Millions of TV viewers spend their Monday nights watching a police officer and elementary school teacher fall in love. The charming storyline sounds sweet, but things quickly turned sour when a blogger on Marie Claire's magazine website expressed disgust at the love story because the Mike & Molly main characters are plus-sized.
The backlash was strong. Immediately, 28,000 emails were sent to the magazine, and the column and its fervent uproar were reported on morning talk shows and news programs. The show kicked off the second season with its leading lady, Melissa McCarthy, winning an Emmy for best actress.
"Disgust about body size and shape is similar to other forms of bigotry, and we need to find ways to talk about that," says Patricia Boling, associate professor of political science, who is working with graduate students to teach and research topics related to fat studies, a topical academic field. Fat studies is generating debate and interest in academia raising controversy even in women's studies, the interdisciplinary program where instructors and students are most likely to teach and study "fat feminism" or the politics of obesity.
Boling has written about teaching fat feminism and often explores issues related to fatness in her classes. She is interested in body politics, especially the ways in which body shape and size are made normative in this society. People are often defined by how they look and find themselves privileged or belittled depending on their size. If someone is fat, others are likely to assume that they make poor choices about food or are too lazy to exercise, she says.
"It makes fat people into the problem when diet and social norms are the real problem. People idealize skinny bodies, but we also are encouraged to consume tasty, high-calorie foods," says Boling, who is teaching a class this spring about the ethics of food and obesity. "We need an honest discussion in this country about how we feed ourselves and how we treat people."