Fatphobic Prejudice And Discrimination In Academia

fatphobic tweetOn June 2nd, evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller posted on his Twitter account (@matingmind) a rather disturbing message to fat applicants to PhD programs: “Dear obese PhD applicants: if you didn’t have the willpower to stop eating carbs, you won’t have the willpower to do a dissertation #truth.”  Though he attempted to apologize for his comment (after people called him out), and then he made his Twitter account private, the damage had been done.  His open expression of hostility toward fat people brought about a quick and direct response from fat scholars and activists.  To prove Miller’s stereotypes wrong, several fat academics contributed their picture and degree/degree-in-progress to a Tumblr page, Fuck Yeah!  Fat PhDs.  Though the response was beautiful — a long overdue expression of pride, rather than shame, from fat people — Miller dug himself deeper by saying the entire debacle was an experiment.  (And, his past questionable work that seems to promote eugenics, and other comments, also came to light.)

Fatphobia In Academia

Is Miller just a bad apple?  And, how the heck does a PhD-educated individual harbor such prejudicial and unfounded views?  The Fat Chick noted:

I can find no excuse for this sort of behavior.  None. This guy is supposed to be a teacher.  This guy is supposed to be a scientist.  And he’s drawing this conclusion based on what evidence?  None.  He doesn’t like fat people, therefore they are lazy and incapable of doctoral level work.  Oh except, not really.  He didn’t really mean it.  The fact that this guy clearly gets to make decisions about who gets to apply for a PhD is utterly terrifying to me.

In his case, you have someone who has had say in the admissions process for his graduate training programs.  He openly announced his view that fat candidates are less qualified because they will not have the willpower to complete a dissertation.  He might as well have posted a sign:

Miller’s ignorance has raised the important lingering question: is fatphobia a problem in academia?  In my own reflection about my body (image issues), I wrestled with defining fatphobia as a system of oppression as we do racism, sexism, heterosexism, and classism.  That is, is bias and discrimination against fat people systemic?  Yes. There is rampant fatphobic discrimination across multiple social contexts, which threaten the well-being and life chances of fat people.

And, academia is not immune to fatphobia.  Getting right to the heart of Miller’s comments about graduate admission, recent studies actually demonstrate discrimination against fat applicants:

“The success rate for people who had had no interview or a phone interview was pretty much equal,” Jacob Burmeister, one of the study’s authors, said in a press release. “But when in-person interviews were involved, there was quite a bit of difference, even when applicants started out on equal footing with their grades, test scores and letters of recommendation.”  The link between high BMI and low admission rate was especially strong in women.

Of course, to the charge of discrimination, there will always be the rebuttal that difference in outcomes may reflect difference in performance (not difference in opportunity or resources):

“There are two explanations,” Burmeister told Times Higher Education. “One is that there is some sort of conscious or unconscious prejudice on the part of those carrying out the interviews… [or] it could be that when applicants with obesity are put into a face-to-face interview and are aware of some of these stereotypes, it negatively affects their performance.”

The presence of fatphobic prejudice is undeniable.  And, discrimination does occur.  But, even if disparities in graduate school admission is due in part to stereotype threat (that is, underperformance by marginalized individuals because of anxiety about stereotypes), it is cause for concern.  And, discrimination may not occur at the point of entry alone.  It may be the case that fat academics face differential treatment consistently throughout their careers — potentially any face-to-face interaction, presentation, course taught, and the consequences of these instances of being denied or judged harshly.

Fellow academics, we have a problem on our hands.  And, it appears to intersect with other well-known sources of prejudice and discrimination — particularly gender.  The good news is that we are beginning to discuss weight, the body, and fat people and fatphobia in classrooms and research.  The next step is to talk about these issues within academia broadly.

Update (8/7/13, 2:41pm): Geoffrey Miller has been formally censured by one of his institutions, University of New Mexico, and will no longer be able to serve on graduate admissions committees.  After investigating Miller’s claim that his fatphobic tweet was an experiment, UNM didn’t buy his claim.  However, he will continue to serve as a visiting professor at New York University without sanction.

It’s Time To Talk About Fatphobia

DFP SuitAs soon as my partner asked, “are you sure you want to wear that?”, I knew the body image issues would come flowing out of me.  Up to that point, I had kept them at a controllable level — like water at a slow boil, contained within the pot.  We were getting ready for our friends’ wedding.  Getting dressed up is usually a bit of an emotional roller coaster for me, so I knew to start the process off with a good sassy tune to perk up my mood.  And, if I get my look right in the first attempt, there is a good chance I am out of the door lookin’ cute and feelin’ cute.  So, when my partner raised concerns that my vest and slacks did not match, I knew that having to reevaluate would disrupt this very delicate balance of self-esteem and body image issues.  Moments later, I went back and forth between saying “I hate my body” and “fuck this fatphobic society!”

I have been fat most of my life, probably starting around age 7 or 8.  As a consequence of our society’s emphasis on thinness and, particularly for men, muscular physique, I have struggled with hating my body most of my life.  But, only in the past year or so have I grown critical of society’s prejudice toward fat people (fatphobia).  So, with this latest episode of internalized fatphobia, ending with my partner saying, “I really hate when you get like that,” I knew the time was coming to talk about fatphobia, at least with myself.

Fat Consciousness

In recent years, I have made (some) peace with my weight.  I would rather devote my energy on exercising my mind than my body, though I do know that exercising both is beneficial, and I cannot (and don’t) completely ignore my body.  I became assured enough to counter concerns raised about my weight from family members with, “it’s not me who has a problem with my weight.”  But, I am a far cry from being a proud fat person.  Unfortunately, I still retain enough of society’s anti-fat prejudice that thoughts too embarrassing to share publicly cross my mind, like “oh, I can just starve myself for a week to drop a few pounds.”  I am smart enough to snap myself out of it, but it concerns me that such thoughts still cross my mind every once in a while.

Why not be proud?  I did the heavy soul-searching, and drew on my own strength and the support of others like me to become a proud queer man.  The days of considering taking my own life as a consequence of society’s vehement homophobia were limited to my adolescence.  And, I have never hated myself for being a person of color, or even multiracial; my parents instilled a sense of racial pride and awareness from my birth.  So, why then, do I let fatphobia get to me?

One major issue has been the delayed consciousness of fatphobia.  I, like the rest of society, am only recently beginning to notice that fat people are frequent targets of prejudice and discrimination.  This is more than “innocent” teasing in the school yard.  Earlier this week, an evolutionary psychologist posted an awful comment on Twitter (see image below):  “Dear obese PhD applicants: if you didn’t have the willpower to stop eating carbs, you won’t have the willpower to do a dissertation #truth.”

Fortunately (for him), his stupidity of openly expressing his fatphobic prejudice will have little bearing on his career:

What Geoffrey Miller, a University of New Mexico professor who is a visiting professor at NYU, said on Sunday on his personal Twitter account was regrettable.  Professor Miller apologized for the Tweet and deleted it. NYU considers the matter closed.

But, the audacity to end his tweet with “#truth” — wow.  Actually, that is not true.  Several PhDs and soon-to-be PhDs have proudly submitted their names and images to a growing list of fat PhDs.

And, to add my own #truth, my fat behind sat in my chair for long hours to start and finish my dissertation (on top of applying for jobs) in a year.  To brag a little, I put my committee’s concerns to rest that I wouldn’t finish and/or wouldn’t get a job, finishing graduate school in 6 years (one year less than the typical minimum, and two less than average).  My decision to eat (rather than lack of decision or willpower not to eat) is irrelevant to my decision to work.  (I am actually a little fatter because of working on my dissertation, which is true for many people of all shapes and sizes.)  More importantly, it is high time to put to rest the stereotype that fat people are fat because they are lazy.

PhD Graduation, IU ('13)

PhD Graduation, IU (’13)

Fatphobia As A System Of Oppression (?)

I suspect a second reason that there is a delay in recognizing fatphobia is hesitation to define it as oppression.  Sure, we know that fat people are the targets of prejudice.  Increasingly, we are recognizing that fatphobic prejudice seems to translate into behaviors and, sometimes, even policies and practices.  Yup, with pervasive unfair treatment against fat people, this constitutes a form of discriminationfatphobic discrimination.  And, this discrimination has real consequences for the health, well-being, and life chances of fat people.

Beyond interpersonal interactions, there is a constant barrage of negative images in the media, coupled with the medical institution‘s obsession with obesity as a health problem.  One of the most appalling things I saw in medical research was viewing positive body image in fat women (as though they are delusional) as a problem, specifically as a hindrance to them losing weight.  Certainly perception of one’s body, specifically one’s weight, is a concern in terms of anorexia, bulimia, and other eating disorders.  However, I find it troubling to view comfort with one’s body, or even fat pride, as a problem.  For now, until we fully tease out how much of the poor health faced by fat people is the consequence of fatphobia, I remain skeptical of the automatic conflation of fatness with poor health.

But, does fatphobia constitute a system of oppression?  In simply raising the question, the “oppression olympics” come to mind.  There is no question that the history of prejudice, discrimination, and violence faced by women and people of color are what define sexism and racism as systems of a oppression.  More recent consideration has been given to homophobia and heterosexism, as well, which actually discounts just how old and pervasive they are.  But, to my knowledge, fat people have never been enslaved or formally excluded from important social institutions.

What further complicates this question is how wrapped up fatphobia is with gender (and sexism) and other identities (and systems of oppression).  I do not mean to suggest that attending to these important intersections is bad or even problematic; rather, as an outsider, much of what I have seen around anti-fatphobia activism and scholarship has donned the face of white cisgender women (for now) (but hopefully I am wrong).

Fatphobia As A System Of Oppression!

But, I stop there.  To the extent that fatphobia exists both as pervasive antipathy toward and discrimination against fat people, it counts as a system of oppression in my book.  One that deserves no less attention than sexism, transphobia, racism, homophobia, and classism.  More work is needed to document how widespread such prejudice and discrimination is, and to eliminate it (e.g., education, changing laws and policies, changing practices).  In particular, more research is needed to assess the social experience of being fat (and the extent to which this shapes one’s health), not merely obesity as a “health problem.”  And, more energy should be devoted to developing a fat consciousness and, ideally, fat pride.

It is a shame that, on top of all of the external hostility and unfair treatment, so many fat people harbor internalized fatphobia; unlike Black pride, grrl power, or LGBT pride, we, as fat people, do society’s dirty work to hate our own bodies (and even other fat people).  Okay folks!  It is time we start talking about (and working to eliminate) fatphobia.