this is to provide a window or an idea into how an obese person experiences and interacts with space and place in their daily lives. To do so, my entries will cover the following from the perspective of an obese person: shopping for clothing, interactions and relationships with furniture, eating with others, and traveling. Other essays on topics yet to be determined may follow, then hopefully I’ll be able to conclude them with an analytical and summarized post about the project.

Positionality

If I am writing a project where I am using myself as the subject of study, then shouldn’t I define myself a bit better so that these parameters of the project are immediately known? Sure. I’m a 30 year-old geography professor who’s finished his first year at a faculty position in Wisconsin. I measure 6′ 4.75″ in height, and by weighing 455 pounds, I am considered by every measure to be morbidly obese. I apparently carry my weight fairly well, as medical professionals usually expect me to weigh around 70-100 pounds lighter before I jump on the scale. (That’s always a weird moment… you don’t know whether to smile because you look better than you should, or to cry at that your number suggests a physical presence far worse off).

I have been larger than average my entire life. I was born at an ounce less than 10 pounds, and I was 25″ long. My doctor predicted I’d be seven feet tall. Throughout my school years, my size always distinguished me from my peers, bringing me significant harassment from them. It hurt me enough and for a prolonged enough time that I still avoid thinking about most of my life between kindergarten and high school graduation. Because of this stigma, I’ve tried a number of times to get in a better, more socially acceptable form, and have generally failed at each.

Oddly enough, I’ve also been a geographer (practically) my entire life. My mom’s a geography professor at Ball State, so every family vacation was a field trip, and atlases and National Geographics abounded. Now, I’ve got a PhD in the subject, and during the same time that I trained through undergrad and grad school, I was also living as an obese person in American society. I’m not sure whether this constellation of social factors makes me supremely qualified to or exceptionally disqualified from contributing to our understanding of this subject. Either way, I’m going to try.

Some Preliminary Thoughts on Fatness

Fatness is a peculiar social phenomenon today. Though researchers can’t fully agree how much of fatness is caused genetically or by behavior and environment, its generally seen as a disease that can be avoided with hard work (exercise) and discipline (dieting). Its sufferers are a social underclass, assumedly inferior slothful individuals without the discipline to control carnal urges, membership of which is defined and reinforced by a visible physical condition. Judgement in swift and constant, ranging from disgusted looks to derisive laughter, from simply smug condescension to aggressive in-the-face insults. That alone makes venturing into public spaces a risky venture. In fact, I’ve accepted the fact that this post will garner some of the same.

There are many subtle discriminations against obese people throughout the daily landscape most people occupy. Oftentimes, those discriminations are excused in the larger society because fatness is considered something that’s completely avoidable. Some consider it to be social discipline, while others call it good fun, but generally the abuse of obese people is considered acceptable because the condition is seen as a result of personality flaws worthy of derision. Folks point to the social costs (including a recent study that says global obesity is like adding one billion people to the earth) of being obese as a reasoning for this kind of hateful action. Personal respect, and certainly love, are discarded for folks who, as human beings, need both.

Given the lower social standing that people face from fatness, if it was so easily preventable, would anyone choose be fat? I’ve attempted to overcome the condition precisely because of this social pressure and have failed repeatedly. Given the number of dieting and fitness products available on the market today — not to mention the tremendous sales derived from demonizing fatness — I know I’m not alone.

Surviving as an overweight person with minimal embarrassment today usually requires a set of skills learned over years. Avoid taking classes in rooms where desks and chairs are attached. Seek the strongest chair at the table, and hopefully one without arms. Be sure to bend wayyy over the table when eating soup so you don’t dribble it on yourself. Shoot for a handicapped stall if you want to be comfortable while pooping. If there’s a cool/sexy/trendy/stylish piece of clothing you want, they don’t have your size. Because of that, there’s no reason to ever walk around the mall, except for ice cream, which you can’t eat there unless you want to be openly mocked by teenage girls. Keep your car clean so you can offer it for carpooling, because that’s the only way you know you’ll fit. Avoid air travel at all costs. Don’t waste your time talking to that girl in the club unless she really shows an undisputed interest… and then, guard your wallet. They’re little lessons that we’ve learned from experience, sadly.

How those lessons are learned, and how those lessons change space and place, is what I’ll be focusing on. Yeah, they collectively make up a very dark part of my human experience and consciousness, and I’ll be facing those head-on. It could be a cathartic experience, in the best case. Either way, it’s a story that needs to be told, and a two-bit analysis that needs to happen.

Author: Andrew Shears

Andrew Shears is an Assistant Professor of Geography at Mansfield University in Mansfield, Pennsylvania. His research interests lie at an intersection of the human-environmental nexus, and includes branches of mapping, technological, memorialization and urban geographies. He lives in Wellsboro, Pennsylvania with his wife Amy, a professional photographer.

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