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“Fat” furor is revealing about attitudes in academe

By MELONIE FULLICK | June 7, 2013

There’s a lot of discussion among academics these days about how to use new media in ways that are productive and engaging, in ways that help us build networks and share resources. But last weekend, we got a taste of what happens when social media work to reveal and amplify the biases that are operating in academe (and elsewhere) on a regular basis. Dr. Geoffrey Miller, of the University of New Mexico, decided to tweet about how he believes fat students should not consider doing a PhD because they don’t have the “willpower” for it. After all (according to his logic), if they don’t have the self-discipline to go on a diet, how could they complete an advanced degree?

The online reaction was immediate and intensely critical. Syracuse University professor Collin Gifford Brooke observed that Miller “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.” He then made all his tweets private. Since so many people had already captured images of the tweet, deleting it was pointless and only served to highlight that its author wasn’t willing to leave his opinion in plain view. I saw it myself when Ed Yong, a science writer and journalist with over 35,000 followers on twitter, posted a screen capture.

Soon the post had ricocheted around the Internet and since academics tweet more on the weekend, the news travelled fast; many people sent emails to the chair of Miller’s department at the UNM, Jane Ellen Smith. By Monday, there was an article in Jezebel and Miller’s post had generated attention from other news sources, as well as a new tumblr blog inviting fat PhDs to submit photos of themselves as a refutation of Miller’s “#truth”. Smith, recognizing a public relations crisis, created a press release that also included a video. This departmental response contained the information that Miller had described his tweet as part of a “research” project, a claim that was greeted with skepticism by online observers.

Certainly if one insists on using Twitter in this way, one needs to accept the consequences. NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen commented that “we need professors who understand why you cannot be a jerk on social media.” But does the visibility make the attitude worse, or does it merely bring attention to the fact that academe is not exempt from those attitudes that exist everywhere else?

This highlights the conflict between our assumptions about the “life of the mind” and the realities of prejudicial assumptions based on physical characteristics. Colin Gifford Brooke writes of his experience that “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.” But of course, there is no guarantee of moral superiority in academic life. That a professor like Geoffrey Miller – one who has been rewarded and validated by the increasingly competitive institution of academe – feels free to demonstrate his prejudice in such an overt fashion, shows that it is still acceptable to hold such biases. When the attitude was expressed publicly and pointedly, many people were shocked; and yet no-one who has experienced fat phobia would have been surprised.

The real issue here is of course not (just) that one person demonstrated an opinion that reveals a deeply problematic attitude on his part. It’s that he seems to have felt confident enough to believe the majority of readers (and colleagues?) would either agree with what he said or let it pass without a significant reaction. In other words it’s systemically acceptable not only to hold such opinions but also to state them and act on them; this professor is only alone in his visibility.

Social media, as usual, have served to amplify a micro-aggression that occurs regularly in everyday life. After all, we live in a world where female athletes are publicly criticized for their “heaviness”. Where girls as young as 5 years old are planning their first diets, are still learning this from their mothers, who learned from their mothers in turn, seeing the same messages reinforced daily in the media and in casual conversation; and where fat folks are causing serious damage to their bodies not by being fat, but in the name of being “thin” (please – do read those linked articles).

And academe is a part of this world. I have dear friends who face the job application process with even more trepidation than the average, knowing the discrimination that women in particular face when they do not conform to acceptable norms of body size. Would they like to assume they will be judged for their minds alone? Of course they would, but that assumption would not reflect their knowledge of the (social) world and their past experiences in it. So let’s stop talking about how we can avoid being jerks online, and start asking how we can change the attitudes behind that jerkdom, which exist everywhere and which are the roots of the behaviour we claim to deplore.

Melonie Fullick
Melonie Fullick is a PhD candidate at York University. The topic of her dissertation is Canadian post-secondary education policy and its effects on the institutional environment in universities.
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