Montreal researcher pens graphic novel about body shaming, diet culture and medical stigma

·3 min read
Rachel Thomas is a PhD student at Concordia University's Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies in Society and Culture. She's working on making her research accessible in the form of a graphic novel. (Photo: Lisa Graves / Graphic: Rachel Thomas - image credit)
Rachel Thomas is a PhD student at Concordia University's Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies in Society and Culture. She's working on making her research accessible in the form of a graphic novel. (Photo: Lisa Graves / Graphic: Rachel Thomas - image credit)

As a PhD student at Concordia University, Rachel Thomas studies "fatness as a concept," looking at the social, medical and historical aspects of an evolving debate about what constitutes a healthy or attractive body.

In an effort to share her research with a larger audience, she is working on a graphic novel which blends her scholarship with her own experiences.

"I wanted to create something that people of all backgrounds would be able to understand," she told CBC's Let's Go.

Thomas does all the illustrations for the graphic novel, combining her interdisciplinary research in medical sociology and history with her fine arts background.

"It was really a fantastic merge of all of my disciplines together."

The graphic novel, which she hopes to have published once it's completed, is called Shrink and some excerpts have already been shared online.

Rachel Thomas illustrates and writes about her research and blends it with a personal narrative about her own weight loss experience.
Rachel Thomas illustrates and writes about her research and blends it with a personal narrative about her own weight loss experience.(Submitted by Rachel Thomas)

The comic follows a woman's journey through losing weight as she navigates various social and medical stigmas, partly based on Thomas' own experiences.

"I was actually going through a process myself of losing weight," she said. "It was kind of happening in tandem in the sense that I was having my own experiences in this process and then also doing a ton of research."

Thomas said her work attempts to offer a critical look at how ideas about body weight are formulated and expressed, especially in a medical context.

"Shrink tackles things like the social complications of being fat, the medical gaze on the female body, diet culture and body advertisements and plastic surgery."

She said she'd experienced medical stigma firsthand, seeing a doctor about a case of strep throat and being told to lose weight.

"But that's not something that's directly tied to me having strep," said Thomas. "Apparently this is a very common occurrence where a person's entire health record is boiled down to 'well, it's because you're fat.'"

Thomas said that on the flip side, sometimes body positivity activism can take on the same role of prescribing what people should do or how they should feel about their bodies.

She's hoping her project can spark awareness about how external pressures impact self-image and provide context for the larger social discussion around diverse bodies.

"Everyone thinks they have a say in what your body should do and what your body should look like, but really, the only important person is you in that discussion," she said.

"And that's really what Shrink is about. It's about offering all this information really from both sides of the story in a narrative, but underscoring the fact that ultimately it's your decision to do what you want with your body."

Thomas said despite her focus being on bodies classified as overweight or medically obese, her message is striking a chord with a larger audience than she originally anticipated.

"There are a lot of people who don't identify as fat who have a lot of body issues," she said. "It's a reminder that everyone really struggles with their body. ... You don't have to be a particular body size to actually connect with the storyline and the research."