or, what it means to be fat and pretty

I n the field of education, those of us tasked with imparting knowledge are frequently searching for our pedagogical catharsis; the all too rare moments which validate and affirm our chosen vocation. The times when, through some random set of circumstance, all required conditions have come into perfect alignment and the potential is not simply knowledge attainment, but transformation. The power in that is legend. And to those with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, it’s dangerous.

In my final year of the MFA in creative writing, one of the courses I served as a TA on was a course I have since been hired as an instructor for. In today's post secondary climate, a part time, non tenure track position is rare, thus I was more than honored with the opportunity. Because really, it’s a course unlike any other. A combined English Lit / Cultural Studies full credit course, it was designed to be taught in a style similar to a graduate seminar course. The difference? It is a first year course. It’s what my less enthusiastic students like to call “ism 101”. Pejoratively meant to infer that Identity & Experience: depictions of cultural oppression and marginalization in literary narrative is simply a bird course; this years version of a basket weaving 101 easy mark generator.

I can assure you, it is anything but. The primary goal is to give students the framework to critically analyze depictions of oppression through an intersectional lens. One that considers the sometimes competing, frequently over arching factors of race, class, gender, sexuality, and embodied ability on how one personally identifies, therefore experiences oppression in a cultural context.

It’s a course that gets complicated fast, with a high degree of nuance and paradox. The first year students are hit with implicit assumptions, cultural conditioning, programmed and institutional bias, debates over race and gender as systems of societal construction vs essential human variables, all analyzed through poetic, fictional and non fictional narrative. And while significantly theory laden, with roots in women and gender studies, ethnic studies, queer theory, and mixed media analysis, it is also very deliberately a highly experiential course.

With a course cap of fifty students, desks arranged in a semi circle layout, it is understood that if you come, you come prepared and ready to participate. Getting personal, thus occasionally uncomfortable, is the required norm. Because of that dynamic I have learned as much, if not more, than many of my students. Yesterday was no exception. It was a poignant example of the things we like to call “teachable moments”.

The discussion began as a general one, ideas around the fashion industry and how it has helped to create the problem of unattainable beauty standards for women. A young man was attempting to make the point, somewhat inelegantly, that it must be very difficult to exist in a culture where one is considered to be “fat and ugly”. Because really, what could be worse than that?

Collective grumblings of agreement followed, until a singular voice stood out out over the others. Somewhat tentative and halting, it was however, clearly declarative.

“Being fat and pretty. That can be worse”.

Her tone told the class this was a fact not up for debate. Sitting second from the end of the semi circle, the woman with blue, almond shaped eyes that seemed to match the blue in her her roughly size 18 sweater, spent several brave minutes describing what it is to be viewed with scorn and contempt. Because how dare she not only fail at her duty of being perfectly skinny, she then has the unmitigated gall to not be completely unappealing too. Ugly would have worked! Because that can be dismissed. Pretty but fat, that’s the problem.

“Cock tease.”

“Lazy sloth!”

“You could be hot, you just aren’t trying hard enough.”


To this young woman, these were the unstated, yet perfectly obvious implications when you happen to be fat and pretty.

Her experience, while not rare, is seldom heard. But to all in that room, it was captivating. So much so you could literally have heard a pin drop as she described her reality. In a room of fifty students, most of whom are under twenty one years old, that is virtually unheard of.

Though what I am most proud of is what it took for this woman to step out of an existence that if acknowledged at all, is often done so with scorn, cruelty and aggression. Yet in this instance it was met with a response from her peers of freely given empathy. They listened. With respect. One human being to another, based on nothing more than acceptance of the lived experience of another. I am certain that, to varying degrees, students in that classroom experienced a very personal form of transformational learning in action.

For me that has always been the aspirational goal of this course. I’m pleased and humbled to have witnessed it occur.