Culture

A Fresh Cry Of Pain: Fat-Shaming In Science

Looking over the shoulder of a researcher in a lab. i i
iStockphoto
Looking over the shoulder of a researcher in a lab.
iStockphoto

One year ago here at 13.7, I wrote about fat-shaming carried out by a college professor of evolutionary psychology.

Ever since, I've been more attuned than before to blatant discrimination based on weight and have spotted evidence of fat-shaming in multiple contexts. Recent examples range from the world of opera to popular TV shows (Fargo) and sports, in this case tennis.

When people — women, often — are seen and judged primarily by their weight instead of by their talents and actions in the world, the result is often incredibly hurtful. None of us wants to be seen and judged so superficially.

Now there's a fresh cry of pain and it comes again from the world of science and higher education.

On Tuesday, The Chronicle of Higher Education published a column by Rachel Fox titled "Too Fat to Be a Scientist?" Weeks ago, Fox earned her B.A. in biology from Wesleyan University. She has decided to leave science for reasons directly related to fat-shaming.

Fox writes:

"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."

During an in-person interview for a lab position, Fox met with the scientist in charge. What happened is cringe-inducing:

"She told me that her team did a lot of collaborative work in this lab, and she didn't need someone who was going to 'eat more than their fair share of the pizza, if you know what I mean.' "

"I didn't know how to respond. I offered a weak smile and said I didn't really know what she meant."

"She looked up abruptly (she had been staring at my stomach) and said, 'I think we're done here.' I sent her three follow-up emails, but she never wrote back."

By leaving science, will Fox escape fat-shaming? I hope so, yet know better. A number of people who commented on Fox's column have urged her to stay in science. Yet Fox seems confident in her decision to take up advocacy instead. As she puts it:

"Maybe weight discrimination is just as bad in other fields of study, but at least that discrimination won't feel like a betrayal from my own kind."


Barbara's most recent book on animals was released in paperback in April. You can keep up with what she is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape.

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