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Art & Activism in the Age of the "Obesity Epidemic" Open Access


Other title
size acceptance activism
contemporary art
fat studies
Type of item
Degree grantor
University of Alberta
Author or creator
Grombacher, Pamela J
Supervisor and department
McTavish, Lianne (Art and Design)
Examining committee member and department
Loveless, Natalie (Art and Design)
Meagher, Michelle (Women's and Gender Studies)
Department of Art and Design
History of Art, Design and Visual Culture
Date accepted
Graduation date
Master of Arts
Degree level
This thesis considers three contemporary artworks that open up new possibilities for size acceptance activism, a political movement that arose in the late 1960s to combat fat stigma and weight-based discrimination. Fatness is vilified in many parts of the world as an unhealthy, unattractive, and, most significantly, immoral embodiment. This is due, in part, to “healthism,” or the moralization of health, and to the perceived controllability of body size. In cultures where health is viewed as a moral obligation and size is viewed as a personal choice, fat people are discriminated against for supposedly choosing to be unhealthy. Fat stigma has worsened in the wake of the “obesity epidemic,” the alarmist rhetoric of which frames fatness as a lurking and deadly contagion that threatens to destroy public health. There are those within the size acceptance movement, however, who question the legitimacy of this “epidemic” as a true health crisis and suggest that it is instead a moral panic that reflects cultural anxieties about personal accountability. As politicians, medical practitioners and diet industrialists wage a “War on Obesity” to eradicate fatness and thus rid society of this alleged scourge, size acceptance activists resist weight-based discrimination by arguing that stigma, rather than fat, is the true enemy to be conquered. I suggest new possibilities for resistance by analyzing artworks that subvert hegemonic notions of fat in novel and nuanced ways. Specifically, I explore how Rachel Herrick’s ongoing multimedia project Museum for Obeast Conservation Studies performs fat drag, Kimberly Dark’s narrative performances Big People on the Airplane and Here’s Looking at You demonstrate the subversive potential of visuality, and Jenny Saville’s photographic series Closed Contact suggests the productive value of transformative violence. I situate these analyses within the burgeoning academic discipline of fat studies, which is a politically-motivated scholarly field that closely aligns with size acceptance activism in its effort to develop a discourse that challenges that of the “obesity epidemic.” Academics within this field study many forms of visual culture because representations of fatness, as a (hyper)visible stigma, carry significant political gravitas. I in turn focus on the visual arts because artistic considerations of fatness can function as alternative sources of knowledge production, as means of questioning and critiquing social issues, and as instruments of activism. That is, art has the potential not only to subvert hegemonic conceptions of fat, but may reveal such conceptions as oppressive social constructions and actively work to undermine them.
Permission is hereby granted to the University of Alberta Libraries to reproduce single copies of this thesis and to lend or sell such copies for private, scholarly or scientific research purposes only. Where the thesis is converted to, or otherwise made available in digital form, the University of Alberta will advise potential users of the thesis of these terms. The author reserves all other publication and other rights in association with the copyright in the thesis and, except as herein before provided, neither the thesis nor any substantial portion thereof may be printed or otherwise reproduced in any material form whatsoever without the author's prior written permission.
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