A GW professor is making waves in an emerging field you may not know existed – fat studies.
Julia McCrossin, an English professor and doctoral candidate at GW, first came across the idea of fat studies in 2003 during an introductory cultural anthropology course. Six years later, McCrossin is one of the few experts bringing the field into the national limelight.
McCrossin said the field of fat studies encompasses many aspects of society, from film, literature and popular culture, to anthropology and history. Her studies are often focused on literary characters and the impact that the characters’ obesity has on the plot of the novel.
“I wanted to think about why some characters ‘needed’ to be fat and how that fatness affected the works in which they existed in,” she said.
While the cultural concept of “real women have curves” is hardly new, the literary study of fatness is. The discipline is gaining traction, McCrossin said, and her article titled “The Fat of the (Border) land: Food, Flesh and Hispanic Masculinity in Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop” was part of a collection of essays recently featured in an article in The New Yorker.
“I came to fat studies because of one simple thought: as someone who studies literature, I believe that when authors create fat characters, they don’t do so innocently or free from the cultural baggage fat people have traditionally had,” McCrossin said.
GW’s Department of English has been supportive of her research, she said.
“Reactions have always been great. When you do smart, fun, provocative research, everyone has an opinion and likes to talk about what I do,” McCrossin said.
McCrossin continues to present her work and speak at academic conferences around the world, including the International Willa Cather Conference in France. She also co-chairs the fat studies section of the National Popular Culture Association.
The topic of fat studies is still developing and may not expand in the same way other disciplines – like women’s or gay and lesbian studies – have, she said.
“I don’t know if fat studies will ever be codified in the academy in the way that, say, women’s and gender studies has been, but the interdisciplinary nature of fat studies means that this work is popping up literally in every liberal arts discipline you can think of, and some that you can’t,” she said.
McCrossin is not the only one engaging complex identity studies relating to food and fatness, professor of English Robert McRuer said. Abby L. Wilkerson, who teaches in GW’s University Writing Program, is finishing a book on food studies – which is “the politics of food production and consumption globally.” McRuer’s own work is on queer and disability studies.
McRuer said McCrossin is going beyond the traditional ideas of her field to make fat studies a recognized part of academia.
“Julia’s work in fat studies is drawing attention to class relations, to gender and race, and so it is not simply identity studies,” McRuer said. “… Julia is at the cutting edge of this new field.”