It's with great shock and sadness to have learned that Dr Caitlin Clare "Cat" Pausé, 42, suddenly passed away recently. A memorial service for the American academic was held at Massey University, Manawatū, on Friday. She was loved by many, and her academic work to reduce fat stigma was recognised internationally. Pausé had had a particularly profound impact on my life and work.
I had just read the works of Roxane Gay and Lindy West and was surprised to hear one of the leading experts in fat studies lived in little old Palmerston North. She was on the bill for a writers festival in Auckland, so I trudged awkwardly up to her and asked whether it might be worthwhile to focus on fat discrimination for my Master of Journalism. Her enthusiasm for the project was infectious.
While I've always been opposed to fat shaming rhetoric such as "the war on obesity" - her views spurred a paradigm shift in my thinking. For one, society's obsession with discussing health in relation to fatness had to change, she told me. It's irrelevant in a discrimination context, unless discussing the barriers and unconscious bias fat people have when accessing healthcare and entering employment.
"We need to start with changing the language. Obesity is a medicalised term. [It] diseases an individual based on their body size, which reinforces fat stigma. Health professionals use it, the media uses it, and WHO uses it, and guess what, it's all written by non-fat people and causes more harm," she told me in past interviews.
"When we talk about health, which drives much of the conversation, we're throwing all the fat people who are unhealthy under a bus, because there are a f***-tonne of them, just as there are a f***-tonne of thin people who are unhealthy."
Pausé said the perception of fat as bad or unhealthy had always been thought to be true. "The reason why it's shifted across time and space is because 'we all have a moral obligation to be healthy and fat people are not upholding their end of the bargain'. It's a view that derives from a Judeo Christian framework. Fatness is very much a sin because it's seen to be both gluttony and sloth - two of the seven deadly sins."
Pausé said talking about health in relation to size was a distraction. "If there are health differences between fat and non-fat people, they're better explained by the stigma people experience, better than the added post-tissue that happens to be on their bodies.
"It's very tempting to look through the lens of health - there's an allure to say 'we shouldn't be mean to fat people because fatness doesn't mean they're unhealthy, and here's the science to back it up'. But there's really good evidence that racism, for example, is strongly associated with heart disease and cancer. Sizeism is the same."
Pausé said stigma came down to patriarchy, white supremacy and capitalism. In the US, the weight loss industry was worth more than US$60b, she said. "That industry needs people to believe that being fat isn't healthy and that if you don't want to be fat anymore you just need to try and diet."
Pausé spent her career advocating to include a weight discrimination provision in the Human Rights Act 1993.
"It's very much legal to discriminate against someone based on their weight in New Zealand. Neither weight, size or physical appearance are protected categories."
For her, she said it was important to get the messaging right in statute, and the media and wider culture would follow.
On top of her work tackling fat stigma, Pausé had a masters in public health, she was the lead editor of Queering Fat Embodiment, and she was involved with the Tertiary Education Union. Her work appeared in Hman Development, Feminist Review, HERDSA, Narrative Inquiries in Bioethics, The Huffington Post, Jezebel, and The Conversation.
She hosted two international conferences - Fat Studies: Reflective Intersections in 2012, and Fat Studies: Identity, Agency, Embodiment in 2016. She was also involved in community access media, where her internationally renowned radio show, Friend of Marilyn, was regularly recorded at Palmerston North's Manawatu People's Radio.
Beginning in 2011, each podcast was structured in three pieces: first Pausé reflected on current fat events and stories, it was then followed by an interview with a member of the fat community. Finally she would examine a relevant blog post before playing a song from a fat artist.
Pausé's colleague and friend, Aimee Simpson, told me that Pausé's passion and support shaped Simpson's work and personal development.
"She had such a vibrant life and did so many things for so many people. She was the first to include and uplift people that were otherwise unrecognised or marginalised in academic circles. She loved us all and she was a really kind, genuine person.
"It can sometimes be hard to find people who are in positions of authority - be it politicians or academics - who lose sight of the communities that they come from. This wasn't the case for Cat. She brought such joy to our lives and we're feeling quite adrift without her here."