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Interview with Shayne Figueroa

In the second post of our Fat Shame series, Kim Buesser talks with doctoral food studies student Shayne Figueroa, who is fascinated by the post-war era in the US and its affects on American culture. Below is a transcript of Kim’s interview with Shayne Figueroa. Interested in reading more about Shayne, food culture in the ’50s and fat shame across the eras? Check out our post on Eating Mindfully blog on Psychology Today.


Kim Buesser (KB): To start off, what is your background? What have you studied in the past, what are you studying now?


Shayne Figueroa (SF): Sure, I am currently a PhD student in Food Studies at NYU. I have a bachelors of arts degree in American Studies from Lafayette College and a masters of arts degree in humanities and social thought from the Draper Program at NYU. I have always had a humanities multidisciplinary approach to my studies.


KB: What made you interested in Food Studies?


SF: Food Studies is a natural evolution of my research. I always knew I wanted to do something that focused on everyday life, dealing with social and cultural dynamics. I am fascinated by the post-war period, specifically the late 1940s to the early ‘60s; primarily because it has this mystique and image of being this bountiful, productive time for American society. But then, what happens in the late ‘60s changes all of that. In my mind, it seems something had to have been going on in that quiet calm during the ‘50s that set the stage for all of the uprise and unrest of the ‘60s. In looking at that and in doing my master’s work, I started my application for the Draper School, which focused on the idea of casual dining franchises in current America suburbs. I looked into dining franchises such as TGI Fridays, Chili’s, Macaroni Grill, Olive Garden, etc. Through my research, I sought to pinpoint why, in American society, do we focus on these very comforting, yet very bland, ideas of food in the domestic sphere, when we could have so many other options. As I did more research, I realized that tradition of bland comforting foods started in the ‘50s and ‘60s. So my master’s thesis was on Howard Johnson’s and advertising to women in the post-war period. It was really great to look at Howard Johnson’s as a corporate entity. It was interesting to see how they are trying to influence consumer purchasing choices. Currently in my research for my Ph.D. I am looking at the school lunch program, through the lens of what does the school lunch program tell us about children as consumers, what does it tell us about labor politics and about women’s rights?


KB: How has the role of food changed as the household changed from the post-war period to current day?


SF: In terms of attitudes around food, the ‘50s-‘60s was the period of science coming into the kitchen and housewives being told they couldn’t cook. Housewives were told that they needed industry science, with all of the TV dinners and the cake mixes. Laura Shapiro’s, Something from the Oven, is your foundational work looking at the role of the housewife in the kitchens in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Today I would say that the role of food has drastically challenged a lot in terms of all this explosion of food culture and gastronomical interest and people wanting to make food a part of their everyday lives, from the blogs to Food Network and everything.


KB: Do you feel the diet industry had any affect on the women of the ‘50s and ‘60s?


SF: Oh yeah, if you think about it the ‘50s and ‘60s are all about consumer culture, commoditization. You are no longer defined by what you do, as much as by what you buy, wear and what you eat. With that comes all these pressures to look and be a certain way. Weight watchers, Jean Nidetch founded that in 1962. As we have this new shift in culture from identifying yourself as a craftsman or as a wife, you become defined by what you have and by what society thinks of you. With this, the diet industry definitely starts to take off. The diet industry has been around since Victorian times, with certain body types promoted over others. Society began telling people this is what you should be. Yet, in the ‘50s you see a shift; the idea remains that you should look like something, but that something can change a little bit. For example in the ‘50s you had Marilyn Monroe as an idol. Yet, only ten years later, this idea reverses, as Twiggy becomes the new fashion idol. This shows how the industry is telling women how to feel about their bodies. What’s in one year is not in three years later.


KB: How did that affect ones own perception of their body?


SF: Oh sure, yeah the idea of having standards that you have to meet was present. When everyone was telling you, you should really be curvier, have a bigger bosom, bigger hips and a tiny waist, if you happen to carry weight in your stomach, then you are made to feel like not enough, not good enough and you internalize that. There is a great piece I found when I was looking at those Lady’s Home Journal articles where the son of one of the publishers wrote a feature piece about how he did reducing for a year. It’s so focused on this guy who is maybe 17-18, following how he felt like he was a, “blimpo”, “loser” kind of guy when he was overweight and his transition to becoming a thin guy and what that meant. The language that he uses in that article, if you strip out the 1950s, gee-wizo kind of stuff, is the same language that you would hear on The Biggest Loser today.


KB: What role do you feel food plays into fat shame?


SF: Throughout history its always seen, if something is an indulgence, fat, food, sex, drugs, alcohol, its all that there is a category of people who enjoy this excess and revel in it. Food itself, its difficult. The people who are fat shaming are often unhappy, usually with something about themselves, so they want to project it on someone else who has a physically marked difference. In this circumstance, that marked difference is the fat. If a person is trying to fat shame someone by saying for example, you really shouldn’t have that fried chicken, you have to ask what is the fat shaming person’s relationship to that food? Do they [the person who is shaming] want that food? Or have they now made that food an object of complete disgust that is going into someone else’s disgusting body. In essence, they have melded the food and the disgust together. The relationship is very dynamic. Are they seeing the food, the person or has it just become one thing?


KB: Do you feel you have been able to break through the mindset, that health equals thin, with your students?


SF: A healthy body is a body that you feel healthy in. That is the message I am trying to give them. Food is not the enemy. Bodies are bodies, and their job is to get us around and do stuff. Someone who is anorexic and their period has stopped and has 5% body fat is at the same risk as someone who is overweight and is having joint problems or shortness of breath. All you can do is talk about it. It is hard and it’s a big problem and it’s something too that fat studies and fat acceptance is a really small niche in the whole discussion. Probably less than 10% of the population, in academia as well as the real world, are saying fat is ok, vs. the other 90% who still believe, and are promoting the idea that fat people need to change.


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