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Ridiculing a scholar because of their gender or race is unthinkable nowadays, but does that same protection against discrimination apply to academics who are overweight?

Definitely not, according to Cornell University philosopher Kate Manne, who claims that “intellectual biases against fat people” in academia are “rampant,” with “fatphobia” so endemic that many scholars feel emboldened to belittle, berate and bully—often openly—peers deemed obese.

In Unshrinking: How to Fight Fatphobia, the Australian scholar discusses her own difficulties being “quite fat” in the academy but also recounts grim tales from friends and colleagues who have been targeted on account of their body size.

Manne recounts how one friend was repeatedly told in graduate school that her body shape would make her unemployable because “only thin women are seen as intelligent,” while others were informed that they should “lose weight and look smarter.”

A professor was openly ridiculed by students, who left insulting notes on her desk about her body shape, although one of them later apologized when he learned that she was pregnant.

“I’m sorry,” he said, “we all thought you were just built like that,” she recalled, reflecting, “And what if I had been?”

Another friend in philosophy overheard a colleague state, “If she can’t discipline what she eats, how can she discipline what she thinks?”

Manne calls attention to a controversial tweet by U.S. psychologist Geoffrey Miller that opened with “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.”

Such brazenly discriminatory attitudes are so imbued in academia—and philosophy, in particular—that some of the discipline’s most famous teaching examples rely on blatantly fatphobic tropes, Manne told Times Higher Education.

“We use the figure of the fat man in the trolley problem unselfconsciously,” she said, citing the conundrum of whether it is ethically sound to push a large man to his death if it stops a trolley from wiping out five smaller people. “It’s seen as appropriate and unproblematic, even amusing, to push this man in front of a trolley.”

Manne noted that other tropes on choice—such as whether someone selects a piece of fruit or a slice of cake—presume a certain derisive weakness of will on the part of overweight people.

“I won’t say fatphobia is the last acceptable prejudice in the academy … but there is a particular complacency that allows people to demean others in this way,” she added.

Manne has faced harsh criticism online and from reviewers for daring to draw attention to antifatness and for her call to “remake the world to accommodate people of every size.”

“I knew it would be a divisive book,” she reflected. “People really hate fat people, so defending them and their right to compassionate and adequate health care was always going to be seen as radical.”

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