Hogging: The Intersection Of Fatphobia And Sexual Violence

Note: this blog post was published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Dr. Jeannine A. Gailey is associate professor of sociology at Texas Christian University. She is the author of the book, The Hyper(in)visible Fat Woman: Weight and Gender Discourse in Contemporary Society. Her work has also appeared in journals such as Social Psychology Quarterly, Fat Studies Journal, Deviant Behavior, Critical Criminology, Qualitative Research, and Journal of Gender Studies.

Fatphobia And “Hogging” on Campuses

In 2004, I read an article in the Cleveland Scene magazine about a practice known as “hogging.” Hogging, according to the article, is a practice wherein men — usually college-aged — attempt to pick up women they deem fat or unattractive for sport, to win a bet or for sexual pleasure. What is implied is that these women are “hogs” — and, of course, the women are unaware that they are the targets of this malicious game. I was appalled to learn that this sort of thing takes place. Unfortunately, when I started asking some of the men whom I knew whether they had ever heard of it, it was not a surprise to them.

A graduate school colleague and I began searching the literature to see whether anyone had ever written about this. We found nothing scholarly. But we were able to find quite a bit of information about “hogging” on various websites wherein college students blogged about drinking, sex, drug use and so forth.

So my colleague and I decided to conduct our own study on the practice, which was published in 2006 in Deviant Behavior. We collected everything that we could find online and designed a study to interview heterosexual college men about their sexual relationships. None of the men we interviewed admitted to engaging in the practice, but all but two knew what hogging was. In fact, we never even used the term. We simply asked them whether they had ever heard of a practice where men try to pick up women they deem fat or unattractive as part of a bet or for sex, and they responded, “Yeah, hogging.” The most disturbing finding was that they all thought it was funny.

The students we interviewed talked about their friends or fraternity brothers giving prizes to the guy who had sex with the fattest woman, in addition to multiple ways in which their friends humiliated the women with whom they had sex. These encounters almost always involved alcohol and began at parties or bars. They talked about taking large women to their car for oral sex and then kicking them out, calling them derogatory names, or having a “rodeo.” A rodeo?

One of our participants described as a rodeo to me. He said it takes place when one of the guys takes a large woman home with him to have sex or, as in Michael Flood’s research, a hotel. Prior to the couple arriving, a couple of the men’s friends hide in the room and wait for the couple to start having sex. Once the couple is having sex and it sounds as though they are “getting into it,” the friends jump out with a stopwatch and camera and time how long the man having sex with the woman can hold on to her — hence the name. Not all instances of hogging are sexual assaults, but those in which women are tricked or intoxicated most certainly are — and it seems that is how the majority of these encounters were described.

Why are women of size the targets of hogging — arguably, a form of sexual assault? The answer seems to lie in two basic assumptions, both of which encompass a larger societal phenomenon of fatphobia (the hatred of persons of size): 1) women of size are “easy” and “desperate,” and 2) women of size are viewed as deviant and even deserving of mistreatment.

In subsequent research, including my 2014 book, The Hyper(in)visible Fat Woman, I interviewed women of size about their dating and sexual histories because there was so little scholarship on larger women and sex. In addition, I wanted to try to ascertain how women discuss these occurrences, if they would at all. Not surprisingly, the 74 women I interviewed had a variety of sexual experiences, ranging from one-night stands to loving, long-term sexual relationships (that is, counter to stereotypes and myths about the sex and dating lives of women of size). Unfortunately, the themes of abuse and sexual exploitation were also present in many of the women’s narratives, and most of these women had heard of hogging.

My research on hogging revealed that many of the men thought that women of size do not regularly have sex or receive much sexual attention from men and are therefore “desperate” or sexually “easy.” However, my research with women of size revealed that they have no trouble finding sexual partners. In addition, numerous women revealed that their partners were not “using” them or were with them because they thought they were “easy,” but instead were genuinely attracted to them and cared for them as whole human beings. Some women reported harassment and mistreatment and revealed stories that involved instances of sexual assault akin to hogging, but those were not the majority of their sexual encounters.

In The Hyper(in)visible Fat Woman, I argue that the emphasis on the so-called obesity epidemic in the media, medical establishment and political agencies, such as the Centers for Disease Control, works to frame fatness as an individual failing. Persons who are fat are assumed to be lazy, irresponsible, gluttonous and unhealthy. We are told repeatedly that if someone wants to lose weight, all they need to do is decrease their caloric intake and increase their activity level. However, that logic is problematic, because it does not take into account numerous biological and social factors. As the attention on the harms of fat has increased, so has discrimination against people of size — especially women — which in turn makes them vulnerable to developing health problems.

The stigmatization of a fat body affects women differently than men. In contemporary Western societies, women are expected to be normatively attractive (thin) and are given considerably less leeway in their bodily presentation. The “obesity epidemic” has led to a conflation in health and beauty, and because fat is considered unhealthy and unattractive, fat women are under pressure to “fix” both. Women are expected to meet conventional beauty standards, and when they do not, they often experience hostility, prejudice and stigma — or sometimes sexual assault, including the practice of hogging.

During the Obama administration, the U.S. Department of Education sent a letter to colleges and universities that receive federal funding warning that an institution’s failure to adequately confront a hostile climate of sexual harassment could represent a Title IX violation. In other words, colleges and universities have an obligation to investigate accusations. Failure to comply could mean the loss of federal funding. After the letter was sent, campuses around the country scrambled to ensure that their policies reflected the best practices outlined in the letter. According to this policy, I argue that higher education institutions have an obligation to educate student organizations and, in fact, the entire student body that the harassment (including sexual assault) of students because of their weight, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, or disability status will not be tolerated.

Moreover, to reduce the harms and discrimination experienced by women of size at the societal level, we need to eliminate the rhetoric surrounding the “obesity epidemic.” Rather than emphasizing the harms of fat or the supposed personal attributes that lead to fatness, we should investigate the social conditions that have led to an increase in people’s weights — such as lack of time and resources to incorporate physical activity, food deserts, food quality and poverty. We also have a responsibility to recognize that bodily diversity exists in the human population. Until we as a society stop reducing women to their bodies and holding unrealistic standards for body size and beauty, mistreatment and behaviors like hogging will very likely continue on college campuses and in the broader society.

Should You Dress Up For A Phone Interview? That’s Absurd!

manthey headshotKatie Manthey (@katiemanthey) is a PhD candidate in the Rhetoric & Writing program at Michigan State University, where she works at the intersections of fat studies, dress studies, and cultural rhetorics. Earlier this year, Katie created Dress Profesh, a gallery designed to challenge notions of what it means to look “professional.” Specifically, her site highlights that professional dress codes are inherently racist, sexist, ableist, classist, sizeist, heterosexist, cissexist, and ageist.

In the guest blog post below, Katie reflects on the absurdity of having to dress up for a phone interview, calling, instead, for job candidates to be comfortable.  Enjoy!


Dress For Success: (Phone) Interview Attire

I am a humanities graduate student, currently on the academic job market for the first time. I am fortunate to be in a department that has a lot of hands-on mentoring during the final year. Specifically, we have a job market group led by tenured faculty, in which we meet regularly to workshop cover letters, CVs, teaching philosophies, and writing samples. We also receive detailed advice on what to expect and how to prepare for phone and Skype interviews, MLA interviews, and campus visits.

Given my research interests, the most interesting part of this mentoring is the explicit conversations we have had about what to wear as a job candidate. We are advised to wear something “professional, but comfortable” for campus visits, and to pay attention to footwear as there will be a lot of walking. We are also advised to practice sitting in our interview clothes to see ourselves from all angles to make sure we aren’t accidentally “showing anything that you don’t want to.”

I understand the reasons for giving this advice. Each interview or campus visit exists in its own little rhetorical bubble: a savvy candidate will be aware of her audiences, purpose for being there, and social context. As rhetoricians, we should really have an advantage for thinking about dressing for an occasion.

But what about phone interviews? The overall interview advice that I was given was to “play a role;” think about myself as an assistant professor and completely commit to the part—dress up, even though no one might see my outfit. Talk confidently. Use a pad folio for notes.

I took their advice. For my first Skype interview, I dressed up completely. I wore a dress, blazer, tights, and pointy-toed shoes that the hiring committee never got a chance to see. Did it make me feel ready? Confident? More like a potential professor? Sure. But it also made me acutely aware of the ways that I perform “professional.” It felt like I was wearing “academic drag.”

I recently had an interview with a different university — this time on the phone. I decided to go completely in the other direction with my dress practices. I didn’t wear makeup or a blazer or nice shoes. I wore a flannel button down shirt, some winter boots, and threw my hair up into a messy bun (see photo below):

manthey interview outfit

And…the interview went okay, at least on my end. I felt comfortable and was pleased with how I felt afterwards. At the time of writing this, it is too early to know what the search committee thought of me, but I keep reminding myself that these decisions are complicated.

I wonder, though – what did they think I was wearing while they were talking to me? During the interview, I imagined the search committee as being dressed to the nines. Did they even think about it at all? How did they visualize me, someone they had never met, but who sounded enthusiastic and relaxed over the phone?

It strikes me as absurd that what we wear (or what we think people are wearing) matters, especially in academia where many of us claim to “know better” than to judge a book by its cover. Dress codes (explicit and implicit) are rooted in ideas that are racist, sexist, ageist, sizeist, heterosexist, cissexist, ableist, and classist. Shouldn’t academics be at the forefront of rallying for social change in the context of looking “professional”?

I decided to start doing just that myself. I created Dress Profesh (@dress_profesh), an online gallery of photos of people dressing for work—what I call “performing profesh.” Together, I’m hoping that we can collectively challenge traditional notions of what “professional” looks like, and make clear the ways that dress codes reinforce problematic systems of power. So far, over 100 people have contributed, all from various disciplines and backgrounds; and, the site has over 7,000 followers on Tumblr. Clearly, I am not alone in recognizing that “professional” standards of dress are restrictive and exclusive – or at least problematic.

So, what are you wearing today?  Are you working from home?  Are you in your office?  Are you wearing shoes?  Snap a quick photo and submit it to Dress Profesh.

(I Hate) Professional Boy Drag

Me - Stairs

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.

Class-Related Gripes

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.

ScholarMy 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?

Me - No SmileI 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.

Sociology Of Fatness — Critical Perspectives For Teaching Sociology (And Anthropology)

Dr. Nowell

Dr. Nowell 

Michaela A. Nowell received her Ph.D. in Sociology from Purdue University, and began as an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Fond du Lac in Fall 2012.  Her research focuses on the intersections of gender, sexuality, and body, as well as race and class, taking a critical lens regarding the sociology of fatness. 

Below, Dr. Nowell offers great tips for implementing a critical perspective on fatness into sociology and anthropology courses.* 

What Is The Sociology Of Fatness?

Critical studies of fatness provide yet another dimension we can add to our teaching and research. Sociology of fatness is related in some way to most areas of research—social movements, education, gender, and religion just to name a few—but it is especially useful for those of us who utilize critical perspectives and/or focus on inequality.

In the Spring 2011 Newsletter for the Body and Embodiment Section of American Sociological Association, Dr. Carla Pfeffer (of Purdue North Central) and I described Fat Studies as “a subfield garnering more attention both within sociology and across other disciplines, [that] is characterized by critical attention to fatness as a social construct, a political and social justice issue, and as identity or lived experience. Fat studies is critical of obesity discourse and trends toward medicalizing the body, and also questions assumptions—both societal and within the academy—about fatness and fat people.”  [Download that essay here.]

In The Classroom — Pedagogy

How might sociology of fatness be relevant in your classroom? First, let’s think about practical classroom and pedagogical issues. Here are some questions you might ask yourself:

  • Are your classrooms and desks suitable and comfortable for students of all sizes? How might your campus accommodate people of size?
  • In your teaching, do you employ metaphors that uncritically construct fatness or fat people as negative, disgusting, or undesirable? (Do you question when students do this?)
  • When talking about the environment or rampant consumerism and excess, for example, do you make uncritical links to “obesity” or “Americans getting fatter”?
  • Have you or your colleagues used imagery similar to the below? This image implies that fat people are fat because they eat fast food and that fat people are symbols of the de-evolution of man. How might images such as this impact the classroom environment for students of all sizes?

  • Do you make denigrating or assuming comments about your students or your own body size?  How do you handle statements about body size in the classroom?
  • Do you take seriously students who feel harmed by weight-related comments or stigma?  A student in Indiana recently wrote me that her professor laughed in her face when she proposed fat stigma as the topic of her project. This student also said to me, about life on her campus, “I feel invisible.”
  • Comments about celebrities or peers like, “She/he needs to eat a hamburger!” are also body denigrating and a conflation of behavior and appearance.

In The Classroom — Questioning The Status Quo

In terms of classroom content and goals, one of the most basic things you can do is to teach students to question assumptions they make about fatness and fat people. Here are some questions you might address:

  • What meanings does the word fat hold for most people and how do we use it?
  • Has fat always been seen as bad? Is fat seen as bad, ugly, or unhealthy in other parts of the world? What can we learn from looking historically or cross-culturally?
  • How do we see fat people represented in the media, in movies, or on television? Does this have an impact on how we perceive fat people?
  • Are our beliefs about fat people grounded in a robust knowledge of empirical evidence? Is there evidence that contradicts commonly held beliefs?
  • In what ways might assumptions and stereotypes about fat people prevent them from engaging in healthy behaviors (ex. physical activity)?
  • Why do we as a society focus on personal responsibility rather than the systemic inequality and stigma affecting fat people? For example, when we talk about fat people’s health, do we consider the evidence that fat people experience pervasive stigma and discrimination in the health care industry or how this negatively impacts their health and quality of care?

What Are The Facts?

You may be asking yourself, “But isn’t being fat bad for you?” Scholars and activists alike have addressed these issues. First, weight science is tricky, and causality is difficult to determine. For example, while Type II diabetes is correlated with weight gain, it’s unproven whether the weight gain causes diabetes, whether diabetes causes weight gain, or if some other factor causes both.

There is also conflicting evidence and multiple angles to consider. Research from the CDC showed that, contrary to popular belief, people in the “overweight” category are better off than those in either the underweight or normal weight categories. Research also shows that while fat people may have a higher incidence of heart failure, they are more likely to survive them. While you may have heard a lot about the “obesity epidemic,” many scholars contest this term, and such sensationalist language often masks the facts. For example, most people assume that we are still getting fatter, when in fact the data for both children and adults in the U.S. indicate that weight has plateaued. And while there is evidence for weight gain over a period of time, no one has established the cause of that pattern.

Stigma Is Harmful

Fat stigma is as pervasive as gender and racial stigma and prevalent in the areas of education, health care, and employment. While fatness is framed as as related to individual behaviors, fat stigma in the health care industry has direct and indirect effects on the health of fat people, similar to the way in which racial stigma affects health. For example, fat people wait longer to go to the doctor and are often treated poorly or denied care “until they lose weight.”

Weight Loss And Health Are Not Synonymous

Even if we were to assume losing weight improves health, there is no proven way to make a fat person permanently thin. In fact, keeping weight off for more than two years is extremely unlikely and people tend to gain back the weight they lose plus more. Repeatedly losing and gaining weight is called weight cycling and is shown to have a negative effect on health. We conflate the notions of weight and health, such that a focus on weight loss tends to take precedence over healthy behaviors and/or indicators of health, actually encouraging unhealthy behaviors and mentalities. Have you ever heard someone say, “I was sick for a whole week, but at least I lost ten pounds!”? Evidence suggests that people of all sizes can be healthy and that those who focus on health behaviors rather than weight loss improve health indicators.

Social Justice Regardless Of Size Or Health

Finally, we live in a society that is rampant with healthism — the notion that health is a moral imperative. We socially construct how we understand health, focus on particular aspects of health over others (ex. physical over mental), and often denigrate those we see as “at fault” for their own health problems. The most severe targets of healthism are usually members of groups who already suffer systematic and institutional oppression, like the poor, African Americans, and Latinos. Our discourse around “health” often functions in classist, racist, and ableist ways. The bottom line is that regardless of someone’s health or health status in any category, people of all shapes and sizes deserve basic human dignity, respect, rights and freedom from oppression.

Further Reading

If you would like more resources on fat studies or ideas for teaching, I put together a resource guide with some colleagues that I am happy to send you.

Crawford, R. 1980. “Healthism and the medicalization of everyday life.” International Journal of Health Services 10(3): 356-388.

Curtis, Jeptha P., Jared G. Selter, Yongfei Wang, Saif S. Rathore, Ion S. Jovin, Farid Jadabaie, Mikhail Kosiborod, Edward L. Portnay, Seth I. Sokol, Feras Bader, and Harlan M. Krumholz. 2005. “The Obesity Paradox: Body Mass Index and Outcomes in Patients with Heart Failure.” Archives of Internal Medicine 165(1): 55-61.

Flegal, Katherine M., Barry I. Graubard, David F. Williamson, and Mitchell H. Gail. 2005. “Excess Deaths Associated With Underweight, Overweight, and Obesity.” Journal of the American Medical Association 293(15): 1861-1867.

Flegal, Katherine M., Margaret D. Carroll, Cynthia L. Ogden, and LR Curtin. “Prevalence and trends in obesity among US adults, 1999-2008.” 2010. Journal of the American Medical Association 303(3): 235-241.

Ogden, Cynthia L., Margaret D. Carroll, Brian K. Kit, and Katherine M. Flegal. 2012. “Prevalence of Obesity and Trends in Body Mass Index Among US Children and Adolescents, 1999-2010.” Journal of the American Medical Association 307(5): 493-490.

Puhl, Rebecca M., Tatiana Andreyeva, and Kelly D. Brownell. 2008. “Perceptions of weight discrimination: prevalence and comparison to race and gender discrimination in America.” International Journal of Obesity 32(6): 992–1000.

Puhl, Rebecca M. and Chelsea A. Heuer. 2009. “The Stigma of Obesity: A Review and Update.” Obesity 17(5): 941–964.  [DOWNLOAD]


* Note: This essay was originally printed in Critical Mass (Dec 2012, Volume 15, No. 1), the newsletter of the University of Wisconsin Colleges Department of Anthropology and Sociology.  [Download the original article here.]

Shit Academics Say.

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.

Academics, we have a problem.  There is major need for change.

Further Reading And Resources (Again)

On “Commuting While Crippled”

Casey, a graduate student in kinesiology, has kindly shared with us a recent post on “commuting while crippled” – a concern scholars with disabilities face that is rarely discussed on campuses.  Be sure to check out Casey’s blog, Adventures of a Part-Time Wheeler (and its facebook page!), including another post on travel-related concerns as a disabled person.


Commuting While Crippled

Minnesota MS 150 bike ride, June 2007

Photo description:  This photo was taken in 2007 at the MS 150 bike ride in Minnesota.  It was taken on a paved bike trail with grass and trees in the background.  I’m on a seafoam green road bike (skinny tires and curved handlebars).  I am visibly fat wearing spandex black cycling shorts and a jersey that says “Erik’s Bike Shop” along with a white and teal helmet with a blonde ponytail visible.  I have dark sunglasses and a smile (although I didn’t see the photographer…I was just having fun!).

The past few years as a graduate student, I’ve had a pretty constant gripe about the difficulties I’ve had with transportation to and from the campus.  I live within what would normally be considered “walking distance” from campus, which means that I live about 0.75 miles away from campus (which I could wheel if the hills wouldn’t flip me backwards out of my chair).  As a kinesiologist (someone that studies human physical activity), I deal with ableism, both internalized and from a sociocultural standpoint.  It’s compounded by being fat, with the standard response to being both fat and gimpy is “just get off your ass and you wouldn’t be fat OR gimpy.”  Yeah, right. *sarcasm*

Non-walking options are also prohibitive.  Handicap parking lot passes run about $325 for the school year (and does not guarantee a spot that is actually walking distance for me, or safe when I’m wheeling).  The city bus system doesn’t have a spot nearby (as my home is considered close to campus).  The “special needs” bus requires a one hour window for a ride, which is not feasible with my schedule or my actual health care needs (and that’s when it actually works….it is notorious for losing appointments).  I’ve asked my partner to drive me to campus, but it costs more gas (as he works from home usually) and it grates on my fierce need to be independent whenever possible.

I’ve been toying with options.  I’ve wanted a moped for about a decade now ever since I saw a Vespa scooter, but I would need a three-wheeled scooter because of my balance and my shortness.  I would also need money that I just don’t have right now (the cheapest trike scooter I’ve seen is about $2,000 and the one I’ve been drooling at from Auto Moto with a roof is about $4,000).

Another option that I’ve wanted to pursue but can’t afford is a recumbent trike.  They aren’t that common, although recumbent exercise bikes in gyms and rehab facilities are.  This style of bike would allow me to bike without worrying about tipping over or dealing with legs that randomly give out on me.  Just like the moped, they are way out of my price range with most of them above $1,000 (and the good quality ones like the Catrike are at least $2,000).

My bronze crutch rigged to my red commuter

Photo description:  Photo taken outdoors at a bike rack with a bush in the background.  It shows a bronze forearm crutch attached to the handlebars of a red commuter bike (hard to see because of the bright sunlight and bush in background).

On Monday, I gave my old commuter bike a try.  It’s a youth Giant brand mountain bike that I bought when I first moved to North Carolina (I nicknamed it the Red Dwarf Giant because of the small size).  I had a bike shop in 2008 swap the tires from trail tires (which are thick and nubby and make road riding more difficult) to commuter tires (that are thicker than road racing tires but smooth).  I tied my forearm crutch to the handlebars, which doesn’t help with my balance and proprioception issues, but at least I have it to help me dismount and walk around campus.

How did it go?  Well, it was rough.  My partner helped me get the bike ready for me and we had to do some on-the-fly adjustments.  The seat had to be lowered significantly because I have to be able to reach the ground with my legs while on the seat….which means that I can’t pedal in an efficient manner (and makes it much more difficult to pedal, especially up hills).  I’m also unable to stand up and pedal to tackle hills.  I was a sweaty mess for my meeting with my faculty adviser (thankfully my adviser is also a kinesiologist, so the “freshly exercised” look is pretty normal in our departmental offices).

Since the ride to and from campus wasn’t too bad, I tried it again on Tuesday.  My rear end was sore because I wasn’t wearing padded shorts and my seat is an original factory issued barely padded beast.  The seat position, while rectifies part of the problem with my balance, makes any incline hell on my body and my spine.  Being able to get to campus without using gas is great, but it hurts and burns energy that I still don’t have.

This morning, I had to ask my partner to drive me to school.  Not only has biking blown through spoons that I sometimes don’t have, it seems to have eaten the energy I need to get to work and to do my scholarly activities.  Just crawling out of bed, getting into the shower, getting dressed, and grabbing the easiest breakfast option left me feeling like I needed to go back to sleep because of extreme pain and fatigue.  I managed to get through my four hour shift, but I’m not sure if I can manage to get my reading done for class tomorrow, or if I’m going to be able to go to the intermediate tribaret bellydance class tonight.

The bike commuting experiment may continue, but we’ll see what happens.  Money really has me stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Fatphobic Death Threats In My Classroom — By “A Fatshionable Ph.D.”

Increasingly, scholars have been paying attention to corporeality and the body — specifically body shape and size — as an important component of human experience and interaction. Fat Studies is an emerging discipline, with it’s own, new journal. Academia is not a refuge from fatphobia and weight-based discrimination, as A Fatshionable Ph.D. (a pseudonym) discusses below.  She shares her experiences as a fat academic teaching about weight and health and students’ conflations of fatness and impending death.


Fatphobic Death Threats In My Classroom

A Fatshionable PhD

A Fatshionable PhD

So the semester is about to start, and I’ve got two things on my mind, both having to do with my cisgender, white, fat female body: my students’ perceptions of my authority and the potential for implicit death threats in their coursework.

I straddle the line between “acceptable” and “unacceptable” fat, which clearly impacts my perspective. I’m not deathfat; I am a “smaller fat,” who frequently can’t fit into clothing in mainstream stores and who outgrew Victoria’s Secret-wear YEARS AGO (though I wouldn’t want to wear their shit anyway) but who is generally still able to fit into theater and airplane seats. Though my doctor has told me she wants me to weigh what I last did at age 14, I have not yet been threatened with non-treatment or maltreatment based on my weight.  However, I am fatter than average.

I am the only faculty member in my department that is trained in public health and health promotion. Therefore, much of the public health-related coursework is under my domain. As I stand in front of my classroom, I am presenting myself as an authority on promoting the health and well-being of communities and groups. Ahem.

I am literally the only person on the faculty who doesn’t have a past as an athlete of some kind. Many of the students have similar backgrounds – in a health programming class, two graduate students wanted to have an open dodgeball tournament as a means of engaging exercise-shy campus community members.  WUT. Dodgeball is so clearly, laughably associated with gym-class-related trauma for so many people, I was flabbergasted (Ha! Flab!) when they suggested it. I tried to explain to them the potentially triggering nature of dodgeball in particular, and they looked at me as if to say, “But dodgeball is FUN.” Um, not if you were one of the kids that was a target of the more athletically-inclined students in your gym class. NOT FUN AT ALL.

Most folks in my department are lovely people who care deeply both about their students and their research. But their lack of experience being threatened by competitive physical activity and/or exercise deeply impacts their pedagogy. When I want to talk about “health,” I feel I am the only person who talks systemically and structurally, who isn’t invested in the idea that individuals “choose” to make “healthy” or “unhealthy” “choices” (notice all the quotation marks?), and that fatness and fitness aren’t just about getting your lazy ass motivated and moving.

So when I stand up in front of my students in my fat (though frequently fatshionable) body, I stand in contrast to many of my students’ and colleagues’ interests. Many of the students want to become personal trainers, nurses, nutritionists, and not necessarily critical ones. I am an example of what people are not supposed to be.  And this makes me very very nervous. Because it is personally traumatic to read paper after paper proclaiming that people who look like me are going to die miserable, early deaths SOLELY BECAUSE THEY LOOK LIKE ME.

I often wonder how my non-normative body impacts my evaluations and my career. I know it impacts how my colleagues see me – when a colleague was doing a research talk on physical activity in elementary school curricula and asked for us all to stand so ze could demonstrate using jumping jacks to teach arithmetic, ze immediately said something along the lines of “[My name] won’t want do this,” even though I jumped out of my chair-connected-to-desk just as quickly as anyone else.  (Clearly, there are issues of ability and mobility implicit here, but that would be another post.)

Strangely enough, at the same time, students and colleagues often treat my body as invisible – how else to explain students’ singular focus on “obesity” when they’re talking to a fat person? I am respected by my students – I don’t think they intend to cast aspersions on my body. And yet? They’re telling me it shouldn’t exist, and their papers are full of fat death threats. As a former fat kid and a currently fat adult, they are targeting me and others like me.

As is often recommended to marginalized scholars, I am going to try some self-care this year, even if it might be via baby steps. My preference would be to ban student projects on “obesity,” but I worry about being accused of politicizing my classroom (every classroom is political, DER, but I am pre-tenure). Instead, I’m going to ask them to supply their top 3 health-related interests, and I’ll match them up so that if there have to be any fat-related projects, at least they’re minimal. But this is only a stopgap. I don’t have space or time in my curriculum to administer a full Health at Every Size® curriculum, though this is newly available (USE IT IF YOU CAN!).

In the meantime, I will continue to research and publish and present on fatness and health, and offer myself as a counter-narrative to the fat body = early death narrative. I will attempt to school my students on the impact of their words and actions. And I will do what I can to maintain my own health in the face of those who insist that I cannot be healthy as I am.

Fatphobic Prejudice And Discrimination In Academia

fatphobic tweetOn 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.

It’s Time To Talk About Fatphobia

DFP SuitAs 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.

Fat Consciousness

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.”

Fortunately (for him), his stupidity of openly expressing his fatphobic prejudice will have little bearing on his career:

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.

But, the audacity to end his tweet with “#truth” — wow.  Actually, that is not true.  Several PhDs and soon-to-be PhDs have proudly submitted their names and images to a growing list of fat PhDs.

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.

PhD Graduation, IU ('13)

PhD Graduation, IU (’13)

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 discriminationfatphobic 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.