Anti-Fat Bias in Academia: The Monetization of Self-Hate in Science

I teach in the human development department, in the school of human ecology, in a natural sciences college at a major university. Yes, that is a mouthful. University>College>School>Department. This will be important to my story so listen up.

During my first year of teaching at this institution, I encountered a couple of instances of discrimination or prevalent fatphobia. As the years have progressed (5 of them so far), and I became more engaged with faculty committees and such, I have encountered many more.

Before I start cataloging the shit I’ve seen (and experienced directly) I want to establish some evidence-based facts. Fat bodies are not inherently unhealthy. Fat people often live longer than thin people. While some diseases are correlated with (not caused by) higher weight, weight loss does not cure them. Intentional Weight Loss (IWL), otherwise known as dieting, does not last, and almost always results in regaining the weight lost, and often more. However, anti-fat bias in healthcare can affect your health through underdiagnosis or misdiagnosis of symptoms. Exercise and a varied diet are both very good for your health but do not necessarily make you thinner. Healthism, or the idea that healthy people are superior to unhealthy people, is based in bigotry and prejudice. The roots of fatphobia are in white supremacy and racism, both in culture and in western science.

In essence, one’s appearance and weight do not determine their health, happiness, or lifespan. This is all well documented and researched, but is only starting to make its way into the public consciousness.

So back to my job. In my first semester, I taught a class on the socioeconomics of families and children. It was my first sociology-based class and it was pretty fun. I inherited a good syllabus from the previous teacher, and it included a formal research paper. Working late into the night to finish grading at the end of the semester, I read a paper about childhood obesity written by a Nutrition major. She claimed that the Body Positive movement was bad—because diabetes. I was pretty upset by this, as a fat woman and the teacher of the class. It felt pointed. I learned not to grade papers late at night when my defenses were low. I also learned (from other students) that the Nutrition department had a lot of students with untreated eating disorders and pathologizing fatness was very common. Nutrition is part of the School of Human Ecology (remember my flow chart?) so this comes up again later. The other departments are Textiles & Apparel and Public Health.

Next up, senior theses. I gained popularity as a teacher pretty quickly and my classes filled up. I was also asked to be the first or second reader (supervisor) on a variety of senior theses (these are research projects like master’s theses but for honors students in undergrad). When I went to my first day of presentations of these works, almost every single one was about the horrors of obesity and how to make fat people less fat. It was deeply uncomfortable. I learned to show up for my students’ presentations and then leave quickly.

There were a few other incidents in my first couple of years. I had a TA whose research was on how parents could make fat kids less fat, and she told me, to my actual fat face, that she had to be thin because she had to set a good example for her research. Yeah, that happened.

I need to backtrack for a second. When I was finishing my Ph.D. and freaking the hell out about how to pay it off, I looked at think tanks as possible places of employment. I found many of them doing research on the so-called obesity epidemic, but not any particularly interested in fat discrimination. That was my first clue that funding research that problematizes fatness is big money in academia. I already knew that the diet industry made tons of money off of people’s insecurity and fears, and that patriarchy was all about social control, but I hadn’t realized how monetized the research was. I was long past the point in my life where I felt like I had to perform self-hate while being fat, so this was pretty discouraging.

Anyway, back to the saga. As I’ve written about (and published!) when COVID hit online support became really, really important to my mental health. I met regularly with my Trauma-Informed Pedagogy peeps, who were very anti-fatphobia and pro-eating disorder recovery. That was awesome. I also started going to monthly happy hours with other teaching faculty, and then committee meetings as I became more engaged in university service. I don’t remember any weird moments in the early days, but over the last two years, I’ve noticed some really toxic stuff starting to spill out in these non-student groups. A shortlist of weird shit I’ve seen/heard:

  1. A discussion of the best pies before Thanksgiving in a committee meeting led to someone commenting that the person who liked baking pies was so thin and them talking about how they used to be fat.
  2. A breakout room in a faculty meeting about how to support students where a Nutrition faculty member told the rest of us how they performatively eat salad and use their Peleton during Zoom student meetings to “set a good example” but they secretly like cheese.
  3. A committee meeting where a discussion of favorite Easter candy was ended by a white male faculty member asking how many of us had diabetes (two of us were visibly fat).
  4. The same meeting – a teacher said that students got “soft and flabby” during quarantine and that was why they had sports injuries.
  5. I observed a senior colleague’s class in my department who discussed the health risks of ob***y including a diagram of a “healthy” thin body and an “unhealthy” visibly fat and conventionally unattractive body (both female) without any discussion about the flaws or variations in this research.
  6. A lack of accessibility for both disabled and larger bodies in many classrooms, roads, and building entrances throughout the campus.

On the positive side, my students and grad students seem far, far more aware of the dangers of diet culture than in the past. I see and hear many more discussions of the problems with diet culture and eating disorders than I hear fatphobia from this population, which is an encouraging, welcome change. That said, I’ve had many students confide in me about their EDs and seek treatment, especially during quarantine.

I spoke with one faculty member in Nutrition who was combating diet culture and anti-fat bias. This was because she was assigned a large class with a syllabus that demanded students count calories for a week. While she admitted to me she was in eating disorder recovery, she didn’t rethink the calorie counting assignment until some of her students told her it was harming their recovery. She removed it and started including more Health at Every Size information. I don’t know if she made much progress or not on that front, but at least she was supporting a student-driven change.

To return to the funding issue, consider this: the US government is prohibited by Congress from funding research into gun deaths and injuries as a public health issue, but there is copious funding for why it’s bad to be fat. The reason behind this apparent contradiction is the same: money. The NRA funds a good chunk of the Republican party and has insisted on the block on funding research on gun violence, in spite of it being one of the biggest public health risks in our country (especially compared to other wealthy countries). Meanwhile, continuing to support research that upholds constructed ideas like the “ob***y epidemic” and uses made up and thoroughly discredited measures like BMI to assess individual health is a veritable cash cow.

We cannot change public perception if we continue to uphold and recreate biased assumptions in scientific research design. Anti-fat bias in research intersects and complicates false assumptions about women’s bodies, black bodies, queer bodies, and disabled bodies, all of which are well-researched and deeply harmful. I have a non-exhaustive but significant list of articles and studies on gender and race bias in medicine and research that I share with my students, many of whom will have careers in related areas. It is my hope that my students continue to unpack these biases and critically consume research that upholds inequity in medicine as they progress in their careers.

My students give me hope for the future; unfortunately, many of my colleagues do the opposite. We must stop upholding the hierarchy of bodies if we want academia to be a less toxic place to exist if you are not a thin, hetero, cis-gendered, white man. And finally, we must consider the ethics of research funding. If your funding requires or allows you to build on false assumptions about a marginalized group of people, it’s not ethical.

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