09 May 2011

Conference Report: ESRC Fat Studies and HAES Seminar - 4

ESRC Seminar Series
Fat Studies and Health At Every Size: Bigness Beyond Obesity

Seminar Four: Researching Fat Studies and HAES: working with/as fat bodies
5-6 May 2011
Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution, UK

I spent a couple of days last week at the final ESRC (The Economic and Social Research Council) Fat Studies and Health At Every Size (HAES) gathering, which took place in Bath. There have been four seminars in all, stretching over about 18 months. These meetings have operated like mini conferences, and a warm and supportive community has grown up around them.

As with previous seminars, it's unfeasible to report on everything that happened, there is simply too much, so I'll just pick out a couple of the main themes.

Many of the speakers talked about autoethnography and reflexive research. Such methodologies contrast strongly with dominant research paradigms in 'obesity'. Where the latter draws upon notions of universal scientific truth and objectivity, the former disrupts such ideas by bringing the researchers themselves to the centre, by offering context, emotion, ambiguity and paradox. I particularly enjoyed Karen Throsby's presentation about her experiences researching cross-Channel swimming, which raised questions about researcher roles. Jacqui Gingras, Rachel Colls and Bethan Evans also talked about roles and ethics concerning research with and on fat people.

It is hard to imagine similar conversations happening at, say, amongst stakeholders at an obesity conference where fat people are made absent, abject, and anonymous, and where fat is automatically framed as pathology in need of professional intervention. What is remarkable about these conversations is that they took place at an interdisciplinary level and were points of contact across considerable academic difference, where tensions were able to be contained and addressed to some extent. Even better, these seminars have been open to non-academics, you know, normal people, and although some academic jargon was unavoidable, discussions emerged between people with very different experiences of and approaches to fat. Best of all, people of all sizes instigate the conversations. More mainstream obesity stakeholders would do well to stop what they're doing and listen to this dialogue.

Another seminar strand was devoted to alternative ways of presenting and conceptualising research and fat. Emma Rich, the main organiser of this seminar, invited a number of local artists and performers to showcase their work. Although few were working principally around fat or Health At Every Size, and were concerned more generally with the body, it was clear that there are exciting possibilities for fat and HAES praxis. Perhaps Vikki Chalklin came closest to this with her performance that included material from research interviews.

For me, these seminars have been much more than a series of presentations and discussions. I have experienced them as very freeing, as places of collective intellectual and political engagement, and of a scholarship that feels full of life, community and exciting potential. In 21st century Western academia these are really precious moments! Bill Savage/Dr R. White has said that the ESRC Fat Studies and Health At Every Size seminars have forever spoiled us, and that other academic gatherings might be good, but they would never be as welcoming and stimulating as the ESRC experience! These seminars have been places where participants can see how things might be if we could talk about fat without having always to start at a 101-level defensive justification to hostile spectators. Having the freedom to think, speak, take risks and be heard in a gentle atmosphere has been wonderful, one of the best experiences of my academic career.

It's sad that this round of seminars has ended, although there will be some post-seminar projects, which are currently being discussed, and there may well be other Fat Studies conferences and seminars in the UK, as well as online activites. Keep your fingers crossed.

Meanwhile, deep thanks to Bethan Evans, the principle investigator, who had the idea of the seminar series and who wrote the successful funding application. Thanks also to my colleagues who organised the seminars, and to everyone who participated and supported them. And thanks to Lucy Aphramor, who closed the final seminar with an impromptu rendition of a beautifully vulnerable, funny and wavery-voiced verse from a HAES song. It really was the perfect ending.

Further information about the seminars

Government Support for Fat Studies and HAES in the UK

Reporting back on the first ESRC Fat Studies and HAES Seminar

Reporting back on the second ESRC Fat Studies and HAES Seminar

Reporting back on the third ESRC Fat Studies and HAES Seminar

ESRC Fat Studies and Health At Every Size

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