Jason Whitesel, PhD
Fat Gay Men: Girth, Mirth, and the Politics of Stigma
Women's and Gender Studies
1. When did you join Dyson?
2. What motivates you as an educator?
One of the best parts about teaching in the areas that I do is that the material we discuss in class can be transformative in students’ everyday lives; they can make real-life connections between the scholarly material and their own biographies. For instance, a student will reach out and ask me to elaborate on a lecture, which, unbeknownst to me, had a personal impact because it hit upon a subject with which she or he was grappling.
As a sociologist, I like to be a part of guiding young minds to question what they may have taken for granted about the social world and think in new ways. I often teach classes that deal with intense and controversial subject matter that challenges students to think outside their routine perceptions and to consider the complex theoretical and methodological underpinnings of social research. I often incorporate sociological ideas and concepts into my classes, hoping that students will appreciate acquiring a “sociological imagination” by the end of the course.
3. What do you do in your spare time to relax/unwind?
Overcommitted people have no time to unwind and relax! I tend to watch quite a lot of TV in my spare time, which one writer/philosopher I came across would call a valve for “idiot relief,” i.e., a necessity. I like to take long walks with friends or by myself while catching up with friends and family by phone. Snuggling up with my cats makes life more relaxing, as well. I find reading especially comforting at bedtime.
4. What are you reading now?
I just finished reading They Do It with Mirrors by Agatha Christie.
5. What is the main plot or central theme of your book?
To be fat in a thin- and muscle-obsessed gay culture can be tough. Despite affectionate in-group lingo for big gay men (e.g., chubs, Bears, etc.), anti-fat stigma persists in US culture writ large and often marginalizes men within gay communities. In my book, Fat Gay Men: Girth, Mirth, and the Politics of Stigma, I delve into the world of Girth & Mirth, a nationally known social club dedicated to big gay men and their relatively few admirers, chronicling the ways in which these men form identities and a supportive community in the face of some of the indignities they experience. Founded in the mid-1970s, the club has long been a safe haven for such men. Both a partial insider as a gay man and an outsider to Girth & Mirth, I offer an insider’s critique of the gay movement, questioning whether the social consequences of the failure to live up to the ideal body type should be so extreme in the gay community.
The book describes performances at club events, based on ethnographic interviews and in-depth field notes from participant observation at more than 100 activities, including bar nights, café klatches, restaurants, potlucks, holiday bashes, pool parties, movie nights, and weekend retreats. It examines how participants use campy-queer behavior to reconfigure and reclaim their sullied body images, focusing on the numerous tensions of marginalization and dignity that big gay men experience and how they negotiate these tensions via their membership to a size-positive group. It explores the social wounds that come from being relegated to an inferior position in gay hierarchies, and yet celebrates how some gay men can reposition the shame of fat stigma through carnival, camp, and play.
6. What inspired you to write this book?
I have been witnessing fat-shaming and negative body talk in the gay scene for quite some time. As a gay man myself, and as a sociologist and professor of gender and sexuality studies, I have been disconcerted by lookism in the gay community, and that led to my conceiving of the project. My initial idea was to see if I could find a group engaged in an alternative.
7. Why is this book important in your field? What does it contribute to the current body of knowledge on its topic?
Typically, people reconfigure fat as a “disease” or “deviance,” such as when doctors medicalize it as “obesity” or when people say someone is “overweight,” meaning she or he has deviated from some ideal measurement. My work offers an alternate perspective on fat than the medicalized angle by studying how gay big men playfully reclaim their sullied identities.
Fat Studies in and of itself is an emerging field. My book adds to this body of literature that highlights the significance of performative protest as a transformational strategy. Other fat studies scholars have analyzed the emancipatory possibilities for women engaging in fat burlesque, fat synchronized swimming, and fat dance troupes, among others.
Fat has traditionally been treated as a women’s issue; there has been little said on the subject of men and the social construction of fatness and inequality. My book engages gay men’s perspectives as they worry about their weight in meaning-laden ways akin to those described by women. My work is the first book-length study that makes big gay men the subject of Fat Studies. It places sizism as a central social problem in the gay community that must be attended to.
8. Tell me about a particularly special moment in writing this book.
Ethnography is special because you get involved in the lives/culture of those under study. In the book, I write about being dragged onstage during a mock beauty pageant, marching alongside the Girth & Mirthers in pride parades, selling Jell-O shots to raise money for charities the group supported, and so on. Therefore, the nature of ethnographic work makes for many special moments, which I hope folks will enjoy reading about in the book.
9. What is the one thing you hope readers take away from your book?
There is real joy in the group; there is true “mirth” in Girth & Mirth. Its members are a positive, fun-loving bunch. More importantly, they resist the belief that they could be denied such fun because of their weight and size. Girth & Mirthers nurture one another’s joy in being fat and happy. Although they are constantly confronted with humiliation, they manage to sustain the integrity of their everyday lives, and they continue to look for creative responses to the stigma that comes with being fat and gay.
10. Media Recognition: