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Authors: Abigail C. Saguy

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What's Wrong With Fat?

BOOK: What's Wrong With Fat?
What’s Wrong with Fat?

Abigail C. Saguy



Copyright © Abigail C. Saguy 2013
All rights reserved.

Published in the United States of America by
198 Madison Avenue, New York, New York 10016

Oxford University Press is a department of the
University of Oxford. It furthers the University’s objective
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in the Uk and certain other countries

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Saguy, Abigail.
What’s wrong with fat? / Abigail Saguy.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-0-19-985708-1 (alk. paper)
1. Obesity—Social aspects. I. Title.
1 3 5 7 9 8 6 4 2

Printed in the United States of America

on acid-free paper


is project began on a snowy day in January 2001 in a seminar room at Yale
University. I was sitting around a table with several thirty-something–year–
old political scientists, sociologists, and economists who were, like me, enrolled
in a two-year postdoctoral program in health policy, sponsored by the Robert
Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). We were debating why obesity was not on
the public agenda, despite the presumed fact that “overweight” and “obesity”
were responsible for almost as many premature deaths as cigarette smoking. 1
is discussion launched me on a decade of research on the scientific debates
and news media representation of “obesity,” political mobilizing over fat
rights, and the material implications of different “fat frames.” I benefited from
discussions with RWJF faculty and postdocs at Yale, University of California–
Berkeley, and University of Michigan and from my own and earlier cohorts,
including Eric Oliver, Taeku Lee, Rogan Kersh, Ted Marmor, Kimberly DaCosta,
Evan Lieberman, John Cawley, Vincent Hutchings, Ann Keller, Bradley
Herring, Karl Kronebusch, Mark Suchman, and Gary McKissick. I am espe
cially grateful for the encouragement and invaluable feedback Mark Schlesinger
provided at early stages of this research.

e Fund for the Advancement of the Discipline (FAD) (cosponsored by the
American Sociological Association and the National Science Foundation), Th
Partner University Fund, a program of FACE, and the Center for Advanced
Studies in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS) at Stanford University provided
additional financial support. I also received funding from the UCLA
Department of Sociology and several UCLA centers and organizations—
including the Graduate Research Mentorship Program, the Center for
American Politics and Public Policy, the Institute for Society and Genetics, the
Center for the Study of Women, and the Academic Senate.

I could not have conducted this research were it not for all of the people
who agreed to be interviewed and took the time to answer my questions.
Marilyn Wann, Deb Burgard, and Bill Fabrey deserve special thanks for the
countless insights they shared over the years. I also learned much from
informal discussions and e-mail exchanges with Katherine Flegal, Linda
Bacon, and Charlotte Cooper. Much of the data and parts of the argument
presented here were first developed in collaborations for journal articles with
exceptional graduate student research assistants, including Kjerstin Gruys,
David Frederick, Rene Almeling, Kevin Riley, Anna Ward, and Shanna Gong.
is book also benefited from outstanding research assistance from several
undergraduate and graduate students, including Isabelle Huguet Lee, Erika
Hernandez, Roxana Ghashghaei, Jeanine Yang, Rachel Berger, Amberia Allen,
Michael Chow, Rebecca DiBennardo, and Jen Morony.

In 2003, I read and commented on a draft of Paul Campos’s
Obesity Myth
beginning a dialogue that would continue over years. Our ongoing conversation
has deeply shaped this project. At a visit to Princeton’s sociology department,
where I presented a working paper from this project, one of my former grad
uate student mentors, Paul DiMaggio, encouraged me to develop the idea of a
“fat field.” Marion Fourcade later pushed me along these same lines, when we
were both research fellows at CASBS from 2008 to 2009. Th
is resulted in a
PowerPoint presentation to my CASBS cohort, which provided the basis for
the discussion of the fat field in chapter 2. Comments from Lynne Gerber and
Adam Isaiah Green helped me to better hone in on my use of this concept. Adam
Isaiah Green also provided valuable feedback on the introduction and
conclusion; Lynne Gerber read and commented on the entire manuscript.

During my year at the idyllic CASBS at Stanford University, I had the
opportunity to exchange ideas with thoughtful scholars working in a range of
different academic disciplines at the center or at Stanford University.
Discussions with Marion Fourcade, Chandra Mukerji, Deborah Rhode, Kieran
Healy, Steven Epstein, Philip Howard, Rose McDermott, Winddance Twine,
Nancy Cott, Hazel Markus, John Lucy, Karen Knorr, Andrei Markovits, Glenn
Adams, Kate Stovell, and Claude Steele all shaped this book. I also benefited
from a CASBS workshop on writing for a general audience. My agent, Jill
Marsal, provided valuable guidance in conceptualizing the book project in the
early stages and in pitching it to publishers. Oxford University Press editor
James Cook offered useful editorial suggestions. I also received two rounds of
valuable feedback from anonymous peer reviewers for Oxford University Press.
Gwen Colvin and Suzanne Austin copyedited the final manuscript. I have also
benefited from comments received from several nonacademic friends, including
Charlotte Elkin, Sarah Istwany, Kate Watkins, and Sherri Zigman.

I presented papers from this project in several meetings of the American
Sociological Association and the Law and Society Association. I presented to
departmental workshops across the country, including the Yale Center for
Eating and Weight Disorders workshop, Princeton University Sociology, UC
San Diego Sociology (several times), UC Irvine Sociology, UC Berkeley
Sociology (twice), UC Berkeley Center for the Study of Law and Society, UC
Santa Barbara Sociology, Northwestern Sociology, Northwestern Program
in Comparative-Historical Social Science, RAND, the University of Texas–
Austin Sociology, University of Colorado–Boulder Law School and Sociology
Department, and the Siciliano Forum at the University of Utah. Abroad, I
presented this work at the “Eurobese Workshop” in Chatilly, France; a work
shop on the body, moral discourses, and society at the Van Leer Institute in
Jersusalem; a Culture and Power conference in Oslo; the Institut National de
la Recherche Agronomique (INRA) in Paris, France; the University of
Toulouse II–Le Mirail; at l’Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in
Paris; and at the University of Paris VII. Members of these various audiences
had thoughtful reactions. I am especially grateful for feedback from Anna
Kirkland, Christine Williams, Linda Bacon, Kathleen LeBesco, John Evans,
Sigal Gooldin, Henri Bergeron, Patrick Castel, Th
ibaut de Saint Pol, Jean
Pierre Poulain, Barry Glassner, Paul Lichterman, Nina Eliasoph, Brian Finch,
Iddo Tavery, Ted Chiricos, Peer Fiss, James Mahoney, Monica Prasad, Bruce
Western, Viviana Zelizer, Anne Swidler, Michael Hout, Deana Rohlinger,
Barbara Katz Rothman, Linda Blum, Michele Lamont, Rodney Benson, Shari
Dworkin, Wendy Griswold, Paul McAuley, Muriel Darmon, Joshua Gamson,
and Nicola Beisel.

While most of the analysis in this book is new, parts of several chapters
were published as “Morality and Health: News Media Constructions of
Overweight and Eating Disorders,”
Social Problems
57, no 2 (2010): 231–50
(coauthored with Kjerstin Gruys); “Social Problem Construction and National
Context: News Reporting on ‘Overweight’ and ‘Obesity’ in the U.S. and
Social Problems
57, no. 4 (2010): 586–610 (coauthored with Kjerstin
Gruys and Shanna Gong); “Fat in the Fire? Science, the News Media, and the
‘Obesity Epidemic,’”
Sociological Forum
23, no. 1 (2008): 53–83 (coauthored
with Rene Almeling); “Weighing Both Sides: Morality, Mortality and Framing
Contests over Obesity,”
Journal of Health Politics, Policy, and Law
30, no. 5
(2005): 869–921 (coauthored with Kevin W. Riley); and “Coming Out as Fat:
Rethinking Stigma,”
Social Psychology Quarterly
74, no. 1 (2011): 53–75 (coau
thored with Anna Ward).

UCLA has provided a stimulating intellectual community in which to develop
my ideas. I presented this work to several UCLA groups, including the
Comparative Historical Workshop in Sociology, the Law School, the Center for
the Study for Women, and the Institute for Society and Genetics. I am grateful
for collegial support and stimulating discussions with my UCLA colleagues,
especially William Roy, Stefan Timmermans, Traci Mann, Mignon Moore,
Megan Sweeney, Andrea Ghez, Kathleen McHugh, Christine Littleton, Aziza
Khazzoom, Steve Clayman, Nicky Hart, Ike Grusky, Gail Kligman, Gabriel
Rossman, Allison Hoffman, Aaron Panofsky, Elizabeth Frankenberg, Ruth
Milkman, Judith Seltzer, David Lopez, Roger Waldinger, and Scott Waugh.
Edward Walker and former UCLA student Rene Almeling provided valuable
comments on several book chapters. A graduate seminar I taught on gender and
the body during the fall of 2011 provided an engaging intellectual forum in
which to develop many of the ideas in this book; students in this class provided
useful feedback on the introduction and chapter 2. Lianna Hart offered extremely
useful comments on the entire book manuscript.

I had the good fortune to be a part of a UCLA-based writing group during
the two years that I wrote and rewrote this book manuscript. During this time,
I received invaluable insights from each member of this group, including
Hannah Landecker, Juliet Williams, Lieba Faier, Jessica Cattelino, and
Purnima Mankekar. Th
is group was intellectual community at its best: chal
lenging yet supportive and a source of creativity and renewed excitement.
Members of this writing group pushed me to include illustrations to help
explain the central concept of framing. Ian Patrick produced elegant and clever
illustrations that greatly surpassed my expectations.

My mother, Rita Smith, a fan of Weight Watchers and Jane Brody’s col
umns, took a while to understand the central goals of this research project and
the perspective underlying it. Her skepticism helped me better articulate my
argument. She also took it upon herself to forward me every
New York Times
discussion related to body weight and diet. My father, Charles W. Smith, is one
of the best sociologists I know and has shaped me in more ways than I myself
could possibly realize, as he himself likes to remind me from time to time.

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