Fat Bodies, Classroom Desks, and Academic Excess
Ashley Hetrick and Derek Attig
Desks hurt us. Such an admission is an appropriate way to both begin this essay and explain the primary motivation behind our exploration of student bodies in classroom environments. It is through experiencing the physical pain and social shame of classroom desks that we first became interested in the issue of space and how it is distributed and policed in and through the homogenizing structures of desks. These desks are not, we argue, neutral and benign spaces; they are, rather, highly active material and discursive constructions that seek to both indoctrinate students' bodies and minds into the middle-class values of restraint and discipline, and inscribe these messages onto the bodies that sit in them. Classroom desks are one way that “discourses [are] deployed in order to contain fat bodies, fat people … [and] simultaneously construct and erase the fat body, attempting to expel it from representation at the very moment that defines it” (Braziel & LeBesco, 2001, p. 1). At the heart of desk design is the issue of containment, the protection of rigid spatial boundaries and uncompromising values that, paradoxically, both highlight and erase bodies that refuse to conform.
To sit in these desks—primarily in chairs attached to individual writing surfaces, or auditorium seating with hinged desks—our hips and stomachs must be pushed, shoved, and squeezed into unforgiving metal, wood, and plastic. The longer we sit in them, the more uncomfortable they become, biting into fleshy abundance and often resisting attempted release. Though we rely on these experiences of pain to ground and frame our examination, we also take care to resist what could be called the tyranny of experience. When the only or primary goal of an activist or academic project is making personal experience visible, Joan Scott writes, “analysis of the workings of this system and of its historicity” is prevented (1992, p. 25). Speaking specifically of those who identify as gay, she elaborates, “We know they exist, but not how they've been constructed; we know their existence offers a critique of normative practices, but not the extent of the critique” (p. 25). Cognizant of Scott's warning, we seek to use a consideration of our experiences as fat students as a way of approaching the description and scrutiny of the social, political, and educational conditions of those experiences.