Date of Award

Fall 2020

Project Type

Dissertation

Program or Major

English

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

First Advisor

Cris Beemer

Second Advisor

Christina Ortmeier-Hooper

Third Advisor

Robin Hackett

Abstract

This dissertation gives teachers with stigmatized bodies space to enter into a conversation that is often had without them by media and medical providers. Fat bodies are maligned in contemporary American society and, for a number of reasons, including American ideas about independence and self-control, European-based standards of beauty, media representation, and more, fat people (especially women) are seen as pathological, out-of-control and as draining to the greater society. Within academia, there are pressures for fat folks, as well. This qualitative interview-based study focuses on self-identified fat, female professors and graduate students in Composition and Rhetoric. These women are high achieving scholars, activists, teachers, mothers, and more, yet they are operating under the outside assumptions of fat people: that they are unintelligent, lazy, and undisciplined. I wanted to see how high achieving fat women negotiated their identities as scholars and teachers with outside biases. Seven participants talked about their complicated relationships with their bodies and intersectional experiences of sexuality, age, ability, and more. The major body of work for this dissertation, the interviews, investigates many themes, such as childhood experiences, education, romantic relationships, family dynamics, health concerns, abuse, and careers.

Several important findings have come from this qualitative work. The physical space of the university as well as professional expectations of academia can be difficult for fat teachers to negotiate. The psychic realities of navigating day-to-day life while inhabiting a stigmatized body can lead to a sense of detachment between a person’s concept of self and the physical body. Finally, the connection between environment and physical and mental health was reaffirmed. All participants experienced exacerbated mental health issues and disordered eating in their graduate programs. A call for less toxic graduate work environments is a clear result of this research, which adds to the growing body of literature about graduate student health. Finally, my participants shared complicated and, at times, contrary impressions of what it is like to be fat in the academy. This dissertation gives them the space to speak and untangle some of their experiences, making room for a richer conversation about the professional lives of fat teachers and calling for more inclusion of Fat Studies scholarship within Composition and Rhetoric.

Available for download on Tuesday, September 14, 2021

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