“Dear obese Ph.D. applicants: if you don’t have the willpower to stop eating carbs, you won’t have the willpower to do a dissertation.”
The summer before I became a doctoral student, a visiting professor at New York University expounded to the world via Twitter that the academy was something to which I, a fat woman, would never be privy. I, and those like me, were destined to fail because fat people do not possess the willpower and control to complete a dissertation.
While the backlash on social media was swift, on Twitter, Facebook, various news outlets and the website F*ck Yeah, Fat PhDs, those words haven’t left me. As a woman within the academy, I have experienced discrimination that has been exacerbated by my weight.
The impact of gender and educational attainment on interaction is well documented. Fatness, however, can intensify the interaction of those statuses inside the classroom. As messages about body norms permeate social arenas, the discrimination fat professors face is unsurprising. Christina Fisanick writes that as fat bodies are routinely discriminated against in other areas of American society, we have no reason to believe that discrimination is absent within the academy. As my own research shows, in spite of the growing attention given to body positivity and fat acceptance movements, weight-based discrimination affects the levels of power and influence given to fat individuals.
Weight-based stigma has an impact on the credibility of fat academics, in particular female academics who often must contend with both gender and fat stigmas. This has been my experience within the academy. For instance, when I developed an idea for a research project with a colleague who is a man, we established early on that I would take a lead role. Despite that clearly defined position, he was the one treated as the expert at every meeting we had. When we met with our institutional review board, people directed all their questions to him.
Up to that point, I had attributed such reactions to gender bias. But the researchers in this meeting brought up the importance of appearance and made a point of emphasizing that, should I be in the lab, I should appear professional. It is worth noting here that I was wearing professional pants, a blouse and a cardigan at the meeting. It was apparent to me that the fear of unprofessionalism was about my weight, and when they learned I would not be in the lab while experiments were conducted, they were relieved. That my appearance and weight caused anxiety is especially problematic here given that the committee functions as a gatekeeper of knowledge production.
Unfortunately, my interaction at the IRB is similar to what fat women professors face when interacting with students. Elena Andrea Escalera found that students presented elevated levels of anxiety when encountering a fat professor, especially if the professor’s fatness or fatness in general is actively discussed within the classroom. “Lipoliteracy” describes the way people interpret fatness and make moral and health inferences about fat individuals. This interpretation interacts with societal stigmas regarding weight. Furthermore, weight stigma negatively impacts a professor’s credibility as a communicator within the classroom, with greater credibility being given to those who argue against their own self-interest.
Therefore, when a fat professor makes their fatness salient inside the classroom, their fatness overrides their educational and occupational statuses, as students interpret this information as coming from an unreliable source. As a professor’s weight becomes salient inside the classroom, they become perceived as an insincere communicator and therefore less credible.
Professors of color, especially women, who encounter gendered racism within their classrooms experience similar student reactions. And as interaction with students is fundamental within the academy, the emphasis on student evaluations is especially troublesome in such cases. The American Sociological Association’s recent statement underscores the negative impact of gender and race on student evaluation outcomes while reinforcing research showing the discriminatory bases of student evaluations.
What is missing from this discussion is weight. Fat professors often receive lower student evaluations than their thin counterparts, as they don’t fit the “normal body” of a professor. This in turn impacts their progress within their fields.
I was armed with this knowledge when I gave my first lecture on fatness. I remember walking into the room knowing that my presence made students uncomfortable and that the very nature of my lecture would increase their unease. I had had numerous conversations with my peers and professors about how I could be credible inside the classroom. I spent hours thinking about how I could talk with students and know that, at least to some, I would be thought of as credible and competent.
One colleague, a white man, asked me why I was so worried. Why was I spending time thinking about how to be perceived as competent, when I should be able to walk into the room and be afforded the title? In further discussions with that colleague, he told me that it would be easiest to just address the elephant in the room. Instead of trying to prove my competence despite my weight, I decided to prove my competence using it.
In that lecture, and almost every initial lecture I give on weight now, I started class by having students tell me everything that society thinks about fat people. I introduced myself as a fat woman. I made my weight as salient as possible. I still encounter students who tell me that my confidence is insincere because true confidence is an impossibility for fat people. Or students who tell me about the latest diet or medical procedure and how it could help me. Even though I have these encounters repeatedly, I also have students who show increased interest in the subject matter, who tell me they brought up information from class in other courses and how my openness has allowed them to confront biases they hold. I am also frequently thanked by my students of size for discussing and giving validity to issues they encounter daily.
In discussing various incidents with colleagues, the lack of respect and sense of intelligence and competency afforded to me both in and out of the classroom is apparent. I have taken classes on teaching and been mentored by multiple professors, yet I still know that both my gender and weight can, and often do, overshadow my interactions with students, professors and others. The pressure is there for fat women in the academy to be more: more understanding, more humorous, more intelligent. Ultimately, we’re expected to be more prepared both in and out of the classroom.
Fat academics need to be more vocal in calls for increased structural accessibility such as larger desks or substitutions for tables and chairs, greater ease in access to elevators, and more. Yet in addition to structural changes that campuses could make to help people of size be more comfortable -- such as providing larger bathrooms, chairs without arms and larger auditorium seating -- we need to discuss more techniques to combat stigma within classrooms.
I use multiple strategies to neutralize stigma in my classrooms. One that has proved effective for me is bringing up weight intentionally. For example, when emphasizing intersectionality, I go beyond race, class and gender by including weight. When discussing health-care disparities, I bring in research that demonstrates that stigmatization leads to poorer health outcomes. I’ve found that inserting clear examples of how discrimination can be exacerbated by fatness can aid in normalizing discussions of fat bodies inside the classroom.
Additionally, I employ both quantitative and qualitative research in class discussions. Students respond well to larger studies that demonstrate weight-based discrimination (income and hiring disparities, a lack of legal protections, negative health-care experiences, and so on) on a macro level. Grounding that information with qualitative research and personal experience, if appropriate, allows students to see how seemingly abstract numbers equate to the everyday lives of fat people.
To date, these strategies have been generally successful. As I mentioned above, I still encounter students who dismiss the conversations and research as unnecessary and nonscholarly. But the impact made on the students who engage is continuously growing.
These types of strategies could be beneficial for people of various marginalized statuses who are perceived as incompetent by bringing that marginalization to the forefront and forcing students to come to terms with anxiety, embarrassment and critical thought while being confronted with that marginalization. I tell students it isn’t the job of the marginalized to prove their marginalization and that we must take the words of those who suffer discrimination as true and legitimate. In order for fat academics, especially those who hold other marginalized statuses, to have their marginalization seen as such, addressing the elephant in the room -- and the academy -- is a first and important step.