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I hate dressing up. I could tolerate the occasional obligation to dress up as a graduate student: the one year I taught one twice-a-week class; presentations in the department; annual conferences. Now as a professor, I have to dress up everyday. And, I just hate it. Of all of the things I must do to prove I am a competent and qualified (and hopefully, phenomenal) teacher and scholar, what I put on my body seems highly irrelevant and shallow. But, guess what? Since my competence and qualifications are not automatically assumed, I cannot afford to as dress casually as I would like.
Fat Boy Gripes
The fashion industry has a particular body type in mind, and it is not mine. Oh, and dress clothes are the worst. Since I have breasts, typical men’s dress shirts are very unflattering on me. So, as I pointed out to my advisor at a conference (to his embarrassment), I always wear a vest or suit jacket (or sometimes both) to mask the appearance of “man boobs.” Even with that issue covered, I still spend much of the day readjusting my outfit because I am self-conscious. What a waste of mental and emotional energy.
Queer Boy Gripes
Worse than my body image issues is feeling like a fraud in this hypermasculine attire. A suit, for me, is the costume of a white heterosexual middle-class professional yet masculine man. Slightly baggy jeans and shirts designed for men serve for my comfort (and my safety against homophobic and transphobic violence); but, the tighter fitting dress clothes designed for men really feel foreign to my body. On the outside, I appear a respectable man — listen to me, respect me, for I have a dick (and a brain)! On the inside, I feel uncomfortable, inauthentic, and on edge that someone will declare that they are not falling for my masculine illusion — the jig is up, fag! We know you’re in there!
Brown Boy Gripes
Unlike my sexual and gender identities, I made peace with the racialized nature of dress clothes. I learned early in graduate school that certain appearances — certain “urban” or “thuggish” attire — was deemed unprofessional, even threatening to my (white) colleagues. I am conscious of the whitening effect of dress clothes, especially a full suit. My ambiguously brown skin is less distracting when concealed in a respectable black suit.
I am an assistant professor at a wealthy institution. Despite how much money I actually have in the bank, after years of living on graduate student wages, I am considered comfortably middle-class. And, despite being upwardly mobile from poverty, I come from an undeniably middle-class family. That includes the benefit of the cultural capital to navigate “professional” and other middle-class-dominated spaces. I know to look the part, I know to play the part. But, damn, it is uncomfortable for me.
My specific gripe about clothing here is that the restrictiveness of dress clothes seem to force a “professional” way of behaving and interacting with others. Suits, in particular, are too tight to make sudden or wide movements. One must stand tall, with one’s back straight and shoulders wide. If sitting, one is limited in options for comfortable posture: legs crossed either one over the other, or one ankle on the other thigh. Slouching, hunching, or having your legs spread to far apart can be uncomfortable, but also look bad in a suit.
For all of these behavioral restrictions, it is no wonder that I cannot help but sing at the top of my lungs and dance while listening to the radio on the drive home. Get this costume and muzzle off of me!
The Politics Of Respectability
Oh, I just know it. I am playing with a set of politics that make me appear respectable to my privileged colleagues (and students) so that they are more likely to respect me based on my actual skills and qualification. I am working to reduce the number of frivolous and shallow ways that I may be dismissed due to racist, homophobic, fatphobic, and classist bias. But, sometimes the joke is on me because bias cannot be reasoned with; you cannot win a logical argument with ignorance, after all. I may only be fooling myself by thinking that I can hide behind the master’s clothes to gain status in the master’s house. But, so long as I see others’ bodies policed for being “unprofessional,” too feminine, too masculine, too queer, too poor, too fat, too “urban,” — too anything other than white middle-class heterosexual cisgender masculine man — I worry looking too much like an Outsider will eventually lead me to be pushed out for good.
The Politics Of Authenticity
The other side of the coin of respectability is authenticity, at least for me. I have written before about feeling a tension between success (by normative standards) and being authentic in my identities, politics, and values. How much am I willing to do to be seen as respectable in the eyes of my (biased) colleagues? How much — of myself — am I willing to give up to be seen as respectable in their eyes? Is the success I gain worth feeling like a fraud, dressing and acting like them?
I had alluded to making certain clothing decisions that counter my “true” identities and politics to my gender and sexuality class last semester. Privately, one student asked me “how would you really dress?” Well, since “privately” was still in earshot of other students, I said I did not feel comfortable having that conversation then and there. But, I followed that with an honest admission: “I really don’t know.” I have been dressing in ways that placates the exclusive culture of academia so long that I cannot even imagine what I would wear otherwise.
In being genderqueer, having an ambivalent relationship with masculinity (and men) since the age of 5, I really would just like the option: do I feel like wearing a suit today, or the short skirt and the blonde bombshell wig, or just a comfortable pair of jeans and a hoodie?
But, I do not live in that reality. And, I do not care to risk my job, status, and credibility just because I feel more at home in jeans and a shirt, or feel the occasional itch to go to work as Denise. I am trading authenticity on this front to avoid threatening my success on other fronts. As a marginalized academic, my only option seems to be which poison to drink; I have chosen the cocktail of success, inauthenticity, discomfort, and delusion. That is, in hopes that my work will prevent future generations from having to make this choice.
In the spirit of releasing the toxins of my graduate school days, I wish to do one more detox as I wade into the next chapter of my life as a professor. I have already noted that time and distance have tremendously helped to heal some old wounds. So, too, has moving out of the days of having to answer to and be molded by someone else (and now, refusing to do so on the tenure-track) and defining my own path here forward.
But, throughout, just disposing of some of that emotional and mental garbage is all it takes to feel free. It’s just a shame that so many concerns about jobs, tenure, promotion, etc. rob us of outlets to really vent without repercussion. So, I had taken to sprinkling vague references to offensive and unjust incidents throughout my blogs. I’m just going to do it, once and for all, to get it out of my system. But, I will still keep identities and contexts masked, unless it was shared in a public (and easily found) venue.
Sh*t Academics Have Said
Yes, I know the “sh*t [x group]” says is old, and became tired and repetitive rather quickly. But, I still like the framing because there were some good and/or funny versions (e.g., “white girls to black girls“; “cis people to trans* people“; “everybody to rape survivors“; “black gays“; “white people to Asians“; “[straight] girls to gay guys“). I just found this one actually about academics and accessibility. So, here it goes…
- “You’re gay – do you like my shoes?”
- “You all have ghetto booties!”
- “What’s a Black Panther?”
- “All Black guys have six-packs.”
- “I’m glad I don’t have to worry about AIDS!”
- “Can I touch your hair? Omigod, please stop me. I shouldn’t be touching your hair!”
- “Aren’t fellowships for minorities a form of reverse racism?”
- “Man up!”
- “Don’t do that — that’s girly.”
- “I don’t think homophobia is a problem anymore.”
- “You don’t have to get uppity!”
- “A little anxiety is good for you.”
- “I mean, is it possible that these students came to graduate school with mental health problems?”
- “You’ll have to remind them that you’re Black.”
- “Don’t worry — you’re Black. You’ll get a job.”
- “You’re not going to get a job.”
- “So, lesbian and gay falls under the umbrella of transgender, right?”
- “I think you’re overreacting [about racism].”
- “You know, as a woman of color, you really shouldn’t show up late.”
- “Where is the hotel lobby? Oh, you don’t work here?”
- “The students here are kind of stupid.”
- “Community service?! Not before tenure.”
- “You have anxiety? What — too much service?”
- We live in a “post-racist” society
- “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.“
- “She didn’t get the job because she’s a party girl.”
- “You’re not going to get a job by studying trans* people.”
- “She teaches an immigration course. Can’t she teach race, too?”
- “Do not have a baby before tenure!”
- “You’re not really Hispanic. You don’t even speak Spanish!”
- “Why would you tell anyone that you’re Black when you can pass [as white]?”
- “You’re not like other Black people.”
- “Can’t you just breastfeed in the bathroom?”
- “I don’t know who the new secretary is, but, I’m sure she can help you.”
- “Oh, we haven’t beaten the activist out of you yet?”
- “Activism and academe don’t mix“
- “But, you’re research interests [on race and sexuality] are so narrow.”
- “So, what are you?”
On A Serious Note
There is an element of fun and humor to naming these rather hurtful comments. These are, by definition, various instances of microaggressions — or “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative” slights and insults toward people of color, women, queer people, fat people, and other marginalized groups. These seemingly innocuous comments and actions are compounded by more obvious, major expressions of prejudice and discriminatory acts, and symbols in the environment that devalue marginalized people and/or elevate the values of privilege people.
So, in my experience, these verbal and interactional slights are just one (albeit common) manifestation of racism, heterosexism, and fatphobia in academia. I also saw few faculty like me — scholars of color and LGBT scholars, in particular; my graduate department regularly struggled to recruit students of color. My classes were held in a classroom named for a revered old white man scholar (whose picture watched over us), within a building named for another revered old white man scholar — all of this, at a school that continues to struggle to diversify its student body and faculty. Within class, curricula regularly featured the work, perspectives, and voices of heterosexuals, cisgender people, whites, and men (especially white heterosexual cismen), and studying particular marginalized populations was not seen as rigorous as taking on a mainstream concept or theory.
What’s worse is that the pressures of the job market, tenure, promotion, and general status-mobility in academia force us to be silent about these realities. If I played it completely safe, I would wait until tenure to finally open up about these experiences. That would mean 13 years of silently dealing with microaggressions, discrimination and harassment, double-standards in evaluation, and tokenism — and, the real consequences for my livelihood and well-being. But, guess what? I could do everything the
white right way and still find myself without tenure and a job in seven years.
Further Reading And Resources (Again)
- The Black Academic’s Guide to Winning Tenure–Without Losing Your Soul (Kerry Ann Rockquemore & Tracey Laszloffy)
Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia (Gabriella Gutierrez y Muhs , Yolanda Flores Niemann, Carmen G. Gonzalez, Angela P. Harris).
- …. and the authors’ Facebook page.
- International Black Doctoral Network Association, Inc. (and look the associated Facebook group)
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.
“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.
As 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.
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.”
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.
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.
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 discrimination — fatphobic 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.