If you were on FB or Twitter this weekend, and are associated with academia, you probably caught a glimpse of a tweet from an evolutionary psychologist who suggested that “obese PhD applicants” should save themselves the trouble of applying for doctoral programs, since their obvious lack of willpower will keep them from being able to write a dissertation. I’m not going to link in any way to Geoffrey Miller’s work, but this Jezebel story will tell you most of what you need to know. Miller himself has progressed quickly through the life cycle of denial: he initially defended his statement, then deleted it, then apologized for it, then disavowed it, and finally, when pressed by his university, claimed that it was part of a “research project.” My guess is that Miller has managed to damage himself pretty seriously; it wouldn’t shock me to hear that his home institution will have nothing more to do with him.
Like a lot of people, my first response to that tweet was both outrage and rage. It was a shitty thing to say. The more I thought about it, though, the more layers I found. Some of them were prompted by others’ comments about Miller’s tweet, but I’ve been thinking a lot about my own embodied response as well. If you’ve never met me in person, then one thing you need to understand, first off, is that I’m obese, fat, overweight. That’s not something I talk about much, and I never write about it. I was a big kid growing up–my father played football and rugby, and I inherited his size. When I was a kid, I was pretty active: I played a lot of different sports, except the one (football) for which my body was probably best suited. All through college and into graduate school, I think that a lot of people assumed that I played football. Anyhow, as I got into college and grad school, my life became more sedentary (reading will do that for you), while my eating and exercise habits declined. While you might have charitably described me as “big” in high school, by the time I graduated from college, I was overweight. And that hasn’t really changed.
The odd thing about Miller’s remark isn’t that society treats an excess of body mass as a deficit of willpower or self-discipline; frankly, he’s saying out loud there what plenty of people believe. The odd thing is that he thinks that there’s just one kind of willpower, and that “evidence” of its absence is somehow universal. This was my experience: as a fat academic, I was thrilled to be in a field where (ostensibly) I would be judged for the quality of my mind rather than the “failures” of my body. With blind peer review, no one can see that you’re fat. And so, if I lacked self-discipline when it came to carbs, I could throw all of my effort into writing (I’m doing it right now) and be disciplined there. I wrote my 250-odd page dissertation in less than 3 months, and my lack of willpower regarding exercise and healthy eating had nothing to do it; if anything, my willingness to focus like a laser on writing, and not worry about my body at all, helped me. If we imagine that willpower, like attention, is a networked phenomenon, spread amongst a variety of objects, then there was/is a sense in which my lack of physical willpower helped to feed my intellectual willpower. I’m sure that it’s not that simple, of course, nor should my experience somehow be generalized to “disprove” Miller’s prejudice. My own experience, more than 20 years in academia, tells me that there’s no formula here–successful academics come in all shapes and sizes. To imagine otherwise, as Miller does, seems to me to be stupid.
When I say that Miller’s just saying out loud what many people already believe, I say this because I believe it too, at least on some level. The thing that folks who aren’t overweight don’t typically understand is that our experience of the world is different from theirs, in a range of ways. I rarely fly, in part because being above average in both height and width means that airplane seats don’t fit. When I was at my heaviest, they were physically painful to wedge myself into. And don’t get me started on the number of comedic scenes and/or commercials about being condemned to sit next to the fat person on the airplane–I feel that shame every time I walk onto one. I don’t fit into smaller cars, and there was a time where I had to suck in my stomach to get the seat belt to fasten, when I got a ride from someone else. For several years, I couldn’t sit at the molded desks in the classrooms where I taught. When I went home for holidays, I had to make sure to sit in chairs without armrests, because again, they were a tight fit at best. And even when I can fit on a chair, it might not be able to support my weight without creaking, or god forbid, breaking. I couldn’t walk past someone on a tight staircase without pressing against the wall. The floors in an old house are always a little more aware of my presence than they are of anyone else. The world around me tells me that I’m the wrong shape and size, that I don’t fit. Faced with a constant stream of small indications that there’s something wrong with my size, I am amazed and inspired by those who are better able than I am to accept themselves. If there’s a place where I feel my own lack of willpower, it’s there.
And if there are those among you who doubt the idea of non-human rhetorics, let me introduce you to the suasive force of the clothing industry. When you are the wrong size, as a man, there’s really only one place where you can buy clothes, the big-and-tall store, usually located in a strip-mall. For a long time, big-and-tall clothing was constructed according to the principle that there was only one true body shape, and that you were just taller or wider. Even when the clothes “fit,” they often didn’t. The ratios among my various measurements are not the same as those of a “normal” person, and so buying clothes to fit one part of my body often meant ignoring others. “Tall” clothes often assume basketball-player sized people, and thus a smaller waist, but dress shirts also often have additional length and an extra button, making them easier for a fat person to keep tucked in–so I often had to choose between shirts that were tight around my midsection or much too large for my shoulders/arms. Both options served as a constant reminder that I was malformed, though. And fat people aren’t allowed to care about fashion–”if they really cared about how they looked…”
Big and tall clothing has improved in recent years, but decades of shame over “trying on new clothes” is hard to overcome. And I think about all these things knowing that they’re not intentional. Although I do sometimes think that it was a room full of skinny assholes who came up with the idea of the television show The Biggest Loser (“no, they’re ‘losers’ because they’ll be losing weight–ha ha ha!”), I know that the world is the world. There are millions of people out there who suffer from prejudices far more intentional and pernicious. Partly, this is the shame talking, but I do have more control over my weight than many people have over their own embodied circumstances, and so I don’t tend to think publicly about my size. Compared to what many other people go through as a result of circumstances they can’t control, claiming or emphasizing my own struggles has always felt presumptuous.
I did want to make one more point, though. While I was gratified to see the speedy, collective outrage over Miller’s tweet, it made me think back a couple of weeks to a conversation that happened on Twitter about how academics should dress. Once upon a time, I was told (quietly) that if I expected to receive tenure, I would need to dress better. The thing is, when you’re overweight and wearing clothes that aren’t tailored to your body’s shape, your body puts different stresses on those clothes. Dress clothes in particular tend to assume the “norm,” and while it’s funny to watch Chris Farley split a jacket or the rear seam on a pair of pants, imagine doing it while you’re teaching a class bending over to retrieve a pen or a piece of chalk. And then imagine that the simple act of dressing one’s self every day carries with it that extra layer of anxiety over whether today will be the day that your body betrays and humiliates you. Most ties are manufactured with certain assumptions about the size of the neck around which they will be worn; for a fat person, a regular tie often doesn’t fit. Sports jackets often assume a particular shoulder to waist ratio. I normally teach in jeans, because for a variety of reasons, they tend to be manufactured to handle more stress and wear than dress pants. In this Twitter conversation, however, the idea of teaching in jeans was one of the things that was considered unprofessional among faculty of a certain age. I don’t mean to call anyone out about this, but I will say that I felt no less shame seeing this conversation than I did seeing Miller’s remarks. I didn’t see all the responses to the thread, but I’m pretty sure that most people didn’t think of it as fat-shaming, or respond to it with the same outrage. It probably didn’t register to them.
I guess my point is this: my wish would be to take a small piece of the outrage, and apply it to awareness. Try to be a little more conscious of the ways that our assumptions about the world, whether it’s dress codes or the way we arrange our spaces, subtly reinforce the fat-shaming that Miller was engaging in explicitly. Even if it’s something as simple as not assuming that everyone has the same relationship to clothing as you, or understanding that not every seat in the restaurant is equally comfortable for someone who’s overweight. It can be tricky to be more interventionist without also shaming, but it’s possible to invite someone for a walk rather than a cup of coffee, or to have them over for a healthier meal than you’re likely to find at a restaurant. It should probably go without saying that we should all, myself included, try harder to catch ourselves when we make assumptions about people based on their appearance (not just their size or shape), but it’s worth reminding ourselves precisely when stuff like this happens. My gut reaction was outrage, but my second thought was to ask myself if I’d been guilty of that prejudice myself.
There’s a lot more to say about this, I’m sure. I’ve alluded several times to the fact that I’m not as heavy as I used to be. Far from being a story about the triumph of the Collin will, the fact of the matter is that I came kind of close to dying a couple of years ago, partly for my unhealthy ways, and partly because my shame over it kept me from getting the help I needed to get more healthy. Neither of those things is easy to admit for me, and they’re what makes Miller’s tweet particularly cruel. Most of us don’t have the level of “control” over ourselves that his comment implied–I know I still don’t. It took major surgery and more than a year’s worth of recovery for me to break through even a part of my own complex of shame and guilt and habit to find a healthier place. I’m fortunate to be healthier now physically, although it’s something that I have to work at constantly.
The implication that “fat” is a problem easily solved through the application of willpower is laughable to me, though, and that’s the biggest part of what I find objectionable in that tweet. It takes a partial truth (we do have some control over our body’s health) and twists it to rationalize a prejudice that itself works against that truth through shame. And that’s pretty evil.
I think I’m done now. Time to go for a walk…