By: Srijani Datta, Assistant News Editor

Layla Cameron, a journalist, fat-stigma activist, filmmaker, and PhD student at SFU is this year’s recipient of the Nora and Ted Sterling Prize in Support of Controversy. She is being awarded for her work on body size and image issues.

Cameron’s doctoral research is in the field of “fat studies,” whereby she is researching and analyzing the representation of fat bodies in reality TV. She is currently internationally touring the first film she has produced, a documentary called “Fat Hiking Club.” The documentary is focussed on the work of the Portland, Oregon based organization Fat Girls Hiking that strives to “make the outdoors accessible for everybody and every body.”

Cameron told The Peak that she believes she has always been involved in some type of fat activism since her childhood. “I have been fat my whole life. And when you experience any kind of discrimination, there is an incentive to understand it and to resist it,” she said.

With the help of her parents who bought her feminist magazines to read from a very early age and because of her innate nature of being “very political,” Cameron found her way to fat activism and subsequently to fat studies.

To describe the various layers of fat activism, Cameron referred to fat studies scholar Charlotte Cooper’s categorization of fat activism in categories such as the political process, micro-activism, ambiguous, cultural and community-building activism.

Out of the different forms, Cameron stated her appreciation for the micro-level activism process, whereby you can have a one-on-one conversation about the issue with people such as your peers, your doctor, and so on.

She also expressed appreciation for the ambiguous fat activism, which can involve ensuring that there is fat-friendly seating in your house or abstaining from dieting. “Even the act of not doing something can be a form of activism,” said Cameron.

An interesting part of fat activism for Cameron, in comparison to other forms of activism, is that it makes a lot of space for people to make contributions to the extent that they are able. Cameron explained that if someone is disabled and cannot attend a protest march, they can always find other equally appreciated and valid ways to participate in fat activism.

Moving forward from formal definition and categorizations, Cameron explained to The Peak the issues that fat activists work with, specifically focussing on obesity.

Cameron described how we have constructed “fatness as an epidemic today, that is called obesity.” This has made it easy for international health organizations, like the World Health Organization, to declare “obesity as an epidemic despite it not meeting the requirement to be called an epidemic or contagious disease.”

She described how being obese and obesity are usually treated as synonymous to being fat, and that a fat activist would reject that. “Obese is a medicalized term for fatness, that pathologizes fat bodies, and renders them as having some kind of a disease,” stated Cameron.

While in some worlds being fat and being obese would overlap, but in the fat activist world, the term “obesity” is just medical jargon.

“Even if fatness is ‘unhealthy,’ or threatens your livelihood in some shape, way or form, that does not justify the discrimination and oppression that fat people face everyday.” – Layla Cameron, SFU doctoral student

She stressed that a fat activist would tell you that “even if fatness is ‘unhealthy,’ or threatens one’s livelihood in some shape, way or form, that does not justify the discrimination and oppression that fat people face everyday.”

The different kinds of institutional and systemic discrimination against fat bodies include the medical, the social, and the personal. She pointed out that there is a widespread lack of structural accommodation for fat bodies such as a lack of big enough seats in lecture halls and on buses and airplanes, arbitrary weight restrictions on kayak rentals, and limited sizes of life jackets. All these factors together make public spaces inaccessible for fat people.

With her documentary and research, Cameron strives to shine light on organizations like Fat Girls Hiking that attempt to counter these discriminations and fat stigma. These organizations try to make the world more accessible for different kinds of bodies, described Cameron.

Cameron also described the backlash she received for her activism and research, and how it has been usually directed at her body and appearance, rather than at the content of her work.

She stressed that that even though the situation is changing today, there is much work to be done, and it is important to have more conversation on these issues and be open to those conversations.


With files from The Vancouver Sun.