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September-October 2022

Teaching while Fat

When schools talk about inclusivity, they’re not talking about fat bodies

Dani Jansen

Illustration by Michelle Simpson

I’ve been a high school teacher for 16 years now. That means I’ve spent roughly half my life in high school something I’d never have predicted as a teenager. All I wanted then was to get the hell out. I was a fat teen in the 1990s, when “heroin chic” was a fashion trend and when fat jokes were so common in pop culture that I didn’t even question how messed up that was until years later, rewatching Friends as an adult.

As a student, I learned firsthand school was a place where fat kids got bullied. I was called “Whale” and “Fatty,” and once I overheard a friend of my sister’s tell her she’d kill herself if she ever got as fat as me. I was maybe a size 12 or 14 at the time. As a teacher, I learned that fatphobia, whether institutionalized or personal, is baked into the school experience.

I hear my students in larger bodies make jokes at their own expense. It’s an old tactic: get to the punchline before a bully can. When I was in their shoes, I accepted bullying as just part of being fat—a consequence of sorts. I did it to myself too. I accepted the “wisdom” that I didn’t have enough self-control to lose weight, even though nothing could have been further from the truth: in high school I controlled food and exercise to an unhealthy degree. I remember “rewarding” myself with a single Fig Newton for swallowing a diet concoction my mother’s friend swore by. Let me tell you, the diet did not work, and in no world is a Fig Newton a treat.

I spent my formative years learning to hate my body. Is it any surprise I didn’t date? That I was suspicious of anyone who liked me? That I walked into a room and scanned to see if I was the biggest person there? I wish I could say I set out to change the narrative when I became a teacher, but the best I could muster in my first eight years of teaching was working hard to prove that I was a “good” fat person.

I’d casually mention in class how often I exercised. I ate “right” in the cafeteria: salads, low-carb meals, small portions. When my students wrote papers about the “obesity epidemic,” I cringe to think about how many times I said something like, “Not all people who are fat are unhealthy. I have perfect blood work.” I didn’t stop to question why healthiness should make someone like me more deserving of respect than a human who was not in good health; my internalized fatphobia remained completely unexamined.

I’m fatter than ever these days and things that didn’t affect me when I was what’s known in the fat community as “a small fat” are problematic now. Office chairs pinch my hips, and student classroom chairs are torture. I dread bus trips where I have to share a bench seat, knowing I’ll be hanging off the edge of the bench, half a butt cheek in the aisle. Professional clothing is hard to find, especially if I want to shop in a physical store. I miss the questionable privilege of my high school days, even as I recognize the things making me uncomfortable can and should be fixed.

Accessibility should be a priority in educational settings, though I rarely hear anyone talk about how accessibility includes bodies of all sizes. These discomforts, these small indignities, could be fixed by better design, by thinking about more than the “average” student or faculty member, whoever those people are supposed to be.

About 10 years ago, something shifted for me. I stumbled upon posts some friends had shared on Facebook about body positivity. I was suspicious at first: I should love my body, not hate it? This was the antithesis of everything I had learned.

Then, as my friends started having children, I thought of the things we hear our parents say that we internalize. I remembered my mother saying negative things about her body. I didn’t want these tiny humans to inherit our mess. So I dug deeper. I learned about body neutrality, and thanks to the work of fat activists, most of whom have been Black women, I worked on dismantling my own fatphobia and speaking up for myself and others. Today, I’m a better teacher for it.

I have asked for extended sizing in gym uniforms. I have set boundaries for myself around diet talk, asking colleagues not to talk about how great they feel thanks to intermittent fasting, or walking away when it doesn’t feel safe to speak up. I try to challenge student assumptions about fatness whenever they come up in class. I love to simply state “I am fat” whenever I hear a student make a fat joke. When they try to reassure me I am not, I tell them that I am, that it’s just a descriptor like “tall” or “skinny,” and I leave them to ponder this possibility, just as I once did.

However, fatphobia is institutionalized, and my small acts of resistance are not enough to make the system better in any significant way for all teachers and students. According to the Quebec Education Program, “Adopting a healthy, active lifestyle means seeking a quality of life characterized by an overall well-being and autonomously identifying the many factors that influence health.”

This definition doesn’t acknowledge the many factors that prevent individuals from attaining “overall well-being,” poverty, racism, and transphobia, to name just a few. Yes, I raise questions about how the education system shames fat people, with sympathetic colleagues and with my students, in spaces where I feel safe. But even with all my privilege as an educator, a white cis woman, and a midsize fat, I find myself staying silent more often than I’m proud to admit. Dismantling fatphobia is no small task.

I’ll keep taking up space in classrooms because I love teaching, but I do it knowing my body doesn’t fit. Changing this takes collective efforts. If we want to confront fatphobia in schools, we can start by advocating for policies that embrace a health-at-every-size approach, especially in physical education classes. We can acknowledge the variety of bodies in our classrooms and provide better furniture. We can teach allies to call out fat jokes, so their fat peers, or teachers, don’t have to. School shouldn’t be about learning to hate yourself—or others. It should be a place to grow into the best version of yourself.

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