“Dear Obese PhD Applicants”: Twitter, Tumblr and the Contested Affective Politics of Fat Doctoral Embodiment

James Burford

Abstract


It all started with a tweet. On the afternoon of 2 June 2013, Professor Geoffrey Miller, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of New Mexico (UNM) and visiting instructor at New York University (NYU), tweeted out a message that would go on to generate a significant social media controversy. Addressing aspiring doctoral program applicants, Miller wrote:

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

The response to Miller’s tweet was swift and fiery. Social media users began engaging with him on Twitter, and in the early hours of the controversy Miller defended the tweet. When one critic described his message as “judgmental,” Miller replied that doing a dissertation is “about willpower/conscientiousness, not just smarts” (Trotter). The tweet above, now screen captured, was shared widely and debated by journalists, Fat Acceptance activists, and academic social media users. Within hours Miller had deleted the tweet and replaced it with two new ones:

My sincere apologies to all for that idiotic, impulsive, and badly judged tweet. It does not reflect my true views, values, or standards 

and

Obviously my previous tweet does not represent the selection policies of any university, or my own selection criteria

He then made his Twitter account private. The captured image, however, continued to spread. Across social media, users began to circulate a campaign that called for Miller to be formally disciplined (Trotter). There was also widespread talk about potential lawsuits from prospective students who were not selected for admission at UNM (Kirby). Indeed, the Fat Chick Sings blogger Jeanette DePatie offered her own advice to Miller: #findagoodlawyer.

Soon after the controversy emerged a response appeared on UNM’s website in the form of a video statement by Professor Jane Ellen Smith, the Chair of the UNM Psychology Department. Smith reiterated that Miller’s statements did not reflect the “policies and admissions standards of UNM”. She also stated that Miller had defended his actions by claiming the tweet was part of a “research project” where he would deliberately send out provocative messages in order to measure the public response to them. This claim was met with incredulity by a number of bloggers and columnists, and was later determined to be incorrect in an Institutional Review Board inquiry at UNM, which concluded Miller’s tweets were “self-promotional” in nature. Following a formal investigation, the UNM committee found no evidence that Miller had discriminated against overweight students. It did however pass a motion of censure that included a number of restrictions, including prohibiting Miller from sitting on any graduate admission committee at UNM.

The #truth about Fat PhDs?

Readers may be wondering why Miller’s tweet continues to matter as I write this article in 2015. It is my belief that the tweet is important insofar as it affords an insight into the cultural scene that surrounds the fat body in higher education. The vigorous debate generated by Miller’s tweet offers researchers a diverse array of media texts that are available to help build a more comprehensive picture of fat embodiment within higher education.

Looking at the tweet in the cold light of day it is difficult to imagine any logical links one might infer between a person’s carbohydrate consumption and their ability to excel in doctoral education. And there’s the rub. Of course Miller’s tweet does not represent a careful evaluation of the properties of doctoral willpower. In order to make sense of the tweet we need to understand the ways cultural assumptions about fatness operate. For decades now, researchers have documented the existence of anti-fat attitudes (Crandall & Martinez). Increasingly, scholars and Fat Acceptance activists have described a “thinness norm” that is reproduced across contemporary Western cultures, which discerns normatively slender bodies as “both healthy and beautiful” (Eller 220) and those whose bodies depart from this norm, as “socially acceptable targets for shaming and hate speech” (Eller 220). In order to be intelligible Miller’s tweet relies on a number of deeply entrenched cultural meanings attributed to fatness and fat people.

The first is that body-size is primarily a matter of self-control. Although Critical Fat Studies researchers have argued for some time that body weight is determined by complex interactions between the biological and environmental, the belief that a large body size is caused by limited self-control remains prevalent. This in turn supports a host of cultural connotations, which tend to constitute fat people as “lazy, gluttonous, greedy, immoral, uncontrolled, stupid, ugly and lacking in willpower” (Farrell 4).

In light of the above, Miller’s message ought to be read as a moral one. I have paraphrased its logic as such: if you [the fat doctoral student] lack the willpower to discipline your body into normatively desired slimness, you will also likely lack the strength of character required to discipline your body-mind into producing a doctoral dissertation. The sad irony here is that, if anything, the attitudes that might hamper fat students from pursuing a doctoral education would be those espoused in Miller’s own tweet. As Critical Fat Studies researchers have illuminated, the anti-fat attitudes the tweet reproduces generate challenging higher education climates for fat people to navigate (Pausé, Express Yourself 6).

Indeed, while Miller’s tweet is one case that arose to media prominence, there is evidence that it sits inside a wider pattern of weight discrimination within higher education. For example, Caning and Mayer (“Obesity: Its Possible”, “Obesity: An Influence”) found that despite similar high school performances, ‘obese’ students were less likely to be accepted to elite universities, than their non-obese peers. In a more recent US-based study, Burmeister and colleagues found evidence of weight bias in graduate school admissions. In particular, they found that higher body mass index (BMI) applicants received fewer post-interview offers into psychology graduate programs than other students (920), and this relationship appeared to be stronger for female applicants (920). This picture is supported by a study by Swami and Monk, who examined weight bias against women in a hypothetical scenario about university acceptance. In this study, 198 volunteers in the UK were asked to identify the women they were most and least likely to select for a place at university. Swami and Monk found that participants were biased against fat women, a finding which the authors interpreted as evidence of broader public beliefs about body size and access to higher education.

In my examination of the media scene surrounding the Miller case I observed that most commentators associated the tweet with a particular affective formation – shame. Miller’s actions were widely described as “fat-shaming” (Bennet-Smith; Ingeno; Martin; Trotter; Walsh) with Miller himself often referred to simply as the “fat-shaming professor” (King; ThinkTank). In this article I wish to consider the affective-political dimensions of Miller’s tweet, by focusing on one digital community’s response to it: Fuck Yeah! Fat PhDs. In following this path I am building on the work of other researchers who have considered fat activisms and Web 2.0 (Pausé, Express Yourself); fat visual activism (Gurrieri); and the emotional politics of fat acceptance blogging (Kargbo; Bronstein).

Imaging Alternatives: Fuck Yeah! Fat PhDs

By 3 June 2013 – just one day after Miller’s tweet was published – New Zealand-based academic Cat Pausé had created the Tumblr Fuck Yeah! Fat PhDs. This was billed as a photo-blog about “being fatlicious in academia”. Writing on her Friend of Marilyn blog, Pausé explained the rationale behind the Tumblr:

I decided that what I wanted to do was to highlight all the amazing fat individuals who are in graduate school, or have completed graduate school – to provide a visual repository … and to celebrate the amazing work being done by these rad fatties!

Pausé sent out calls for participants on Twitter, Tumblr and Facebook, and emailed a Fat Studies listserv. She asked submitters to send “a photo, along with their name, degree, and awarding institution” (Pausé Express Yourself, 6). Images were submitted thick and fast. Twenty-three were published in the first day of the project, and twenty in the second. At the time of writing, just over 150 images had been submitted, the most recent being November 2013.

The Fuck Yeah! Fat PhDs project ought to be understood as part the turn away from the textual toward the digital in fat activist movements (Kargbo). This has seen a growth in online communities that are interested in developing “counter-images in response to the fat body’s position as the abject, excluded Other of the socially acceptable body” (Kargbo 162). Examples include a multitude of Fatshion photo-blogs, Tumblrs like Exciting Fat People or the Stocky Bodies image library, which responds to the limited diversity of visual representations of fat people in the mainstream media (Gurrieri).

For this article, I have read the images on the Fuck Yeah! Fat PhDs Tumblr in order to gain an impression about the affective-political work accomplished by this collective of self-identified fat academic bodies. As I indicated earlier, much of the commentary following Miller’s tweet characterised it as an attempt to ‘shame’ fat doctoral students. As Elspeth Probyn has identified, shame frequently manifests itself on the body “most experiences of shame make you want to disappear, to hide away and to cover yourself” (Probyn 329). I suggest that the core work of the Fuck Yeah! Fat PhDs Tumblr is to address the spectre of shame Miller’s tweet projects with visibility, rather than it’s opposite. This visibility also enables the project to proliferate a host of different ways of (feeling about) being fat and doctoral.

The first image posted on the Tumblr is Pausé’s own. She is pictured smiling at the 2007 graduation ceremony where she received her own PhD, surrounded by fellow graduates in academic regalia. Her image is followed by many others, mostly white women, who attest to the academic attainments of fat individuals. My first impression as I scrolled through the Tumblr was to note that many of the images (51) referenced scenes of graduation, where subjects wore robes, caps or posed with higher degree certificates. Many more were the kinds of photographs that one might expect to be taken at an academic event. Together, these images attest to the viability of the living, breathing doctoral body - a particularly relevant response given Miller’s tweet. This work to legitimate the fat doctoral body was also accomplished through the submission of two historical photographs of Albert Einstein, a figure who is neither living nor breathing, but highly unlikely to be described as lacking academic ability or willpower.

As I read through the Tumblr subsequent times, I noticed that many of the submitters offered images that challenge stereotypical representations of the fat body. As a number of writers have noted, fat people tend to be visually represented as “solitary, lonely figures whose expressions are downcast and dejected” (Gurrieri 202). That is if they aren’t already decapitated in the visual convention of the “headless fatty” used across news media (Kargbo 160). Like the Stocky Bodies project, the Fuck Yeah! Fat PhDs Tumblr facilitated a more diverse and less pathologising representation of fat (doctoral) embodiment.

Across the images there is little evidence of the downcast eyes of shame and dejection that Miller’s tweet seems to invite of aspiring fat doctoral candidates. Scrolling through the Tumblr one encounters images of fat people singing, swimming, creating art, playing sport, smoking, smiling, dressing up, and making music. A number of images (12) emphasise the social nature of fat doctoral life, by picturing multiple subjects at once, some holding hands, others posing with colleagues, loved ones, and a puppy. Another category of submissions took a playful stance vis-à-vis some representational conventions of imaging fatness. Where portrayals of the fat body from side or rear angles, or images of fat people eating and drinking typically code an affective scene of disgust (Gurrieri), a number of images on the Tumblr appear to reinscribe these scenes with new meaning. Viewers are offered pictures of smiling and contented fat graduates unashamed to eat and drink, or be represented from ‘unflattering’ angles.

Furthermore, a number of images offered alternatives to the conventional representation of the fat subject as ugly and sexually unattractive by posing in glamorous shots bubbling with allure and desire. In one memorable picture, blogger and educator Virgie Tovar is snapped wearing a “sex instructor” badge and laughs while holding two sex toys.

Reading across the images it becomes clear that the Tumblr offers a powerful response to the visual convention of representing the solitary, lonely fat person. Rather than presenting isolated fat doctoral students the act of holding the images together generates a sense of fat higher education community, as Kargbo notes:

A single image posted online amidst vast Internet ephemera is just a fleeting document of a moment in a stranger’s life. But in the plural, as one scrolls through hundreds of images eager to hit the ‘next’ button for what will be a repetition of the same, the image takes on a new function: it becomes an insistent testament to the liveness of fat embodiment in the present. (164)

Obesity Timebomb blogger Charlotte Cooper (2013) commented on the significance of the project: “It is pretty amazing to see the names and faces as I scroll through Fuck yeah! Fat PhDs. Many of us are friends and collaborators and the site represents a new community of power.”

Concluding Thoughts: Fat Embodiment and Higher Education Cultures

This article has examined a cultural event that that saw the figure of the fat doctoral student rise to international media prominence in 2013. I have argued that while Miller’s tweet can be read as illustrative of the affective scene of shame that surrounds the fat body in higher education, the images offered by the Fuck Yeah! photo submitters work to re-negotiate implication in social discourses of abjection. Indeed, the images assert that alternative ways of feeling about being fat and doctoral remain viable. Fat students can be contented, ambivalent, sultry, pissed off, passionate and proud – and Fuck Yeah! Fat PhDs provides submitters with a platform to perform a wide array of these affects. This is not to say that shame is shut out of the project, or the lives of submitters’ altogether. Instead, I am suggesting that the Tumblr generates a more open field of possibilities, providing “a space for re-imagining new forms of attachments and identifications.” (Kargbo 171). 

Critics might argue that this Tumblr is not particularly novel when set in the context of a range of fat photo-blogs that have sprung up across the Internet in recent years. I would argue, however, that when we consider the kinds of questions Fuck Yeah! Fat PhDs might ask of university cultures, and the prompts it offers to higher education researchers, the Tumblr can be seen to make an important contribution. I am in agreement with Kargbo (2013) when she argues that fat photo-blogs “have the potential to alter the conditions of visual reception and perception”. That is, through their “codes and conventions, styles of lighting and modes of address, photographs literally show us how to relate to another person” (Singer 602). When read together, the Fuck Yeah! images insist that a different kind of relationship to fat PhDs is possible, one that exceeds the shaming visible in Miller’s tweet. Ultimately then, the Tumblr is a call to take fat doctoral students seriously, not as problems in need of fixing, but as a diverse group of scholars who make important contributions to the academy and beyond.

I would like to use the occasion of concluding this article to call for further conversations about fat embodiment and higher education cultures. The area is significantly under-researched, with higher education scholars largely failing to engage with the material and affective experiences of fat embodiment. Indeed, I would argue that if nothing else, this paper has demonstrated that public scenes of knowledge creation have done a much more comprehensive job of analysing the intersection of ‘fat + university’ than academic books and articles to date. While not offering an exhaustive sketch, I would like to gesture toward some areas that might contribute to a future research agenda. For example, researchers might begin to approach the experience of living, working and studying as a fat person in the contemporary university. Such research might examine whose body the university is imagined and designed for, as well as the campus climate experienced by fat individuals. Researchers might consider how body size could become a part of broader conversations about embodiment and privilege in higher education, alongside race, ability, gender identity, and other categories of social difference.

Thinking about the intersection of ‘fat + university’ would also involve tracing possibilities. For example, what role do university campuses play as spaces of fat activism and solidarity? And, what is the contribution made by Critical Fat Studies as a newly established interdisciplinary field of inquiry?

Taken together, I hope the questions I have raised in this article demonstrate that the intersection of ‘fat’ and higher education cultures represents a rich and valuable area that warrants further inquiry.

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Keywords


blogging; doctoral education; fat; thesis; social media.



Copyright (c) 2015 James Burford

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