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When weight stigma causes brain drain

July 14, 2014


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An article by Rachel Fox titled “Too fat to be a scientist?” has been percolating in the back of my mind ever since I read it last month. I’ve been thinking about this accomplished woman, who has a B.A. in biology from a prestigious university, and is leaving her field of choice because of the way she’s treated as a fat woman.

The problem with being a fat scientist is that, as a scientist, I’m supposed to know better. Science is all about rules, laws, and logic that can be applied to even the most complicated systems. Most scientists subscribe to the notion that losing weight is a simple matter of biochemical thermodynamics: calories in versus calories out. Despite dozens of studies that complicate this reductionist narrative (including Tara Parker-Pope’s notorious report “The Fat Trap”), it’s still the most prevalent belief I’ve faced during my time in the STEM disciplines. In the past four years, I’ve heard everything from subtle implications to blatant statements that any person who’s still fat despite knowing “the facts” is lazy, gluttonous, stupid, and/or lacking self-control.

Sexy Scientist

Apparently, this is a female scientist’s most important qualifications.

This is the problem right here. In spite of all the studies that are disproving the “calories in/calories out” notion, people still see it as “fact,” even educated, supposedly-intelligent people who have read the studies. It’s a case of “This doesn’t align with what I think I *know*, therefore it can’t be right, and what I think I *know* has to be right, so I can ignore all this new information.”

How many people have stepped away from careers where they could have been successful, could have made a difference in the world for the better, simply because they were fat and wouldn’t be accepted? People who have the talent, the drive, the will to succeed in an area they love, with credentials that deserve respect; but because they are fat, they are judged and found wanting, no matter how good their work actually is.

How many people have been refused jobs in their chosen field of endeavor simply because they are fat, in spite of the fact that they have an education and an intelligence that would make their peers weep with jealousy? What I find so tragic in all of this is that this happens every day to people from all walks of life. It doesn’t just happen to those with a degree from a prestigious university, it happens to people who want to adopt a child, who want to be actors, who just want to have a job doing what they love.

This happens to fat people every damned day — we’re told that if we’re fat we obviously have no self-control, are stupid, are lazy, are dirty, and whatever other negative attribute that can be named, therefore we can’t possibly do whatever job we’ve applied for adequately, let alone do it exceptionally well.

How much talent and ability is being wasted because fat people aren’t given the chance to show what we can do? How many innovations and inventions aren’t happening because the fat person who could have created them isn’t given a chance and is instead discouraged and routed into a job they dislike and that leads them nowhere? How much is the world missing out on when it ignores, stigmatizes, shames, and relegates fat people to “less than” status?

I hope that in the future, scientists will shape up, but until then, I’m leaving science for advocacy. We should not have the quality of our work or our ability to work in a team questioned because of our size. But no attention is paid to how harmful sizeism can be, or to any campaigns to reduce its prevalence in STEM. That’s why I’m going to do my best to raise the kind of awareness that’s sorely needed in these fields. Honestly, science can’t afford to keep losing people like me to its own backward prejudice.

I agree with her, and I would say that extends to every area of our lives. We can’t afford to lose the talents and abilities of fat people simply because society thinks that only thin people have the drive and discipline to work hard and be successful in their chosen field.


10 Comments leave one →
  1. July 14, 2014 11:41 am

    This is the problem right here. In spite of all the studies that are disproving the “calories in/calories out” notion, people still see it as “fact,” even educated, supposedly-intelligent people who have read the studies. It’s a case of “This doesn’t align with what I think I *know*, therefore it can’t be right, and what I think I *know* has to be right, so I can ignore all this new information.”

    It amazes me that most of us grew up “knowing” that Pluto was a classical planet, but have now been told it’s a dwarf planet. These intelligent people are willing to accept that at face value. But show them studies that disprove the “calories in/calories out” notion, and they refuse to accept it. Why the fear to accept something that contradicts what we’ve always “known”? It seems to me that it shows the degree of fat stigma and fear of being fat that is prevalent in the minds of most people today. All the more reason for us to keep taking a stand to make our voices heard.

  2. vesta44 permalink
    July 14, 2014 3:01 pm

    If you’re a woman in a traditionally male field, it doesn’t matter if you’re smart, capable, and fat or smart, capable, and thin – you’re not going to be seen as able to do the job in either case. It’s either that the stereotypes about fat people overcome the obvious facts of a fat woman’s abilities, or the stereotypes about thin women overcome the obvious facts of her abilities (fat women are stupid/lazy/dirty/etc, thin women obviously slept their way into that degree/job). We’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t, simply because we’re women. Add sizeism into that and it’s a wonder that any women make into those fields, let alone succeed in them. Just goes to show how smart, capable, and persistent women can be.

  3. Dizzyd permalink
    July 15, 2014 3:55 pm

    I hate to burst your bubble, but the image of the impartial, wise, trustworthy scientist is pretty much a myth (aside from a few more open-minded ones). The truth is scientists are just as biased as the average Jo/Joe – maybe even more so. It’s science’s dirty little secret. If it doesn’t fit the accepted wisdom of the day, it’s tossed out. Or ‘What shouldn’t be, cannot be’. So, in their smugly closed little minds, a smart, capable – not to mention healthy – fat person (esp. a woman) is as scientifically impossible as Bigfoot or UFOs (despite evidence to the contrary).

    • Kala permalink
      July 15, 2014 8:00 pm

      This is absurd.

      Is it possible that this single female undergraduate experienced extreme prejudice at her institution for being a fat woman? Absolutely.

      Does that mean that this is the experience of most fat women in science? I doubt it.

      Does it mean that “their smugly closed little minds, a smart, capable – not to mention healthy – fat person (esp. a woman) is as scientifically impossible as Bigfoot or UFOs ” for all but a “a few more open-minded ones”, absolutely fucking not. I work in science, there are plenty of fat people, women and men, in every area of science that I’ve had exposure to, and that is most of them. I see fat undergraduates, fat graduate students, fat post-doctoral students, and fat professors. I see fat industrial chemists, fat biologists, fat materials scientists, fat computer scientists, etc. etc.

      • July 15, 2014 11:07 pm

        This study found that “74% of students held implicit weight bias (similar to reported bias against racial minorities), and 67% exhibited explicit weight bias.” It also found that “Student attitudes toward persons with obesity were more negative than attitudes toward racial minorities, gays, lesbians, and poor people.” Just because you see a lot of fat STEM workers doesn’t mean they haven’t experienced discrimination. The STEM community is not immune from the kind of bigotry that exists in the rest of the world.


        • Kala permalink
          July 16, 2014 8:05 am

          I never said there wasn’t weight stigma, as there is stigma for just about everything other than being an attractive white male in nearly every single field you could work in. But I do not take seriously the idea that we are losing all these seriously talented fat individuals to science because of weight stigma, that there is a literal brain drain of fat people. That a capable fat person is as scientifically likely as a unicorn in the minds of other non-fat scientists. That is all hyperbole.

          And truly, I don’t know how much I even believe Rachel Fox’s story. I don’t doubt she experienced poor treatment, but I do doubt parts of her narrative about how and why she left science, because it doesn’t really add up.

          • July 16, 2014 10:41 pm

            The headline was mine, as was the reference to brain drain. Is there proof that weight stigma is discouraging fat people from pursuing STEM careers? No. But it is certainly a risk if there are people within the STEM community who are actively stigmatizing fat people. And maybe it’s not so pervasive as to cause a mass exodus at this point, but if weight stigma in STEM continues unabated, as stigma has continued unabated in society, then it won’t exactly be an inducement for fat people. Yes, “brain drain” was hyperbole. But it’s hyperbole in service of a serious problem. In traditional employment, fat women (not men) are losing $9,000 and $19,000 per year compared to their “normal weight” peers. Given the level of implicit weight bias in the medical community, is it really all that surprising that a fat woman has experienced overt weight bias? And what would be the point of it anyway? Any coworkers of Ms. Fox could easily call her out. How is putting herself in such a public forum beneficial to her in any way? It’s pretty easy to read somebody’s story of harassment and say, “Nah, I don’t believe her,” but then I have a hard time believing that there’s any story of weight discrimination in STEM that you would believe. For fuck’s sake, that whole Geoffrey Miller incident was just last year. Miller never lost his job, as he might for openly calling for discrimination against PhD students from marginalized groups. This is still a big problem and simply dismissing those who come forward to talk about it is only kicking the can down the road.


  4. vesta44 permalink
    July 16, 2014 12:13 pm

    Kala – I don’t doubt her story at all, because it’s happened to me. Not in the STEM science field, that wasn’t my area of interest when I decided to go to college 12 years after I graduated from high school. I wanted to get my AA in auto mechanics – my dad was a mechanic for his whole life, and a damned good one, and I saw the respect he had from others in his field. I wanted to emulate him, and had helped him work on cars when I was a teenager.
    I went to a community college, and everything I heard was about how women couldn’t work on cars – we didn’t have the same “instinctual” knowledge that men had, there was no way a woman could ever truly understand why anything mechanical worked the way it did, there was no way we could ever be strong enough to do the heavy lifting required to be a mechanic (hello, I carried a 50 lb tool box full of my tools to and from class every day – and that was usually a walk of about 300 ft, and also carried all of my books for those classes at the same time). Oh, and I weighed 350 lbs at the time. I was also told that all of those statements applied even more to me because I was fat, and fat women couldn’t do anything right. Never mind that I aced most of my classes, was able to remove the engine and transmission from a 1969 Buick station wagon by myself, using the same hoist that the men used removing engines and transmissions from the cars they were assigned. Never mind that I had already overhauled one engine before I started college. Never mind that I had replaced radiators, brakes, alternators, starters, etc on my cars in order to keep them running because I couldn’t afford to pay a mechanic to do that for me. I was a woman, and a fat woman at that, who was challenging these male beliefs that they were the only ones who could do this type of work. I got this attitude not only from my fellow students, but from a couple of the instructors too (one of whom I pissed off because he made a statement in class that I later proved wrong).
    So yes, the attitude that fat women can’t do ______________ (fill in the blank with your choice of profession) is out there, it does drive women out of fields where they could make a significant contribution to society, and it’s even worse if you’re a fat woman. It was 32 years ago that I wanted to be a mechanic, and I ended up dropping out and never following that dream because of the attitudes I faced on a daily basis from the men I might work with someday, and the men who were supposed to teach me what I needed to know to become a good mechanic. And even now, 32 years later, when women have supposedly made so many strides toward job equality, how many women do you see working on cars? Oh, you’ll see plenty of them as receptionists, or running the office, but you won’t see very many actually out in the shop, working on and repairing cars/trucks/farm equipment. And those advertisements on television for schools that will educate you for a career in automotive/truck/motorcycle mechanics? You won’t see a woman in any of them. So while there may be plenty of fat women in those science fields, and plenty of fat women studying to be in those science fields, you can also bet that they’re facing all kinds of doubt from teachers and fellow students about their abilities simply because they’re fat women. And you can also bet that a lot of them have left those fields because they’re sick and tired of facing that shit on a daily basis. It doesn’t have to be overt doubt/shaming either, it can be subtle, but it’s there all the same and it’s discouraging capable women from following careers that they love and where they could make contributions to society (and if you think mechanics don’t make a significant contribution to society, ignore them the next time your car or public transportation breaks down and see how far you get).

  5. July 18, 2014 9:38 pm

    Reblogged this on The Cheese Whines and commented:
    I do think that my size as well as my age have made it difficult for me to find jobs in the nursing field. I’ve read “articles” which state that patients perceive fat nurses as being “unhealthy” and therefore unable to do their jobs correctly, so facilities don’t want to hire fat nurses. Add the fat to then nearly fifty years old, and you can bet I’m facing prejudice in trying to find a better job. Which is why it is maddening to me when I mention that my job doesn’t make ends meet and I get the old “just get a better job” song and dance. Yep, it’s always just that simple. Just like “eating less and exercising more” will always make you thin. Because I’ve certainly never tried that one in my nearly 50 years on this planet.

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