Schooled on Fat: What Teens Tell Us About Gender, Body Image, and Obesity

Stories from the Field

Field Notes

The Research Process

The writing process transforms raw data into a shiny, polished product where fieldwork appears seamless and the researcher is often portrayed as socially adept, sophisticated, and insightful. Even those of us who are committed to “keeping it real” must do this to some degree. The cartoon below really captures it:

In truth, researchers are all too human; we don’t always handle situations skillfully, especially when we’re caught off guard by awkward and challenging moments, and have to make split-second judgment calls. Sometimes we get it right and sometimes we don’t. Either way, the process of navigating these moments shapes us, our relationships to the communities we study, and the information we collect. Such experiences invite self-reflection, generate new research questions, and move projects forward in unanticipated ways. These are teachable moments, both for the researcher and students learning the craft of research.

The twelve stories below are highlights from the nine-months of fieldwork that make up Schooled on Fat. They were pulled from my field notes, which are informal and written for me, to offer a humanizing glimpse into the often unpredictable process of ethnographic research.

Note: Names have been changed to protect confidentiality

*****************************************

1. Gotta Get Out of My Head

Day 1 (Monday)

My first PE class observation!  Mrs. Roy got the class started with a football throwing activity and then joined me on the sideline.

Her: “What exactly are you studying?”

Me: “I’m looking at the intersection between body image, exercise, and food environments within the broader context of media hype and social anxiety about increasing rates of obesity among youth…blah blah blah.” I retreat into my head, kids and footballs fading away, as I think about my research and how best to describe it. I’m still talking about my study when Mrs. Roy shouts:

“Hey, stop goofing off!”

I snap back into the reality of hyper fourteen-year-olds running around a field, throwing footballs haphazardly through the air.  Mrs. Roy is standing in the middle of the field getting the students back on task.

Oh - I guess she needed the super condensed ten-second version.

Academics use a lot of words to say things, often pausing to reflect on what we have said, ponder what we want to say, or search for just the right word.

In contrast, these teachers talk in short, fast bursts because they have to constantly multi-task—monitoring kids, tracking their lesson plan, preparing for transitions between activities, etc.

I realized I needed to reconnect with the communication style from my time as a high school teacher.

First lesson: I’ve gotta get out of my head.


2 & 3. Just Not Cool Enough

Week 7 (Monday)

The group calling themselves “The Mexicans” still eludes me. I can’t seem to find an “in” the way I have with other groups. A few of them have signed up for my study on teen body image, but the group is impenetrable. Today I sat nearby, hoping one of them might notice me, maybe even talk to me.

I’m eating my sandwich and reading a magazine. Out of the corner of my eye I notice the girls retreating to the back of the area. I look up and see about a dozen guys standing in a row facing me, legs apart, shoulders slightly hunched, muscles flexed, and arms out a little with fists clenched, like they’re ready to throw a punch if they need to.

They were all staring right at me, chins jutted out, licking their lips in a sexually suggestive manner. I felt so intimidated—probably the point! I grabbed my stuff and walked away. Too awkward!

Week 7 (Thursday)

I may have an “in” with the Mexicans. A girl from the group named Violeta is in my study. She wants to introduce me to her two best friends. They talk about body image all the time and have even drawn pictures of the “perfect girl.”

Yes!

At lunch I saw Violeta. She smiled, eagerly waved me over, and introduced me to her friends. They looked me up and down with deadpan expressions, said, “Hey,” and turned their backs.

Violeta, nervously: “Sandra just got her belly button pierced.”

Me (trying to sound casual): “Cool. Can I see?”

Sandra lifts her shirt to show me the piercing. “I’m thinking about getting a tattoo. Do you have any?”

Oh man, this is a test. I pause (probably a little too long). I’m way out of my comfort zone. Deep breath, plunge in.

Me: “Yeah, I have two.”

The girls perk up and ask to see them. The former teacher in me screams, “No way! Not appropriate.” The researcher in me says, “Do it. This is what trust-building looks like.”

I do it. Clearly underwhelmed, the girls look up at me and roll their eyes before walking away without a word. Violeta smiles and shrugs as she runs off to catch up with her friends. I’m just not cool enough for this group.

4. Navigating a Social Minefield

Week 7 (Friday)

I decided to sit with the sophomore girls I’ve been hanging out with lately. They’re friendly, easy to talk to. Lila plops down next to me without a word and sits with her chin in her hands, staring straight ahead.

Three other girls walk over: “Hey, we’re gonna sit over here in the sun. Want to come?”

Lila doesn’t speak or move.

Me: “Um thanks, maybe later.”

Me to Lila: “How are you?”

“Fine.”

Loooooong silence.

Lila: “How’s your study going?”

Phew! “Good. I’m still trying to figure out the social scene but interviews are going well.”

Lila: “I saw you hanging out with the Mexicans yesterday.”

Me: “Yeah, I’m having trouble getting in with that group and thought I’d try again.”

Lila: “They think they’re so cool but they’re not. They’re really stupid, acting all tough. They think all the Latinos on campus should hang out with them but no way! I don’t want anything to do with them.”

Whoa! Zero to a hundred in two seconds. She’s really heated. Listening to her resentment makes me uncomfortable, especially since I seem to have inadvertently unleashed it. I redirect:

“Hey, could you point out some of the other groups and help me understand the social scene a little better?”

Success.

This was one of many times when I felt like the campus was a virtual minefield. Social pressures were so intense that even as an adult I often felt awkward and anxious that I might say or do the wrong thing.

 

5. Managing the Rumor Mill

Week 8 (Tuesday)

Today I sat alone on a bench eating my sandwich. Two boys walk up—one is kind of dragging the other along. The one doing the dragging says loudly:

“My friend wants to know what you think of fat people.”

I stare at them in shock, not knowing what to say. After a few seconds I recover:

“What do you mean?”

The outspoken one: “We heard you’re doing a study on fat people.”

Me (trying to sound casual): “Who told you that?”

He points to a group of about eight boys gawking at us:

“Some of my friends said you talked to their PE class about your study.”

Me (loudly enough for the whole group to hear): “I’m not studying fat people but body image in general. I’m talking to boys and girls of all different sizes to understand how they feel about their bodies.”

And then to the two boys in front of me:

“Do you want to participate?”

The outspoken one: “No, not really.”

The other boy hangs his head and blushes. After an awkward silence they walk away.

I panic—heart pounding, mind racing. What if lots of students think I’m here studying fat people? It could draw negative attention to fat kids and make things worse for them. And no one will want to talk to me if they think I’m only studying fat people.

The bell rings, snapping me out of it. I close my eyes, take a deep breath, and resolve to pay close attention to what kids are saying about my research so I can put an end to these kinds of rumors.

Fortunately, this did not turn out to be a widespread idea.

 

6. Forced into the Spotlight

Week 9 (Friday)

When the end-of-lunch bell rang, students grabbed their things and headed off to class. As the crowd thinned, I noticed a large group of varsity football players wearing their game-day jerseys, kneeling about ten feet in front of me.

They start singing “Summer Nights” from the movie Grease:

Summer loving had me a blast, oh yeah
Summer loving happened so fast,
I met a girl crazy for me,
Met a boy cute as can be, …

I loved this movie when I was a kid! My childhood friends and I memorized the lyrics to all the songs and sang them constantly, driving our families crazy.

I’m swaying to the music, reminiscing, and thinking they must be serenading one of their girlfriends. How sweet!

I turn to go and notice that no one is in the courtyard but us. I look back at them and blush as I realize they are singing to me. They smile and just keep on singing. I feel so embarrassed. I hate being in the spotlight.

I stop listening to the song as my head fills with worry that maybe one of them misinterpreted a look or a smile as flirtation. Have I even noticed any of these guys before? No... I decide to play it off as a joke.

They finish the song. I smile and laugh. They laugh, too, and we all go our separate ways.

A good reminder that I wasn’t the only one making observations—students were watching me, too. I realized these teens had the power to make me feel vulnerable, just as my inquiries into their personal lives no doubt made them feel vulnerable.

 

7. Recognizing Opportune Moments

Week 11 (Tuesday)

At lunch I overheard the following exchange among a group of boys standing behind me:

“You dick fuck!”

“I’m gonna beat the fuck outta you.”

“Don’t tell anyone about Saturday night.”

“He wouldn’t get evicted for lighting a bush on fire.”

“Hey, is she evaluating our school?”

I turn around and one of the boys says to me: “I hope you give it a bad evaluation. I hate this place.”

Another says: “You’re evaluating students, aren’t you?”

Then a third boy starts pointing out faults with the campus—uneven flooring, trash and discoloration on the ground, bees everywhere, etc.:

“Hey, if a bee stings me can I sue the school?”

I introduce myself and explain what I’m doing at their school. I ask if they want to participate in my study.

A boy wearing a black baseball hat with the phrase “White Trash” in white letters across the front:

“Are you looking at psychological processes or social behavior?”

I am impressed by his question and it shows because his friend turns to the “White Trash” hat boy and says, “How YOU doin'?” in an exaggerated voice while looking him up and down.

We all laugh and another of the boys asks if they would get out of class to be interviewed. I say “yes” and they all want to sign up.

Two of the boys, including “White Trash” hat boy, ended up participating in my study.

 

8. Performing for the Researcher

Week 12 (Thursday)

At lunch I sat alone on a bench in the midst of rowdy teens. After a few minutes, two boys and a girl I didn’t know joined me. The girl sat right next to me and the boys sat on the ground about two feet in front of us.They positioned me as part of their group but totally ignored me. I was invisible.

This felt strange. How should I respond? Do I sit there and observe, do I try to interact with them, or do I get up and leave? My curiosity got the best of me. I sat quietly to see what would happen.

One of the boys answers his cell phone.

The girl says to him (while he’s on the phone): “You’re fat.”

He replies: “You’re fatter.”

She comes back with: “You’re fattest.”

He counters: “No, YOU’RE fattest.”

He asks the person on the phone if he’s fat and says to the girl next to me: “She says I’m not fat. Ha!”

The girl next to me: “I disagree. Ha HA!”

They all laugh.

He ends his call and the three friends sit in silence for a while as the girl eats chips, occasionally throwing some at the boys. They never acknowledge me, not even a little. We all just sit together until the end-of-lunch bell rings, at which point they stand up and walk away.

I felt sure they were performing for me, the researcher studying body image. I realized that just as I didn’t know quite what to make of some of these teens and their seemingly odd behavior, they probably didn’t know what to make of me either.

 

9. Becoming That Which I Study

Week 14 (Wednesday)

I haven’t done much observation this week.

I’m feeling burned out, tired of eating lunch alone and hovering at the edges. I thought I would have a couple of groups to sit with by now. But most students don’t really sit; they stand in groups or walk around and socialize. Lunch is one of the few times during school students get to hang out with their friends. It’s when they flirt, perform, roughhouse, play, run around, catch up on gossip, and have the freedom to be as goofy and loud as they want. There is such a frenetic feel to lunchtime, especially among the freshmen. They vibrate with energy. With only one lunch period for the entire campus and nearly 2,000 students wandering around, it feels completely overwhelming. It’s exhausting.

One of my participants stopped by to say “hi” today. We talked for a few minutes. I felt so grateful for the interaction. Pathetic. I actually feel like a teenager all over again—self-conscious and worried about what the kids think of me, feeling like I want to belong.

This is a humbling experience.

10. Overcoming my Fears

Week 17 (Tuesday)

Today was my first time changing into gym clothes and participating in PE. I felt SO nervous! What if I can’t do the activity or kids make comments about my body? What if they think it’s weird that I’m exercising with them?

I change in a private faculty bathroom and walk out to the gym. Julia, a participant in my study, immediately runs over to me, smiling and waving her arms: “You dressed out today!”

Mrs. Roy asks me to organize a vote to see if the class prefers lacrosse or team handball. (What?!? I’m terrible at team sports.) The students choose lacrosse, but first on the agenda is a “literacy activity.” We all walk over to a nearby classroom. As I look for a seat, Julia waves her arms spastically:

“Me, me, sit by ME!”

I do. Our assignment is to read a newspaper op-ed piece on obesity and complete a worksheet. Julia keeps elbowing me, tugging on my hair, and making funny faces. I’m the first to hand in my worksheet and Mrs. Roy says, “You’re such a good student.” We laugh.

After the literacy activity we walk to the track. Mrs. Roy says to the class: “Two laps in under eight minutes. Ready, set, GO!”

Everyone sprints ahead of me and I panic. They’re all going to finish first and stare at me while I stumble across the finish line sweaty and winded. Halfway through the first lap most students slow way down. Several are bent over, sucking air and complaining of side cramps.

One boy yells: “Hey, she’s faster than me and she’s old.”

Another boy: “Yeah, she’s in college.”

At the finish line, a boy in my study whispers to me: “I think it’s cool you’re working out with us.”

We walk to the gym for lacrosse. This is where I will make a complete fool of myself. I’m sure of it. The students are squirrely—talking, flirting, chasing each other, lounging on the floor. Finally, the game starts. Total chaos. Some play while others mess around. I no longer feel nervous. I can do whatever I want and not stand out at all.

The goalie for my team is batting at the basketball net with her lacrosse stick. It gets stuck and she can’t untangle it. I offer to help. I yank the stick out of the net and accidentally smack her in the face, hard. Oops! I feel so embarrassed and am sure everyone is staring. She says she’s okay and goes right back to what she was doing. When I turn around, the chaos just continues: no one even noticed.

Participating in these classes gave me a totally different perspective than watching from the sidelines. I got to experience firsthand what it was like to exercise among a group of insecure teens and feel some degree of the vulnerability they expressed. I’m glad I overcame my fears and did it.

 

11. Did I Do the Right Thing?

Week 21 (Friday)

At lunch today I sat near a group of nerdy kids who like to play a game they call “wall ball.” It was a perfect spring day—sunny, breezy, warm but not hot.

Some of the kids joke around with me while I eat. Their nickname for me is “Sunshine” because I’m friendly and smile a lot. They can’t believe I’m an adult because, “Grownups are crusty and mean. They frown all the time.”

“Hey Sunshine! Wanna play with us?”

Me: “Sure, after I finish my sandwich.”

Suddenly a huge, muscular guy storms up to one of the scrawny, nerdy kids. He’s towering, pushing, yelling, threatening. His veins bulge out, his fists are clenched, and he’s purple with anger. He’s actually foaming at the mouth.

Is that a receding hairline? Is he even a teenager? I’ve never seen a high school kid built like this. He looks like Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator.

The nerdy kid is vibrating with fear and stuttering, “L-l-leave me a-a-alone.” He’s white as a ghost and looks like he’s going to pass out, vomit, or both.

Oh my God! Purple angry guy is going to hit that kid and break his face—not just his nose, his whole face!

I jump between them, facing purple angry guy. Now I’m shaking and sweating. I yell in my loudest, deepest voice: “STOP! NOW!”

Purple angry guy to me: “Who the fuck are you?”

Oh my God—he’s gonna hit me now!

Me (still yelling): “I’m a teacher here. You need to come to the office with me RIGHT NOW.”

Wait! What did I just say? I was back in full high school teacher mode.

To my surprise he replied, “Okay” and followed me to the office.

I handed him over to an assistant principal who asked me to write a disciplinary referral describing the incident.

Did I do the right thing? I misrepresented myself. I lied. But if I hadn’t…

 

12. This One was Tough!

Week 22 (Wednesday)

At lunch today Leslie told me she thought one of her friends was purging:

“She worries about calories all the time. She always goes to the bathroom right after she eats. Last night at the movies, she went to the bathroom after eating candy and popcorn. Me and my friend followed her and looked under the stall. Her feet were facing the toilet. What should I do?”

Me: “Talking to an adult is a good first step. Do you feel comfortable talking about it with one of your teachers?”

Leslie: “No.”

Me: “How about the girl’s parents?”

Leslie: “No. They’re pretty messed up. They’ll just make it worse.”

Me: “What about your counselor?”

Leslie: “I don’t know who my counselor is.”

Me: “Who is your PE teacher?”

Leslie: “Coach Thomas.”

(Okay, never mind: alpha male, interested in coaching and his players, not in building relationships with students).

Me: “You mentioned that another friend of yours is also worried. You’ve talked about it with this friend?”

Leslie: “Yeah.”

Me: “Who is this friend’s PE teacher? Do you know?

Leslie: “Mrs. Wyatt.”

Bingo!

Me: “Tell your friend to talk about it to Mrs. Wyatt. She’ll know how to help.”

Leslie: “Okay.”

The next day I go to Mrs. Wyatt’s PE class to give her a heads up. As timing would have it she’s getting ready to show a video about eating disorders and she addresses the class:

“Just because you may not have an eating disorder doesn’t mean that you don’t need to know about eating disorders. Someday your friend, girlfriend, boyfriend, or family member may suffer from an eating disorder and paying attention to this video may help you to help them. So pay attention!” 

After the video, as we’re walking out to the track, Mrs. Wyatt says to me: “One of my girls reported to me that her friend has an eating disorder. She said you told one of her friend’s she should come to me.”

Me: “Wow, that was fast! Are you okay with it? I had to make a quick decision in the moment. I knew you’d help, that you could be trusted.”  

Mrs. Wyatt: “Yeah, I’m glad you sent her to me. I’ve already reported it to the counselors and the nurse. They’ll take it from here.”

This one was tough! I was the only adult Leslie felt comfortable talking to but I didn't feel comfortable reporting it myself. I knew from my former teaching days that all school staff members are mandatory reporters. Connecting Leslie or her friend with a trusted teacher was the key to making sure the girl got help.

This was one of the few times when my high school teaching experience didn’t feel like old baggage I had to manage.