Building a Bridge to Hate? When Fat Studies Goes Public

We call on ourselves as scholars to engage a wider audience in our work, but we must acknowledge the risks and consequences some of us face for doing so, write Laurie Cooper Stoll and Darci L. Thoune.

May 29, 2020
 
 

As a public sociologist and a writing scholar and rhetorician, we believe building bridges between the academy and the community is imperative. In January 2019, we launched our website and blog, Two Fat Professors, to do just that. The two of us, Laurie and Darci, had been doing research on fatphobia and fat activism individually and collectively for a while and wanted to have a public interface that would allow us to connect with people outside academia who were interested in this work as well. The mission statement on our homepage captured our passions and our personalities: “fighting fatphobia with education, community-building, and A LOT of sass.”

In the early days of this work, we did what academics do when they immerse themselves in study: we read everything we could on the subject -- academic books and peer-reviewed articles, blogs and monographs written by fat activists -- we studied the relationships between fatphobia and other systems of oppression like racism, sexism, xenophobia, ableism, homophobia and classism; we plumbed the depths of these subjects for ourselves, our students and our communities. The further down the proverbial rabbit hole we went, the more convinced we were that we could no longer do research on social inequalities while ignoring the salience of fatphobia, and we could no longer engage in social justice activism that did not also include fat bodies -- because, to be clear, fat is a social justice issue, too.

When Laurie was asked to give a keynote address for an organization on our campus in the spring of 2018, she had the opportunity to speak about her research in this area publicly for the first time. Before the event even took place, a student reporter at another university reached out to her for an interview about the event. The student worked for a conservative online site whose mission is to call attention to anything they deem to be “left-leaning” or “liberal” that happens on college campuses. Laurie was surprised (read: naïve) at the time when the student reached out to her, particularly because this was a small luncheon at her own university that had not been widely publicized.

Today, however, the two of us are no longer surprised at the attention our work receives from conservative and alt-right sites as well as neo-Nazi discussion boards hiding on the dark web. From the beginning, we decided never to respond to requests for interviews from these sites because they are not interested in high standards of journalistic integrity; rather, their interests lie in attacking people, especially academics, who do not share their politics. Even if these sites claim they are not trying to silence professors, the stories they write incite hate and outrage among their followers, who then do the work of trying to silence academics that engage in social justice-related teaching, research and activism. Every story that has ever been written about the work we do on these sites has contained demonstrably false information to almost a comical degree. (We are not the only ones this happens to.) But it doesn’t matter, because that’s not the point.

When we decided to launch Two Fat Professors, we felt fortunate that at this point in our careers (tenured and promoted) we could take some risks with our professional and personal work. In other words, we felt safe (and excited) to move our work in fat studies and fat activism into the public realm. We are aware this is not the case for graduate students (see Bobbi Reidinger’s piece for Conditionally Accepted, The Elephant in the Room”) or junior or contingent faculty who do work in fat studies or critical weight-related fields. We do not take this privilege lightly, nor other privileged identities we hold while doing this work, especially our whiteness. That is why, in the tradition of feminist standpoint theory, we made our own identities intentionally visible from the beginning, both in our academic work and on our blog.

Our work through Two Fat Professors has largely been received with love and kindness. But as we noted above, from the beginning, our work has been the target of conservative and alt-right sites as well as neo-Nazi discussion boards that take issue with two fat women professors publicly and unapologetically challenging diet culture, size discrimination, healthism and fatphobia. And yet even now, we feel some ambivalence about sharing our story publicly because, among other reasons, we haven’t wanted to draw attention to our experiences in a way that makes them appear any more important than what other academics experience in online spaces. Academics who speak out against social injustice on social media face backlash. Period. And academics with intersecting, marginalized identities even more so. We have resisted telling our story, knowing many others have received far worse retribution than we have.

Yet the more we experience this, the less we are convinced that keeping silent about it is beneficial. Perhaps we need more academics who experience online harassment to speak out and call attention to it. Maybe we need to drag these actions that so often happen in the dark, hidden behind a cloak of anonymity, out into the light. Being academics that have had to subject our work to peer review throughout our entire careers, we have developed fairly thick skins. We can take with a grain of salt the men (almost without exception, it’s men) who write to tell us we’re stupid, ugly, fat (as a pejorative), lazy, wastes of space and that they wish we were dead. That’s not what this is about for us.

This is about the toll it takes on the human psyche to receive these kinds of messages at your work and on your professional sites on a regular basis. This is about the time and energy it takes to monitor one’s social media accounts, especially for threats of violence to you or your family, while at the same time trying to keep hate from negatively impacting the people who are following your work. This is about having to critically weigh whether you should come forward about the harassment you experience in Conditionally Accepted, in hopes of supporting other scholars doing similar work yet knowing that it can bring more of the online abuse you are calling attention to. (Our decision is obvious; we’ll see what happens in the comments section.)

If we’re honest about it, many academics spend the bulk of their time talking to their students and to other academics. Most of us are not obliged to explain our work to lay audiences, and we can spend much of our time with colleagues who have similar interests, values and passions. Recognizing the insular nature of what we do as academics, we question whether we have an obligation to share our “intellectual wealth” with the public. We call on professors to step outside the proverbial ivory tower to engage a wider audience in their work. But when it comes to those of us who do social justice-related research, teaching and public service, we need to continually acknowledge the very real risks and consequences of doing so, especially in the current political climate. Again, these risks and consequences are even further exacerbated for academics with intersecting, marginalized identities.

The bottom line is this: we know that we are not the only academics that face online harassment and hate. For those who have experienced or are currently experiencing this kind of backlash, what can we learn from each other? How can we support one another as we seek to engage a public audience in our work? How can we encourage others to continue building online bridges to the public in spite of the hate that seeks to silence us?

Bio

Laurie Cooper Stoll is professor of sociology in the department of sociology and criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. She is the author of Race and Gender in the Classroom and Should Schools Be Colorblind?(spoiler alert: no.) and winner of the 2015 Distinguished Contribution to Scholarship Book Award from the Race, Gender and Class Section of the American Sociological Association. Darci L. Thoune is associate professor of English and first-year writing program coordinator at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, where she teaches first-year writing and upper-level writing courses. She has published in WPA: Writing Program Administration Journal, Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, Fat Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Body Weight and Society, and in several edited collections.

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