Why I’m not surprised by the Geoffrey Miller Twitter controversy

Earlier this week Geoffrey Miller, a Stanford-educated NYU lecturer with a permanent appointment at the University of New Mexico, tweeted the following:

“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”

Miller subsequently deleted the tweet, apologized, and has since said it was part of a research project. His actions caught the attention of Jezebel and media commentator Jay Rosen who rightly criticized Miller for “fat shaming.”

Fat shaming is a relatively new way of describing the longstanding social stigma attached to being overweight. In the 1960s and 1970s some activists referred to this as fat oppression, and more recently health studies scholars have referred to it as obesity stigma. What these terms are describing is the assumption that fatness is an indicator that a person is weak, lacks willpower, has a poor knowledge of nutrition and is undisciplined.

I’m not surprised by Miller’s tweet because fat shaming has been a part of our (Canadian/American and “Western”) body culture for hundreds of years, if not longer. It is a reflection of the our deep-rooted belief in “mind over matter,” i.e. that a rational person should be able to control their bodies and their will. Slenderness, conversely, is taken as a sign of discipline and self-control. These broad generalizations about fat/thin are reflected in media representations, diet culture, and public policies which seek to curb the so-called “obesity epidemic.”

More than this, though, I’m not surprised by Miller’s tweet because there is plenty of evidence that weight has been used as criteria for admission to universities in the last forty years. I conducted interviews with fat activists in Canada, two of whom were told they needed to lose weight in order to get into nursing school (c. 1970s). Bill Fabrey, the founder of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, has said that he started the organization, in part, when he discovered his girlfriend was rejected by Cornell University based on her weight (c. 1960s). More recently (c. 1990s), research has suggested that obese people are less likely to be accepted to elite colleges and universities.

Universities are just one social institution among many – gyms, health clinics, bars, clothing stores – where fat people may face shaming and stigma. Regardless of whether or not it is an experiment, Miller’s tweet reveals the #truth about our fat phobic culture. Concern about obesity is currently couched in terms of the health of larger people, but it is also often about aesthetic and moral disapprobation of larger bodies.

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