5 Questions with Paul Grosskopf
“5 questions with…” is an occasional feature where we highlight a current graduate student’s research, offering a glimpse into their work and interests. Paul Grosskopf is a PhD student in Literary and Cultural Studies.
1. What's the six-word-story version of your research focus (think written by Hemingway on a napkin at a bar)?
Fat Bodies in American Literature/Culture
2. What's a question that's preoccupying you in your research right now?
I feel like I’m being pulled in a bunch of different directions at the moment, but I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the connections between fat studies and disability studies. While there are many crucial differences between these two fields of study, fatness and disability scholars often ask the same kinds of questions and draw our attention to strikingly similar forms of systemic oppression. Take, for example, Susan Wendell’s groundbreaking argument in The Rejected Body: Feminist Philosophical Reflections on Disability that bodies are not inherently disabled, but rather disabled by the cultures and material environments they occupy. She illustrates this point with a hypothetical scenario in which “people who have some bodily difference that does not impair any of their physical functions, such as being unusually large, are disabled by the built environment—by seats that are too small, doors and aisles that are too narrow, the availability or expense of clothing that fits” (46). While Wendell is speaking hypothetically here, she could just as easily be talking about the material realities of systemic fatphobia. Fat people regularly occupy environments that harm them, humiliate them, and reject their bodily difference. I’ve spent years sitting in classroom desks that painfully press into my stomach or gone to bars and restaurants where I’m unable to sit at all. I’m forced to buy my clothes online because most stores don’t carry clothing that fits my body and every time I have to fly (especially if it’s a Southwest flight) I dread the possibility of not being able to fit in my seat and being kicked off the airplane as a result. Wendell’s work, and the work of other disability scholars, are incredibly helpful to me in terms of thinking through my own experiences of fatness and fatphobia, as well as the kinds of questions I ask and how I answer them in my research.
3. Who is a scholar that's been challenging or inspiring your thinking? Can you recommend a book or article?
Amy Erdman Farrell’s book Fat Shame: Stigma and the Fat Body in American Culture has been enormously helpful in my thinking about fatness. One of the most interesting ideas that she introduces in the book is how fatness developed as a metaphor at the turn of the twentieth century in the United States. She argues that while fatness throughout most of the nineteenth century in America was a marker of class, affluence, and privilege, it would have been just as likely to mark a body as respectable as it would be to mark a body as greedy or gluttonous (30). However, by the end of the nineteenth century fatness fundamentally shifted as a metaphor to represent “greedy and corrupt political and economic systems” in an overwhelming number of dominant cultural discursive spaces, such as political cartoons and columns in Harper’s Weekly, in which threats to American society like “monopoly formation” and “political corruption” were “represented by, and projected onto, the bodies of fat people” (31). Within this metaphorical framework, fat bodies become the embodiment of systemic oppression, and therefore fatphobia, particularly in terms of ridiculing and policing fat bodies, functions as the language and means of resisting that oppression.
I find this particular idea powerful because it gets at so many of the contradictions I encounter as a fat body, as well as someone interested in fat studies. I also think that this fatphobic framework for speaking truth to power is, in many ways, alive and well in American culture today. I’m thinking specifically about how fat bodies are so often weaponized rhetorically to criticize the American fast-food industry, or the overabundance of enthusiastically fatphobic critiques of Donald Trump, leveled against him by ostensibly progressive journalists, artists, and political commentators, that inextricably tie his wealth, greed, bigotry, privilege, and corruption to his fat body.
4. What's a research strategy or writing habit that's been working for you lately?
Generally speaking, I’ve found that actually following the writing advice I give my students, such as setting goals/deadlines, spreading my work out gradually over an extended period of time, and sharing my writing regularly with others, has really helped me over the past couple years. Also, I’ve gotten much better about asking for help when I need it. I think that one of the strengths of the English department at UNL is how approachable faculty members and other grad students are (which, from the many horror stories I’ve heard from friends in other programs, is not the case in every department), and so many of my writing projects have improved dramatically after a trip to office hours or a long conversation with a friend over zoom.
5. If you had to choose a watershed moment in the development of your research and writing, an important turning point, what would it be?
Like Charlotte said in her interview a few weeks ago, I think my watershed moment was learning that fat studies exists! While I have had an intimate relationship with fatness for most of my life, until the end of my first year as a PhD student at UNL I had never been in a classroom where we discussed issues of fatness in any meaningful way or acknowledged fat studies as a field of study. I’m overjoyed to have discovered that there are communities of writers invested in issues that once made me feel incredibly isolated. I also feel motivated, through my own research and teaching, to address the general absence of fat discourse/representation, that I, and many others, continue to encounter both inside and outside of the university.
photo courtesy of Paul Grosskopf