Fatphobic Death Threats In My Classroom — By “A Fatshionable Ph.D.”

Increasingly, scholars have been paying attention to corporeality and the body — specifically body shape and size — as an important component of human experience and interaction. Fat Studies is an emerging discipline, with it’s own, new journal. Academia is not a refuge from fatphobia and weight-based discrimination, as A Fatshionable Ph.D. (a pseudonym) discusses below.  She shares her experiences as a fat academic teaching about weight and health and students’ conflations of fatness and impending death.

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Fatphobic Death Threats In My Classroom

A Fatshionable PhD

A Fatshionable PhD

So the semester is about to start, and I’ve got two things on my mind, both having to do with my cisgender, white, fat female body: my students’ perceptions of my authority and the potential for implicit death threats in their coursework.

I straddle the line between “acceptable” and “unacceptable” fat, which clearly impacts my perspective. I’m not deathfat; I am a “smaller fat,” who frequently can’t fit into clothing in mainstream stores and who outgrew Victoria’s Secret-wear YEARS AGO (though I wouldn’t want to wear their shit anyway) but who is generally still able to fit into theater and airplane seats. Though my doctor has told me she wants me to weigh what I last did at age 14, I have not yet been threatened with non-treatment or maltreatment based on my weight.  However, I am fatter than average.

I am the only faculty member in my department that is trained in public health and health promotion. Therefore, much of the public health-related coursework is under my domain. As I stand in front of my classroom, I am presenting myself as an authority on promoting the health and well-being of communities and groups. Ahem.

I am literally the only person on the faculty who doesn’t have a past as an athlete of some kind. Many of the students have similar backgrounds – in a health programming class, two graduate students wanted to have an open dodgeball tournament as a means of engaging exercise-shy campus community members.  WUT. Dodgeball is so clearly, laughably associated with gym-class-related trauma for so many people, I was flabbergasted (Ha! Flab!) when they suggested it. I tried to explain to them the potentially triggering nature of dodgeball in particular, and they looked at me as if to say, “But dodgeball is FUN.” Um, not if you were one of the kids that was a target of the more athletically-inclined students in your gym class. NOT FUN AT ALL.

Most folks in my department are lovely people who care deeply both about their students and their research. But their lack of experience being threatened by competitive physical activity and/or exercise deeply impacts their pedagogy. When I want to talk about “health,” I feel I am the only person who talks systemically and structurally, who isn’t invested in the idea that individuals “choose” to make “healthy” or “unhealthy” “choices” (notice all the quotation marks?), and that fatness and fitness aren’t just about getting your lazy ass motivated and moving.

So when I stand up in front of my students in my fat (though frequently fatshionable) body, I stand in contrast to many of my students’ and colleagues’ interests. Many of the students want to become personal trainers, nurses, nutritionists, and not necessarily critical ones. I am an example of what people are not supposed to be.  And this makes me very very nervous. Because it is personally traumatic to read paper after paper proclaiming that people who look like me are going to die miserable, early deaths SOLELY BECAUSE THEY LOOK LIKE ME.

I often wonder how my non-normative body impacts my evaluations and my career. I know it impacts how my colleagues see me – when a colleague was doing a research talk on physical activity in elementary school curricula and asked for us all to stand so ze could demonstrate using jumping jacks to teach arithmetic, ze immediately said something along the lines of “[My name] won’t want do this,” even though I jumped out of my chair-connected-to-desk just as quickly as anyone else.  (Clearly, there are issues of ability and mobility implicit here, but that would be another post.)

Strangely enough, at the same time, students and colleagues often treat my body as invisible – how else to explain students’ singular focus on “obesity” when they’re talking to a fat person? I am respected by my students – I don’t think they intend to cast aspersions on my body. And yet? They’re telling me it shouldn’t exist, and their papers are full of fat death threats. As a former fat kid and a currently fat adult, they are targeting me and others like me.

As is often recommended to marginalized scholars, I am going to try some self-care this year, even if it might be via baby steps. My preference would be to ban student projects on “obesity,” but I worry about being accused of politicizing my classroom (every classroom is political, DER, but I am pre-tenure). Instead, I’m going to ask them to supply their top 3 health-related interests, and I’ll match them up so that if there have to be any fat-related projects, at least they’re minimal. But this is only a stopgap. I don’t have space or time in my curriculum to administer a full Health at Every Size® curriculum, though this is newly available (USE IT IF YOU CAN!).

In the meantime, I will continue to research and publish and present on fatness and health, and offer myself as a counter-narrative to the fat body = early death narrative. I will attempt to school my students on the impact of their words and actions. And I will do what I can to maintain my own health in the face of those who insist that I cannot be healthy as I am.