Law students’ organization advocates for fat acceptance

Courtesy of Legally Fat

Legally Fat, a student group on the Lewis & Clark Law Campus, became an official club in March of 2023. The group, though still establishing its footing, is one of the first advocacy groups that addresses anti-fatness at a law school in the United States. Audrey Sylvester ’24, vice president of Legally Fat, is a third-year law student. Sylvester spoke on the group’s work on and off campus, the role anti-fatness plays in the legal world and the origins of anti-fatness in anti-Blackness. 

“Right now, our primary focus is outreach on campus, becoming more of a fixture of the law school community and becoming more of a place that students can come to when they feel isolated or have issues or need some support,” Sylvester said. 

One of the barriers fat lawyers face is accessibility to professional clothes that fit comfortably. Business clothing is expensive, and secondhand clothing resources do not always carry sizes that meet the needs of different bodies.

“Dress codes were one of the first things that we started looking at, because so many people were very reticent to claim the word ‘fat,’ which was one of the reasons that we put the word out there so much,” she said. “They’ll use these gentler terms like larger, bigger, plus-size, when really the word you’re looking for is ‘fat’.”

Sylvester explained why Legally Fat started their own community closet for the law campus.

“We would ask people … Have you ever struggled to find something that fit you or that made you look the right way, or have you been told that you need to wear this article of clothing and this article of clothing, like a skirt and a blazer, and you weren’t able to find those in your size? Or you were and it was so uncomfortable that you weren’t able to perform at your best?” she said.

According to Sylvester, there were a lot of people who identified inaccessible or uncomfortable dress codes within the legal world as a huge issue on a daily basis.

“You’re expected to walk in heels, and I just can’t do that,” she explained.

Sydney Klupar ’24, president of Legally Fat, elaborated on the importance of the law school community closet. 

“That’s our legacy, because the current community closet on campus I believe only had up to a size medium. That’s a huge barrier for anybody who’s above a size medium,” said Klupar. “It reinforces one of the biggest things that I think sparked the club, which is that I don’t see a lot of fat lawyers and fat legal advocates as the people we’re revering and the people we see as the important people.”

Sylvester emphasized the role the broader Portland legal community has played in helping the club get on its feet.

“We have reached out to fat influencers and authors who would be interested in doing clothing swaps for fat and plus-sized people or people who have written books and works about the fat experience who might be willing to come and do a speaker series with us,” she said. “We have worked on developing a mentor program so that fat and plus-size attorneys or people working in the legal field could potentially take on members of our group as student mentees and help them enter the legal field.”

Klupar shared how special it was to connect with and learn from the lawyers beyond LC.

“We’ve had such an immense outpouring of support from the attorney community and gotten so many donations from them,” she added.

Right now Portland is perceived as a liberal city with increasing leniency in the business world when it comes to tattoos, piercings and other forms of self-expression. However,  Klupar referenced Oregon’s history of racism and outdoorsy culture as factors that affect fat people in the professional world.

“Oregon has this robust history of excluding Black people, and in that, there are these huge groups of bodies that have been historically excluded,” she said. “Then so much of Portland is around being outdoorsy and hiking and oftentimes when we’re talking about outdoorsy activities, there’s no inclusion of anybody, of any disability or anything .”

Klupar described the complexity of Portland in this context.

“Portland is a really interesting space to have this and I love it,” she said. “I think that other parts of the country are more, I guess, progressive in terms of accepting fat people and having accessibility because they have more of them, based on their history.”

Sylvester also highlighted the openness of self-expression in Portland as an advantage for fat law students entering the legal world.

“In Portland specifically, there’s a developing leniency with the ways you present in a legal area. So an attorney going into court with tattoos or dyed hair, or a colorful suit or colorful shoes or piercings is much more common now than it ever was,” she said. “And that was something that they actually told us coming into law school when we were like ‘Oh, do we have to wear the black blazer, white shirt, black pants, what do we do?’ And people here would say ‘Oh no, you find somewhere to inject your personality into your professional attire. Be yourself first and then be an attorney.’ That’s really important. And that’s not the way it is in a lot of other regions.”

Sylvester elaborated on their group’s statement on their website, which identifies the origins of anti-fatness in anti-Blackness. 

“We focus on the shared experience of being othered,” said Sylvester. “Members of our group have different gender expressions, different racial backgrounds, different ethnicities, different classes, socio-economic experiences … But the one overarching theme is that we have all experienced this sort of exclusion. So it was important to us to note going into this that the origins of anti-fat bias are not just anti-fat bias, but that they stem from racial bias and systemic racism.”

She identified “The Belly of the Beast: The Politics of Anti-Fatness as Anti-Blackness,” a book by Da’Shaun L. Harrison, a fat, Black nonbinary author, as a relevant reading that orients the reader in the origins of anti-fatness through a historical and racial perspective. Sylvester briefly explained the role colonization played in modern anti-fatness, and why the group identifies anti-Blackness as relevant to the origins of anti-fatness.

“During the slave trade and the developing of the Americas, the U.S., the colonized states, there came this need to differentiate between the white body and the black body, or the white body and the brown body, and one of the ways that early ‘race scientists,’ would do that was by demonizing the Black skin, darker skin,” Sylvester said. “So another thing that these scientists would do is bring in the softness and the largeness of Black women, and say, this is different. This is other. This is bad. And as these racial stereotypes developed, for example, that Black individuals were lazy or not hard-working or dim-witted, those coincided and became associated with fatness.”

Sylvester noted that reactions to fatness were different before the colonial shift and the slave trade.

“In old paintings and old artworks and historical accounts, voluptuousness and fatness in white people used to be something that was in Europe: ‘Oh, this is good, this means that you’re affluent and you’re wealthy and you’re intelligent and all this,’” Sylvester said. “As soon as racism ‘officially’ entered the picture, that’s when that change started to happen, and people started to be more concerned with differentiating their bodies.”

She highlighted the importance of recognizing the origins of anti-fatness as anti-Blackness when advocating for fat acceptance.

“It’s very important for us to not allow the mission of our group to fall into white victimization,” Sylvester said. “I am vulnerable and attacked because I’m fat. We have to understand where that’s coming from. And how some members of our community and some members of our group are going to be targeted differently than other members. Because if we’re not doing that, then our work is not really substantial at all … Then it allows us to go into spaces and take up space from people that are trying to do different things.”

She shared that, this semester, Legally Fat has focused on connecting with other groups, in ways that do not detract from other student voices.

“Rather than amplifying our voice, (we’re trying to use) our platform to help magnify and amplify the voices of other affinity groups on campus, such as the Disabled Law Student Association, the Black Law Student Association, the South Asian Law Students Association,” Sylvester said.

Klupar spoke to the experience of working with clients and with the legal world beyond law school, and how fat lawyers need to prove their competency in different ways than thin lawyers do.

“I remember coming to law school and being like, I don’t even know if they’re going to let me in,” she said. “As I’ve been here, I’ve been seeing all the ways in which we’re excluding fat people from the conversation entirely. When I had my interview to come here, I chose to do it over the phone, because I didn’t want them to see me and make a judgment based on my appearance. I’d seen so few fat lawyers.”

She described how it was difficult not fitting the typical stereotype of a lawyer when first meeting with clients.

“When people look at me, they don’t see an attorney,” she said. “And so they won’t accept that I am one.”

Klupar said that the fat bias she faces shows up differently between judges, attorneys, accountants and clients, and that she struggles most to earn respect with clientele. 

“For the most part, judges I’ve worked with have been really conscious of their power and the bias they can hold,” she said. “There are good attorneys and bad attorneys. Some of them respect you and some of them don’t, but I think clients are the hardest ones to convince to let me help them because this person is somebody who’s traumatized, who needs help. So they’re on fire and they see this young, fat woman come and be like, ‘I’m going to help you,’ and they’re like, ‘You don’t look like a lawyer.’”

Klupar acknowledged that it was rewarding to cultivate that relationship and earn the trust of clients, but that it was exhausting to need to perpetually prove her competency as a lawyer whose body doesn’t fit the stereotype of a female lawyer.

“Yeah, no, my tall, slender friend John is not experiencing the same issues with communicating with clients,” she said.

Klupar spoke about how many offices and courthouses are built for smaller people, and how one aspect of Legally Fat’s mission is advancing accessibility in legal spaces.

“There is an accessibility barrier,” said Klupar. “So many of the chairs at my office have these rigid arms that dig into my legs … and there’s an easy way around that.”

Klupar also shared her view on the frequent, problematic comments she encounters in her advocacy work.

“A very common thing that people will say to fat activists is ‘I’m worried about your health,’” said Klupar. “What I have to say to those people, is respectfully, it’s none of your fucking business. And more importantly, I am worthy of respect and you have to take me seriously, regardless of if you think I’m healthy. You wouldn’t treat a smoker this way. You wouldn’t treat anybody who makes a ‘bad’ lifestyle decision this way, except for this group. So I always ask people to examine that.”

Legally Fat is primarily focused on ensuring that it can live on after its current executive board graduates, and is planning to hold a mixer for Portland’s legal community and law students who are advocating against anti-fat bias. Several law campuses have reached out to the group in hopes of creating similar clubs. 

Klupar mentioned that they are rigorously documenting their events and work in hopes of paving the way for future law schools to more easily establish their own fat activist groups and create accessible spaces. She enthusiastically encouraged anyone who may be interested in doing so to reach out to her or other members of the executive board.

Their mission and contact information can be found on, or on Instagram @legallyfatlc.

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1 Comment

  1. Emma, it was such a pleasure to sit down and talk to you about our group. Thank you so much for this awesome article and all the work you put into it, it’s amazing!

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