Try This ExCo on for Size
“What if you just ate well and exercised and didn’t lose a single pound?” asked first-semester senior Zoe Fisher. “What if you just let yourself be a healthy person instead of a thin person? What would this world look like?”
Fisher teaches the revolutionary ExCo “Obesity and Fat Activism” to nine dedicated students, each of whom brings to the class a unique background and perspective. The interdisciplinary class is part gender and women’s studies and part comparative American studies, with a sprinkle of sociology, history, science and media studies thrown in.
More academic than most ExCos, the class focuses on Paul Campos’s The Diet Myth and the anthology Fat, as well as several other articles and excerpts. It meets weekly to delve into issues of health, size, race and gender.
“This class asks a lot of people,” said Fisher. “Not only because of all the reading but because we discuss tricky things. It’s a small group, but very involved.”
Despite the serious issues at hand, the class is full of warmth and humor. Students debate their favorite fat celebrities, play games and use sarcasm to vent their frustrations.
“When Tyra Banks gains ten pounds, it’s a national crisis,” said Fisher in a joking manner, mocking the media’s exploitation of obesity.
Fisher’s inspiration for the class came from reading J. Eric Oliver’s Fat Politics, which questions why society defines obesity as a disease. Further research encouraged her to bring this information to campus.
“Oberlin is very sensitive about teaching racial oppression, class oppression, issues of difference,” said Fisher. “Size wasn’t an issue that was being discussed outside of a few [gender and women’s] studies classes.”
The class has generated a lot of interest, but not in the way Fisher anticipated.
“I wanted some aggressive 400-pound person to sign up for this class and say, ‘I’m fat and that’s who I am,’ but I had to be my own aggressive fat person,” Fisher said. “I wondered if people thought that taking this class as a fat person would mark them in some way. I also wish there were more people of color in this class, because we discuss issues of race quite a bit. It feels awkward to be a group of white students talking about issues of race.”
Fisher is, however, excited about the students she has, as well as those outside the class who express interest.
“I find it flattering and positive when people I don’t even know ask me how the ExCo is going. It’s going so well that I don’t know what to say. People are getting a lot out of it. It’s making people aware of how prevalent this issue is, but most importantly, this class teaches about how we see people and how we think about people. Not just fat people, but everybody. How we categorize people and expect certain things out of them.”
As Fisher commented on issues of size, her passion and knowledge of the subject shone through.
“We have to get away from this obsession with weight, because weight is not the issue. Being sedentary is what kills people, and that’s true no matter what you weigh. I just want to raise awareness that there are people who don’t diet. Isn’t that a radical concept? There are fat people who are okay with their bodies and just eat what they want. Think about how much time you’d save if you weren’t calorie counting and calculating your food points. Think about the money we’d save as a country if we put all our money from dieting into education or health care. It just blows my mind.”
Fisher’s students are currently working on their final paper, on a topic of their choice. Ideas range from an examination of the role of obesity in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? to a scientific study of the genes and hormones that control weight. Fisher expressed excitement about these diverse projects, which show how far her students have come. The students themselves shared what they have learned, saying that they are “much more critical of cheap fat jokes” and “skeptical of diets.”
“I would love if everyone came out of here with a better sense of self-esteem,” said Fisher, “but also with some anger, wanting to fight some of these issues, so that next time someone says ‘If you’re overweight you’re going to die,’ they can say, ‘Not necessarily.’ It’s important to me that people have a wider perspective and understand that everything is interrelated: gender, race, class and size. I also wanted people of size to see that it’s okay not to hate yourself, and you’re not going to die because of your weight.”
Though Fisher will not continue the class in the fall because she will be studying abroad, she feels optimistic about the topic’s future at Oberlin.
“I don’t think this is going to go on the back burner or disappear,” she said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if somebody taught a class like this in the future.”