Kate Browne tells how her PhD work on autobiographical dieting practices, weight loss success stories, and food journaling have influenced her online teaching and her own Facebook “autobiography-in-action.” Introducing her project, Taking Up Space, she explains how she sees her activism as a form of teaching outside academia.
I defended my dissertation in March. In August of the same year, I decided that I would not put myself “on the market” this year, or perhaps in any other year. I blame my dissertation.
In my dissertation, I argue that autobiographical practices of dieting, which include weight loss success stories and food journaling, teach people how to live. I based my argument on Foucauldian notions of self-writing, self-care and surveillance, and put these ideas in conversation with theories from life writing, fat studies, and crip theory. My final chapter argued that teaching body-based autobiography in the undergraduate classroom can help students act as agents in their own learning processes and strengthen their self-advocacy skills. As you might imagine, critical pedagogy features prominently in this work. Throughout my dissertation, I emphasize that learning happens outside the classroom all the time and that autobiography as a site of everyday teaching and learning how to live has a substantial impact on interpersonal relationships, cultural expectations, and socialization.
This research thread is one that I feel has the potential to influence a lot of people—women especially—toward liberatory self-care and community care practices. When I tell people outside academia about my work, I usually have to explain what the word “pedagogy” means, but I have never met a woman who needed me to explain what a “Before and After” weight loss success story is. So, I took my research to the Internet, advocating for more diverse body-based autobiography in the service of self-care through a project I call Taking Up Space. I use this platform to share stories about my transformation from chronic dieter to body positivity advocate, host a body positive book club, and write about diet culture history. I also post a lot of sweaty, post-gym selfies. Taking Up Space as it exists in its current form as a Facebook page is an autobiography-in-action, disrupting dominant power structures and so many “shoulds” in academia, fitness, and media. And yet, Facebook and other forms of social media have their own “shoulds” and best practices, some of which are antithetical to my goals of sharing my work in an inclusive way. For example, there is a pressure to provide live video content but this method is not accessible because it cannot be captioned. As life narrative researchers know well, sometimes negotiating generic constraints and audience expectations shapes autobiography in unexpected ways. As always, what to keep, change, disrupt and allow remains a constant negotiation that shapes my work each day, but ultimately it all depends on definition.
The most common question I have been asked since my defense is, “Are you going to teach?” This question makes me bristle because it implies that I am not already teaching. It plays into the assumptions we have about education as a closed system, and teaching and learning as a narrow set of situated practices. Yes, I am going to teach! I am teaching right now! Every person who visits my page and reads a post is learning that it is possible to show up in the world as a fat woman, who does not see herself as a “Before.” I teach others that they have authority over their own autobiography, and that it is possible to rewrite the rules for who is allowed to be seen. This is work worth doing.
Although I negotiate the parameters of my work and what kind of relationship I want with academia and the popular reach I would like my work to have, sacrifices must be made. I am somehow too much and not enough at once. I have been told that my work on weight loss memoir, social media, and popular culture is too edgy, too disjointed and too new for academia. I follow all of my research fancies without regard for what it will mean for my CV. I have a Master’s in Theatre, which I used to pivot into a PhD in English, and I work full-time at a small liberal arts college in the Information Technology Services department because I have an aptitude for technology. My CV can be summed up thusly:
It has been my dissertation research on autobiography as a pedagogical tool that finally made me realize that for me academia is a house, not a home. No matter where I go and whatever form my work takes, I will always be influenced by my academic training. Whether I am conducting research, thinking critically about a problem, or deciding how to approach a business decision, this training will always guide me. This is not a reflection of habit, but a statement of value. I hope that wherever I go, I can be a steward who proves that critical reading, writing, and teaching is not just for college campuses anymore.
Do we ever cross the void between PhD and what comes next? Or do we just get comfortable knowing that wherever we are in our career is a space between? I would never completely shut the door on a potential future as a professor, but I am not interested in shaping my work to fit the expectations of search committees. This does not mean that I have removed myself from scholarly reading and writing. On the contrary, I believe that my ability to reach a lay audience is enhanced by the skills and knowledge that I have acquired from rigorous academic work. Taking Up Space is a metaphor that works on many levels, including the site of my work, by exerting its relevance in both popular and academic discourse. I may never be considered a serious academic scholar, who is also too smart for the hot take culture of the Internet, but that’s okay with me. I’ll just be over here thinking about the autobiographical pact when I take gym mirror selfies.
Read more from the series and learn how to submit your own story to “Crossing the Void.”
Dr. Kate Browne is the founder of Taking Up Space, an online project that advocates for inclusive fitness and transformative body confidence. She believes that fitness is a social justice issue, and helps women build a supportive foundation for weight-neutral health habits through her group coaching program “Self Love Squad.” Kate’s work has been featured at Mommyish, US News and Refinery29, and she is the author of numerous academic publications on body-based autobiography.