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.

Disability, Discrimination, and Education in Texas: A Rant

This particular screed will be dedicated to K-12 and my experiences with my kid’s teachers, the school system, and its approach to disability. Mainly. Probably. With some references to Ru Paul’s Drag Race season 14 because it’s relevant, I promise.

I want to acknowledge my experiences and my kid’s experiences are colored by the unfair advantage of a crapton of privilege. This means that the system doesn’t work at all for kids whose parents don’t have the status, time, or language to demand their kids’ basic rights under the constitution. The DOJ has come after Texas for violating disabled’ kids’ rights in the form of anti-mask mandate laws, among others, but this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the rights of disabled kids.

I have had to fight what feels like everyone, all the time, for my kid to get basic accommodations. It started in early elementary school. My kid has a condition called Hereditary Multiple Exostoses. It’s genetic and their dad has it, too. It basically causes them to develop bone growths randomly, all over their body, but particularly at major joints. Accommodations for this vary based on how debilitating it is. My kid has been fairly lucky so far, and the only accommodation they need is to be able to self-limit high-impact exercise because when it hurts like hell that means it’s stressing out joints that have these bone bumps in them.

Their first elementary school PE teacher would punish my kid for walking instead of running or sitting something out by not allowing them to do other activities that they enjoyed. This was the first of many times that I raised holy hell. I had to do it multiple years in a row, and I had to initiate 504 (disability accommodation) meetings before they were planned just to get this idiotic teacher to let my kid exercise in a way that wasn’t harmful to their joint development. My kid was also doing intensive martial arts at the same time, but this teacher assumed that they were just lazy and punished them. I literally sent the woman images of x-rays of the bones of people with HME to demonstrate how my kid’s joints likely looked. She didn’t care. Luckily, their 2nd grade teacher was a badass and watched out for them as much as she could.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) states that all children are entitled to a free, equal education under the law. Keep that in mind as we proceed.

Side rant via RuPaul’s Drag Race: This season there is a disabled person on the show and the producers have chosen to highlight their “struggles” and “bravery” when faced with barriers to competition from their disability. This violates their rights under the ADA, which also applies to employers and employees. It also demonstrates incredibly poor employment and advocacy practices to everyone who watches it. If you disclose your disability to your employer, THEY MUST PROVIDE YOU WITH ACCOMMODATIONS UNDER THE LAW. Regardless of what some reality show does. Just sayin’.

By the third grade, it was clear that my kid was very verbal and super bright, but was really struggling with learning to read. They kept falling farther and farther behind. In spite of their teachers saying it was unlikely that they were dyslexic, we got them tutoring and got them tested. Turns out they are moderately dyslexic and mildly dysgraphic. So more stuff got added to the 504. We also had some family traumas happen in 2nd and 3rd grade and found them a therapist, who diagnosed them with anxiety, which we also added to the 504. They were also bullied that year. More on that to come. Third grade sucked.

As we were working our way through my kid’s new diagnoses and accommodations it became clear that my kid’s ability to learn and thrive was very much impacted by the teacher, the classroom environment, and the school culture. For example, the school counselor decided that it was a great idea to work with the kids who were being bullied (rather than the kid doing the bullying because ¯\_(ツ)_/¯) When we met with her for my kid’s 504 meeting, she asked us if our kid had sensory issues. I asked why, and was told that when she put her hand on my child’s back FOR NO GODDAMN REASON my kid responded by saying “please don’t touch me without permission.” So I told the counselor, no, my kid did not have sensory issues, they had feminist mom issues and that was an entirely appropriate response.

Fucking hell.

Elementary school #1 was dual language, which was awesome. Unbeknownst to us, however, dual language is a special kind of hell for dyslexic kids. So we decided to transfer them to a smaller school with a good disability program for the remainder of elementary school. Or so we thought.

My kid’s fantastic main teacher at school #2 left a couple of months into the school year (4th grade) and was replaced by an older woman who got in trouble for cursing at the kids the first week. It went downhill from there. She tried to force kids not to go to the bathroom when they needed to, so I wrote a strongly worded letter to the principal about that and some other issues with her teaching stule. Some of it got handled, but she continued to be very combative with my kid, whose anxiety skyrocketed. Meanwhile, the kid was finally in a reading program for dyslexia and was thriving and catching up on their reading and writing skills. We made it through the first semester, and then met with the teacher and administration to update my kid’s 504. The teacher made some of the right noises and seemed willing to follow the rules we had agreed to, but then tanked my kid’s behavioral scores on their report card, likely in retaliation for our taking our issues to the principal.

We realized that this woman had no boundaries, and since she was the only ELA teacher in the 4th grade my kid was trapped unless we transferred. I pulled the district into the conversation and asked her to justify giving my kid vastly inconsistent behavioral scores compared to their previous and other teachers, and why, if these were real, the counselor, vice-principal. or principal was not made aware that my kid was suddenly disruptive on a daily basis. Basically, she either had to admit to lying or to violating my kid’s rights by not reporting behavioral issues properly. She had no good answers. The school did nothing.

We pulled my kid out of that school the next week and moved them to the neighborhood school. It was fine, but a month later schools shut down due to COVID for the rest of the year.

What. A. Clusterfuck.

At the end of the year (4th grade), we found out that the Math teacher at school #2 was going to move to the 5th grade with her class, and she and my kid loved each other. So my kid went back to school #2 for a year of online learning. I STILL had to initiate meetings with the counselor because of various insanity, including an ELA teacher who was, while not evil and conniving like the crazy from the 4th grade, inflexible and unwilling to accommodate my kid’s disability. Nonetheless, they made it through a weird year and managed to stay connected with their fantastic primary teacher and friends through gaming nights and compassion, and a teaching style that worked for multiple types of learners. Also a special shout out to their Dyslexia teacher, who kicked ass at online teaching.

My kid did a lot of Zoom Minecraft with their friends that year and the following summer, and it turned out after they left, the 4th-grade teacher from hell had done stuff like grab kids by the collar, called them “pussies” repeatedly, and trashed the grades of any kids who complained. She’s still teaching at that school. I talked to a friend about it and she said her kid had been in a kindergarten (in Austin) where a teacher had hit a kid – they were suspended for two weeks and put back in the same classroom.

Texas does not care about children’s rights, health, or well-being. Full stop. There are many wonderful teachers and administrators who do, but the system is set up to protect adults and victimize children. The more marginalized the kid, the worse it is for them. So while the new insanity around the rights of trans kids and their families may come as a surprise to those outside the state, it’s par for the course. Texas is ranked 2nd in GDP, 38th in economic well-being, 33rd in education, and 49th in health for children. But sure, let’s pretend that trans kids are the problem instead of a deeply, deeply corrupt state government and insufficient oversight from the federal government.

My kid is now in middle school. And yes, I have spent copious hours chasing down counselors and 504 coordinators and talking to teachers to try and get my kid’s basic rights respected. They are much happier in middle school than elementary school (thank God), read fluently now, and have some fantastic teachers. They also have some asshole teachers who spout unscientific garbage and they have to spend way too much time prepping for a thoroughly discredited standardized test.

After being in the district for seven years, I know enough about who does what to make a concentrated stink to the right people at the right time. So far. But all of this centers around my privilege. I know how to wheedle and intimidate educators, and more importantly, I have the time to do so, as does my attorney husband. We make a pretty good team. Mostly because we are white, educated, and middle-class. If you don’t understand the system, don’t speak English, or don’t have time to advocate for your kid because you are just trying to survive, Texas will do nothing for you or your kids. I met one woman, an executive at a medium-sized local company, who literally hired an assistant to handle her kids’ disability needs with the school system. That is how much time, labor, and money it costs to get your kid’s “free and equal” education in Texas. It is neither free nor equal. Discrimination is systemic, rampant, and unchecked.

My kid was subjected to psychological abuse by their 4th-grade teacher and had an incident this year with a social studies teacher that was pretty messed up. (Follow-up rant about it here.) Nobody cares. But what really freaks me out is what is happening to all the kids who don’t have obnoxious, privileged parents. We see these occasional horror stories about forced hair cutting, or racially motivated arrests, or gender discrimination, but nobody is really looking. Nobody is doing what schools are supposed to be doing – protecting kids’ rights to an education free of abuse and discrimination. My best friend from childhood is a school administrator in California, and I swear I can hear her jaw hit the floor when I’ve described some of the shit we’ve encountered in the Texas school system.

There is no excuse for any of this. For targeting queer kids, for violating the rights of disabled kids, for destroying education with discredited testing, or for the systemic gender and racial discrimination in Texas schools. The measure of a society is how we treat our children, and Texas has failed.

The 5 Stages of Feminism

For my Feminist Theory class, I’ve been reflecting on my journey from being somewhat uncomfortable and rejecting of the label and or movement of feminism to where I am now.This is my (pretend) stage theory, which is the stages of mourning in reverse:

  1. Acceptance
    I don’t question my discomfort with feminism; I just have some vague notion that feminists are bossy, loud, judgmental, don’t shave, and their ideas are irrelevant in the modern world. Abortion is legal and I can go to college. Stop dwelling on the past!
  2. Depression
    Whoops! Sexism is alive and well. I am publicly sexually harassed at work and no one notices. I am discriminated against based on my appearance. But women in other countries have to deal with sex-based human rights atrocities (yes, I realize this is an uninformed assumption; that’s the point). However, our military has a huge rape problem. My view of the world has started to shift.
  3. Bargaining
    Okay, I might be kind of a feminist. But I don’t want to be identified with my parents’ generation, so I’m a 3rd wave feminist. Or a post-modern feminist. Or something. I still have a vague sense of alienation from the 2nd wave movement.  I’m beyond the patriarchy (even though I’m not sure exactly what that is). Still, there are news stories about women being denied access to birth control. I might need to read some books about feminism to see what I actually agree and disagree with.
  4. Anger (this is me right now, btw)
    The Republican legislature in Texas removes access to affordable health care, birth control, and safe abortion to women in my state (amid massive protests and demonstrations), thus violating the constitution. After reading mainstream feminist literature from different eras (The Feminine Mystique, The Beauty Myth, Lean In, The Chalice and the Blade) and the selections for this and previous classes, I realize I’ve been had. Much of what I’ve constructed my identity on as a woman, particularly the negative messages I’ve internalized about myself, are bullshit. The portrayal of first and second wave feminists as anti-mother, anti-wife, and anti-child is right-wing, patriarchal propaganda.

    Current society, media, and legislation is wired to marginalize women, minorities, and people whose gender identity doesn’t easily fit into one of two categories. The admonition that “we have it so good” compared to other women, present and past, is an effective way to keep us quiet and inactive. I am incredibly pissed off.

  5. Denial and Isolation
    This is where my metaphor breaks down; or maybe not. I believe  our embedded power systems have effectively curbed public awareness of the feminist movement over the last two centuries. In fact (as we discussed yesterday) when Feminism is painted as a movement of exclusion rather than inclusion, women themselves often lead the charge to dismantle it. I would argue that I have spent most of my adult life in a place of denial and isolation from other women through both internalized and external misogyny. In fact, I believe we enforce the rules of the patriarchy as much as men in many situations.

What should this next phase be? How can we find a way to agree on some common goals across race, sexual identity, religion, geography, and any other divisions I haven’t thought of? Do we organize? Protest? Turn off the television and stop reading women’s magazines? Boycott princess dolls for our daughters? What do you think?