THIS WEEK IN FAT STIGMA: New Study Finds That Fat Female Applicants Are Less Likely To Get Into Graduate School (Also, Water Is Wet, The Pope Is Catholic, And I Like Cake)

Which came first, the stereotype that fat people are stupid, or the bias that often prevents them from succeeding in college and graduate school?
Publish date:
July 24, 2013
fat, academia, fat stigma, weight bias

In a depressing effort to confirm the obvious, a new study out of Bowling Green State University has found that fat applicants to graduate psychology programs were less likely to be offered admission following an in-person interview.

This is not the first study to suggest such an issue with weight bias in university admissions, to be fair. The notion that weight bias affects the opportunities of fat women in particular is well established. One 2010 study that sought to explain why fat women are so markedly less likely to succeed professionally -- “success” being determined by the frequency with which they are hired and promoted, and how much money they make compared with their non-fat peers -- found that the big looming reason for fat women’s difficultly in the job market is that they are also less likely to enter or complete college.

At first glance this difference might appear to reflect bias on the part of employers, and male supervisors in particular. After all, studies find that employers tend to view overweight workers as less capable, less hard-working and lacking in self-control.But the real reason was that overweight women were less likely to earn college degrees — regardless of their ability, professional goals or socioeconomic status. In other words, it didn’t matter how talented or ambitious they were, or how well they had done in high school. Nor did it matter whether their parents were rich or poor, well educated or high school dropouts.

Basically, fat women’s problems begin in adolescence, when they first begin to confront weight bias, and this bias may well be impacting their opportunities their entire lives -- and stunningly, even if they lose weight later on, that loss would not counteract the impact of being fat during the grade-school years. Such is the power of a culture that loathes fat people.

The new BGSU study is a little different, however, in that it attempts to trace the effects of weight bias itself as a factor in how admissions decisions are made.

“When we looked... we could see a clear relation between their weight and offers of admission for those applicants who had had an in-person interview,” [study co-author Jacob Burmeister] said. “The success rate for people who had had no interview or a phone interview was pretty much equal, 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 results also suggested the weight bias was stronger for female applicants.[...]“We might expect psychology faculty to be more aware of these types of biases. Thus, the level of bias found in this study could be a conservative estimate of the level of bias in the graduate admissions process in other fields.”

We had a vivid example of the reality of weight bias in grad school admissions just last month, when visiting NYU professor Geoffrey Miller inexplicably tweeted, “Dear obese PhD applicants: if you don’t have the willpower to stop eating carbs, you won’t have the willpower to do a dissertation #truth” because I guess his career was like, boring or something right then, and he wanted to satisfy those of us who have always thought evolutionary psychology scholars were difficult to understand in any circumstance, what with their heads being so far up their own asses all the time.

Which was kind of him.

Miller got hammered with rage and derision for his tweet -- PROBABLY because he touched a nerve, yo -- and subsequently claimed took the road well trod by many a foot-in-mouth 18-year-old, and claimed the tweet was part of a social experiment, legitimate research for some project that he hadn’t told anybody he was working on, and even though “data” gathered via a random tweet is probably not SUPER useful in any serious academic effort. #truth

As it happens, Miller’s thinking is not uncommon, even among people who study the useful types of psychology, and who might be more conscious of how unexamined bias may affect their decisions. Fat bias is an incredibly powerful force, one that we are steeped in from the time we can first grasp language, and so it’s not a slam against these programs that they would fall prey to it -- it’s actually totally not surprising. But it’s still a problem.

As a former professional student and multiple PhD reject, I have loads of experience with the graduate school admissions interview. I always feared it, because I knew that in spite of my grades and my smarts and my personable demeanor, odds were excellent that whomever was doing the interview would be making some conclusions about me the moment that I walked in the door, long before I even opened my mouth. When you’re fat for a long enough time, you can usually tell when someone is assessing you physically, and if you’re really familiar with the process, you can also often figure out your odds of changing their mind in the time you’ve got, to convince them you’re not just a gross fat person, but a serious candidate. (This is true of job interviews as well, now that I think about it.)

And of course, the anxiety of the fat interviewee probably has a negative effect on things as well, in some cases -- it’s tough to be brilliant and exciting when you’re also worried that your interviewer is more concerned about the structural integrity of the chair you’re sitting in than your qualifications for their program.

That said, the importance of an interview in a graduate context really can’t be overstated. Graduate school is far more selective than undergraduate, and an interview is a powerful tool for distinguishing yourself as a scholar AND a person. Plus, many universities require interviews as part of the application process anyway. So if you can’t skip the interview, what happens when the interview could be your downfall?

I remain convinced that I was only admitted to the second MA program I completed because I met with the director and basically advocated (i.e. pleaded) for why I should be given a chance in her theory-heavy Gender/Cultural Studies outfit (Simmons College, what what), even though my educational background was relatively theory-free, wildly interdisciplinary, and mostly rooted in hands-on activism and a bunch of subjects with little direct relevance. The interview gave me a chance to state my case and to distinguish myself and what I would bring to the program, because on paper, I knew I was headed for the rejection pile.

(And you know, THANK GOD I DID because otherwise I’d be missing out on the fun of massive student loan debt and the character-improving experience of failing to succeed at my first life dream of being an academic.)

(I’m kidding. I loved graduate school and I’m happy with how my life turned out.)

In that case, I never got the impression that my size was an issue, but I may have been lucky to be talking to a faculty member who had examined her biases and was conscious of them. I don’t know if my many subsequent PhD rejections were connected to my size. I only recall one interview in which the faculty member seemed overtly put off by me, physically -- that university will remain nameless -- and maybe in retrospect I shouldn’t have brought a box of doughnuts to every interview and spoken with my mouth full (OK, this didn’t happen, but it would have been funny, as a “social experiment” #truth).

I realize that to lots of folks, complaining about PhD rejections seems absurd, like complaining that my privilege wasn’t overwhelming enough. But when you’re living and working in academia, these experiences are the equivalent of being passed over for a desperately needed promotion, again and again. Worse still, for most academics their job IS their life, and so such rejections can have a powerful and negative impact on your identity and sense of self.

For YEARS after I got my last rejection letter and decided I was going to find something else to do with my life, I still self-defined as a PhD reject. I know people who dropped out of doctoral programs a decade ago who still refer to themselves as PhD dropouts. Failure in the academy has a way of sticking with you, in more ways than one.

Honestly, I would prefer to believe I was repeatedly PhD-rejected based on my qualifications and not my size. I would rather think I was too unconventional, too unstructured, too interdisciplinary, too scattershot, too flat-out terrible as a scholar, and not that I was too fat. But apparently this is naïve of me, and the odds are good that my being fat was a disqualifying factor I hadn’t even known I was sharing.

I turned out okay in spite of it all, but for fat women trying to be professional scholars, trying to advance in STEM fields, or trying to move forward in any career that requires an advanced degree for growth and success, from grade-school teachers to healthcare providers, this bias is debilitating and can damage a woman’s opportunities for the rest of her life.

How can we purport to fight an alleged “obesity epidemic” as a society if we can’t even fight our own internal prejudices enough to see fat people as intelligent individuals with unique strengths and weaknesses and knowledge and skills? Until we stop swallowing kneejerk assumptions about fat people, they will continue to suffer -- personally, professionally, and socially -- as a result of cultural bias. And that’s the #truth.