Making fat neutral—the human experience isn’t one-size-fits-all
Fat is not a bad word and Athabasca University (AU) student Karli Jahn is working hard to destigmatize it.
After winning AU’s 2022 Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition, Karli Jahn is even more inspired to share her research with the world.
The Master of Counselling student began her presentation by stating, “What if I told you everything we know about weight and health cannot be backed up by the most recent evidence-based research?”
Titled “Fat is not a bad word: exploring weight stigma and its effects on treatment outcomes in counselling interventions,” Jahn wowed the audience and judges despite being very sick with COVID-19.
“I literally rolled out a bed 10 minutes before the presentation, threw on a turtleneck and did my presentation,” she said. “The second it was over, I went back to bed and watched the rest from my bed. I couldn’t believe I freaking won!”
Jahn hopes that her research will help de-stigmatize the word “fat” so that people embrace it as a neutral size descriptor. Societally, there is an “us versus them” mentality when it comes to the concept of skinny versus fat, she said. Fat is often viewed as a moral failing, she added, and there is a de-humanizing stigma that skinny people are better than fat people simply because of weight.
“If you don’t have the curves in the right places, a flat stomach, or don’t look borderline starving, you’re fat,” she said.
“I’m trying to use that as a neutral descriptor because I think if we start using it in a way that is broader, we can start making the changes that need to happen.”
Why this area of study?
Jahn explained that her own experiences influenced her pursuit of the topic. She had a severe eating disorder in her early 20s and realized that therapy did not help her address her fat-phobia—a pathological fear of fatness—or how she was addressing it.
“I feel like the treatment that I received 10 years ago just didn’t resonate with me, so I didn’t commit, and I wasn’t ready to commit to it,” she said.
Reading the work of Roxanne Gay, a fat queer black feminist who talks about being fat in a neutral way, helped Jahn understand that fat isn’t a bad thing. It also inspired her to read more works by other fat queer women.
After moving out of her fundamentalist Christian home and living on her own, Jahn embraced the authentic version of herself and started exploring topics that went against status quo she was raised to believe.
She enrolled at AU in 2020 and began working with her supervisor, assistant professor Dr. Murray Anderson, to pick a research area. Despite the fact that weight stigma was a heavily under-researched and taboo topic, Jahn knew it was a topic she was passionate about and wanted to pursue.
“If you don't have the curves in the right places, a flat stomach, or don't look borderline starving, you're fat. I'm trying to use that as a neutral descriptor because I think if we start using it in a way that is broader, we can start making the changes that need to happen.”– Karli Jahn, AU student and 3MT winner
Finding her voice
Even though she’s extremely passionate about the topic, Jahn explained that something she sometimes struggles with is finding her voice in this diverse community because she’s thin.
“We need people to stand up and advocate, but we also need to do it in a really specific way, and that can be hard to balance. So I am learning how to find my voice as a privileged, thin white person in this space,” she said.
Jahn hopes her research will help practitioners shift from using the body mass index (BMI), used to assess weight to the Health at Every Size framework. She explained that the framework is more inclusive than BMI. It emphasizes that health care is not a one size fits all approach and, most importantly, embraces the diversity of human bodies.
“We need people to stand up and advocate, but we also need to do it in a really specific way, and that can be hard to balance. So I am learning how to find my voice as a privileged, thin white person in this space.”
After her 3MT win, Jahn has several goals for the future—starting with writing her thesis. She explained that winning the competition was validating. Just realizing the topic resonated with the audience improved her confidence.
“I’m eager to learn and I’m a learning butterfly—I just want to keep learning,” she said. “I want to get a job, but I’m very open to what that job could be.”
When asked about what advice she’d give future 3MT participants, Jahn said the most important thing is to explore something you’re passionate about. Then, let that passion shine through.
“People can tell when you’re passionate and genuinely authentic in your endeavours, and when you’re not,” she said.
“Capitalize on your passions, try different things, and embrace the diversity of the human experience. It’s not a one size fits all approach!”
“People can tell when you're passionate and genuinely authentic in your endeavours, and when you're not. Capitalize on your passions, try different things, and embrace the diversity of the human experience. It’s not a one size fits all approach!”
Jahn will go on to represent AU at the 2022 Western Regional 3MT Competition hosted by the University of Winnipeg on May 6, 2022.
Learn more about the Three Minute Thesis competition at AU.
Banner image: Marcus CF Tinnerholm