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Fatphobic Prejudice And Discrimination In Academia

On 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.


  1. I find all discrimination is abhorrent, anti-democratic and anti-human. Concurrently, I am aware that all of us make discernment, beginning at birth. The new born will not see a male or non-lactating breast. My contention is that there is a difference between discrimination and discernment. When discernment becomes discrimination, and I affirm that all discriminatory thought and action are unfair. Returning to the nursing example, formula, and fathers who choose to be the primary care parent (as did my son, for his daughter’s first year) reflect a level of discernment based on choice.

    Individual discernment and group discrimination are not the same.

    I never thought in terms of “fatness” discrimination as an aspect on the level as racism. I was unaware of “fat” as a discriminatory base until I was an adult and heard a friend say that her son was more accepted in their new neighborhood, because, “there are more fat children among whites than blacks.” This was Chicago in the 1960s, as neighborhoods were “changing.” Her observation did not prevent all white neighbors from moving within a few years.

    There are many designations that elicit discrimination, rejection. and retaliation. NONE is justifiable, and all occur. What will be next? Already, we have layers upon layers: beauty, a la race-color-features-statue-weight-age (modeling.) Perhaps when we are all blind,and cannot make either discernment or definition-labeling, the need for studies into the role and function of unfair discrimination in every perception will dissolve.

    Personally, I have never recovered from the rejection by the Fulbright committee. Despite-exemplary letters of recommendation, grades and test scores, stimulated by the professors who “discerned” that I was deserving, I was not-accepted. Was it race, gender? Couldn’t have been age. I was 24. I was told a decade later, by a member of one of the committees that my rejection was, “Because you didn’t go to a NAME school.” Discrimination?

    The problem is, I affirm, fear and ignorance. I have little expectation that there will be substantive change in the species, certainly not in academia–a grand bastion of discrimination.

    • Ugh, I’m sorry to hear about the Fullbright. The worse part is we never know — it’s either too subtle, or happens behinds closed doors. So, for some of us, the event eats at us, and we ruminate on it. The injustice upon the injustice is that we have to find ways to put it to rest in our minds and move on — which can take a lot of energy.

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