17 July 2009

Interview: Hannele Harjunen

Hannele Harjunen has been attached to the Universities of Jyväskylä in Finland and, until recently, Umeå in Sweden. She and I have been in touch for quite a few years, but it was only this year that I got to see her in action as she presented her work on liminality (don't worry, an explanation is coming) at the Fat Studies strand of the Pop Culture Association/American Culture Association conference in New Orleans. I was impressed by her confidence and intelligence, her persistence and academic rigour, and the respectful understanding she showed towards her research participants. I think Hannele's work is at the forefront of developing theory within Fat Studies. Moreover, although Hannele and I are both supporters of Fat Studies, we are aware of our positions as Europeans within an Amerocentric field dominated by the US. We think it's time to establish a more international academic engagement. Want to know more? Read on…

What got you into writing and thinking about fat?

I think I have thought about fat just as long as I can remember, but my private thoughts finally got an outlet while studying at the university. By that time I had already been on a diet and gained a number of times and the question of fat was always somehow present in my life in some form or another. My thoughts began to become more organised and I began to search for information about fatness more actively and systematically when I was in my early to mid-twenties in the mid-90s.

The moment of revelation came when I was doing a seminar paper for women’s studies class on beauty ideals and body norm. It was then when I realised that there was almost no research available on fat bodies from a social science/cultural studies perspective in Finnish and little that I could get my hands on in English. I was amazed by this, since in the early and mid-90s there was a kind of a boom of feminist literature on bodies and body ideals and norms and gender, but analysis of fatness or the experience of being fat was always missing or just a sideline in these studies. It was approached through dieting, oppressive body ideals, or eating disorders, but it was never at the centre of study. This to me felt crazy and completely wrong since I knew from my own experience that dealing with the fatness can really be a central and life-forming/informing issue. I was also quite sure that I can’t be the only one who is thinking about it. I guess it could be said that this experience was the starting point for my research and fat activism.

Could you say a little bit about your PhD?

My PhD 'Approaches to the Social Study of Fatness' started out as a thesis on Finnish women’s experiences of fatness, but it has evolved over the years to other (more theoretical) directions as well. It is an article PhD, so I’ve written and published four articles that deal with medicalisation, normalisation, stigma and liminality of fatness respectively. I’ve just finished writing the manuscript for the so called summary article, in which I’ve tied together the themes of the articles.

In the articles I have used empirical material, which consists of women’s own autobiographical writings on fatness, in addition, I interviewed some dozen women as well. Based on the empirical material and literature I have surmised that medicalisation, normalisation, stigma and liminalisation/liminality are some of the central processes or powers by which women’s fatness is being constructed today and they in a sense set boundaries to the (possible) fat subjectivity. I have been inspired by Foucault’s thought on discursive power and how that power forms its subjects. The position of the fat subject interests me. I have most recently tried to analyse it through the concept and experience of liminality. One of the aspects of fatness that fascinates me is how fatness is at the same time constructed as changeable, transitional and non-permanent yet it is known that it is a fairly permanent characteristic. This makes it a very interesting and challenging basis for subjectivity in my mind.

What does liminal mean?

Liminality as a term comes from anthropology (Arnold van Gennep and Victor Turner). It originally means the middle part of the rite of passage. Rite of passage marks a change in status and when one is at the liminal stage one is not anymore the one she used to be, but has not yet passed into the new status. One is literally in-between.

Why is it a useful concept when thinking about fatness?

I do not use the term liminality strictly the same way as anthropologists do i.e., I have not tried to fit fatness into the structure of the rite of passage, instead I have developed the idea that fatness is socially constructed as a liminal space and being fat means occupying that space e.g. between normal and abnormal body, health and disease, acceptable and unacceptable femininity, etc. All of these liminalities tie together and mould the liminal fat subjectivity. I claim that positioning fatness and being fat as liminal and transient leaves individuals in many ways in a symbolic and concrete state of limbo, in an in-between position, which quite inevitably has a number of consequences for the individual’s experience and possible agency and subjectivity. I have thought fat female subjectivity via the concept of liminality in order to capture the precariousness of the fat subject position.

Please make some broad generalisations about how fat people are perceived in Finland - and other Nordic countries, if you feel qualified to make such claims.

In Finland fatness has been considered a problem in the public health sense for a long time. I remember already in from the 80s the news about Finland being the fattest country, or the fifth fattest or something in Europe/ the world. So, the recent obesity epidemic discourse has really been easily adopted by the Finnish public health professionals and it has dominated the public discourse. Finns believe in authorities and trust experts and people have really internalised the medicalised view on fatness. However, a bunch of researchers, including myself, have been active in the media and talked about our research results on a number of occasions.

Since Finland is a small country by population I have found it relatively easy to get my own 'expert' voice heard. A close colleague, Katariina Kyrölä, and I complied an anthology of non-medical research on fatness a couple of years ago and it is now used in teaching in at least five universities here. So more and more people are getting exposed to alternative kinds of thinking on fatness and fat people. Over the recent years I have noted some changes in how journalists write about fatness, most now try to include more sociological perspectives in to their stories, which I think is a good sign.

I have lived recently in Sweden for a few years and my personal experience is that it is kind of easier to be fat in Finland, because there seems to be more of us here. One does not stand out as much. In Sweden I was invariably the fattest person in any given situation. It’s been years since I’ve been harassed or abused because of my body size, but I know it happens a lot in any case. My informants wrote a lot about it.

What kind of fat community or fat alliances are going on in Finland and Sweden?

In Finland there is now net activity and I know of some smaller more informal groups that gather together and talk about fatness and issues around it, but there is no organised or nation-wide community. I think that there really would be need for one. In Sweden I know that there have been some organised groups, but I do not know much about their work.

What do you think about the dominance of US scholars and activists in Fat Studies? What effect do you think it has on the field?

Well, it shows obviously. The US discussion is in many ways shaped by the American society and it is not always completely relevant in other contexts. I understand that US scholars are mostly interested in their own case, but I think it would be useful to the development of fat studies as a truly international field of study, if they did not generalise their situation too much or take it for granted that it applies to all contexts. We share many of the same struggles, but there are some major differences that shape approaches in the US, European countries such as the UK and Finland, or Australia. I take as an example the access to health care issue, which is a major one for US scholars and activists due to among other things lack of universal health care. For us, who come from countries where we don’t have to deal with private insurers, the whole issue of being denied access to proper health care based on weight, income etc. is outrageous.

On the level of single issues, I understand the US-centric approach much more. However, when we talk about the goals of fat acceptance movement or activists I am more concerned. The US dominance in the field shows also on the ontological and ideological level. The US fat acceptance follows the tradition of the American civil rights movements for example and the US fat acceptance movement seems to have adopted similar kind of mode and goals that might not be applicable in all societies and contexts. However, US scholars seem to be quite rarely conscious or reflexive about this.

Another thing that bothers me is that many scholars seem to base their thought on the fat acceptance on the notion of some kind of 'fixed' fat subjectivity, or political subject which I find problematic. I don’t think this kind of formula works completely. We have to be able to address the possible volatility of the fat body and subjectivity as well.

Who are the rad fatties you most admire?

All the wonderful and inspiring fat studies scholars and activists I met this spring in New Orleans at the PCA conference, among them the session coordinators Lesleigh Owen and Julia McCrossin and you. So many people are doing such amazing work! On the celebrity front Dawn French is a long time favourite, Beth Ditto obviously, Camryn Mannheim and Queen Latifah.

What's next for you?

I will defend my thesis this autumn. I am at the moment writing research proposal on a future study I plan doing on men and fatness. There is very little research in Finnish on men and fatness. It is so needed. I am determined to make studying fat my career so I am in this in the long haul! I am also working on a couple of articles at the moment.

What else would you like to say?

We need to get ourselves organised and have a European gathering of fat studies people soon! We need to make ourselves seen and heard!


Anonymous said...

This is really exciting. The concept of "liminality" as it relates to fatness seems so rich. I once saw a bearded lesbian (as I am) who was also a circus performer write about liminality in terms being a woman with a beard in a way that suddenly made sense of much of the cultural tension I'd experienced around that, so interesting applied to fatness.

And, as a American, a novelist, not an academic, but interested in ideas, it's also exciting to witness European scholars shifting the UScentric nature of fat studies. That's a gift to thinking around fatness, for sure.

Neely O'Hara said...

Wow - I am a fat American woman moving to Helsinki next month, and I had no idea there was any FA activity at all in Finland. How exciting to hear about this work!

wonderful woman said...

wowzer. So much to think about. So much radness. So much excitement.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your kind words! I think that approaching fatness through liminality can truly open up new ways of thinking about fatness and being fat. I have only started and it feels that liminality as a concept has so much to offer for fat studies.

Neely: Helsinki is a great city, hope you like it there! x Hannele

Anonymous said...

What a loaded question -- what is the negative effect of FS having a US focus? A bit like "When did you stop beating your wife?" Since you talk in generalities, one doesn't know who you're talking about. The FSR, to take just one example, worked tirelessly to include an international perspective. Do you mean because there are no FSA in other countries? The FS at the Pop Culture regularly includes international voices, from Australia, from Europe, and from Asia. I'm all for having more voices, including voices from the poor, the third-world, etc. I don't think it's very useful, however, to attack the few people who are trying to do this especially as they are doing so in a very hostile environment. US Academia -- I must tell you -- is not embracing this field.

Charlotte Cooper said...

Thanks for your comment, despite its off-putting anonymous snark and bad temper. Perhaps you'd like to sign your name next time and we can have a proper, respectful, listening conversation? Meanwhile, here are some thoughts:

Yes, sometimes I do speak in generalisations.

FSR = Fat Studies Reader? I'm not sure I have your acronyms correct. Whilst I appreciate the efforts that the editors went to to include some international voices, including my own, I think that this must not be a special case, international must not be an added extra, it should be the norm, these efforts must be made all the time. Also, I am not attacking these people, I think the work they do is fantastic, rather I am criticising a trend.

I think what you're trying to say is that it's bogus to criticise Fat Studies for being US-centric because it is barely recognised in the US academy itself, and that it barely exists at all. Is that right?

I think this is an interesting point but I don't agree with it. Although publications are coming out of the UK at the moment, and some meetings are planned for the next couple of years, the larger-scale work and organisation is happening in the US. As I say in my chapter in the forthcoming Fat Studies Reader, this is also an issue of cultural imperialism, and attitudes that are common in the US about what constitutes 'the world'. These are problematic concerns that I get to see quite clearly as an outsider to the US, someone from a culture that is colonised in many ways by US tastes and mores. Maybe you too are an outsider, in which case I'd like to know more about what you think.

But I want to extend my complaint beyond the US. It is not enough that Fat Studies exists in pockets of the US, Canada, the UK, Australia or Europe. It has to have a wider scope, it needs to be richer and thicker. That's what I'm lobbying for in my critiques. I want a movement that is better able to address cultural difference. As recent threads on the Fat Studies list show, this is not happening at the moment.

I don't understand what it is that bothers you about what Hannele and I think about US dominance in the field. Why does our criticism upset you? Your comment seems really angry, I don't understand the ferocity but would welcome dialogue in order to get my head around it.

Anonymous said...

Why such an angry tone?

I can assure you that my intention has not been to attack anyone. Mostly I am curious about the cultural differences and their effects on the experience of fat people and fat studies. This to me serves the purpose of doing my job properly as a researcher. It would be fairly incompetent of me not take into account cultural context, since I can't obviously just adopt the US discourse and context and claim that it is all relevant in the Finnish case. Even if the US influence on the European culture is huge in many areas, national contexts matter too. You know, we who come outside the US and work in this field do not have the privilege not to think about these things. We have to be aware of the backgrounds of certain discourses to avoid making false conclusions.

I am glad to hear that you are all for including new voices. Maybe you could now listen to us when we are speaking? Or do you think that it is ok to include the "other" voices only when they are not critical? Do you notice yourself how quickly you make a division to "us" and "others" and position yourself in the former group? Whether you or we like it or not, there are also more and less dominant discourses within the fat studies. My point is that it would be great, if fat studies could develop in to a truly international field, not yet another field where the US scholars take their own positions as the norm-makers granted. In order to avoid this, dialogue is crucial. This is what we are attempting to do here.

I really think that Charlotte and I as Europeans working in the field must be allowed to speak from our own contexts, compare how issues are dealt with in the US and here, and discuss the number of social and cultural aspects that might have an effect on how fat studies is being done in different cultural settings. I for one think that critical discussion will benefit the field of fat studies, and trying to silence those voices you don’t like does exactly the opposite.