Unpacking Weight Bias in Higher Education

This week, we wanted to revisit an underdiscussed topic regarding social justice – weight stigma or “fatphobia.” Weight bias is a negative/stereotypical attitude, belief, and judgement about people because of their weight. While weight bias exists on a spectrum that can include people who are underweight, we are covering biases against plus-sized/fat people because this group predominantly experiences negative attitudes and discriminatory practices.

Reflect: How does weight bias affect our world?

What image do you think of when you think of a person who is considered “fat”? Common stereotypes about plus-sized people include that they are lazy, irresponsible, and sloppy,1 with biased perspectives around body size beginning to develop as early as three years old.2 These stereotypes appear in all kinds of popular media,3 proliferating into our ideas of what different parts of life are like for those who are plus-sized. This process by which people ascribe these moralistic and physical characteristics to fat people can be understood through the idea of “lipoliteracy.”4 If our societal bias equates weight to morality, how might that affect the ways that services are offered? How might a bias toward one specific body type affect the way our world is constructed, such as classroom spaces?

Learn: Weight Bias is Far-Reaching

In 2013, a professor tweeted that “obese PhD applicants” who didn’t have “the willpower to stop eating carbs [wouldn’t] have the willpower to do a dissertation.” Unfortunately, attitudes like this professor’s have more consequences than we realize.

The rise of bias against fat people and a lack of widespread legal protection affects plus-sized people in a variety of ways5, 6 – with women experiencing higher levels of weight stigma than men.7 Hiring officers frequently look over fat candidates because they are seen as less competent than thinner people.8, 9 Plus-sized women are often paid lower than their straight-sized counterparts, particularly those in public-facing roles.10 Similar experiences occur in higher education. Professors are more likely to evaluate and grade fat students lower than their peers,11 all while these students negotiate physical space not built to include their bodies.12 Fatphobia also persists at higher levels of a campus, with an abundance of microaggressions facing fat student affairs professionals13 and being omnipresent in evaluation periods such as around tenure.14 Weight stigma further intersects with other systems of oppression, such that plus-sized Black women and people with other marginalized sexual/gender identities experience a multiplicity of bias that affects their well-being.15, 16

Additional Resource Recommendations

  • Book: The Fat Studies Reader – This 2010 edited volume includes 53 scholars discussing social perceptions and systemic discrimination against “fatness” from a variety of lenses.
  • Video: Lose Hate, Not Weight – Scholar/activist Virgie Tovar discusses her experiences with weight stigma, how pervasive it really is, and where to spot it.
  • Article: How Fatphobia has Cemented Itself into the Workplace - Journalist Gianluca Russo explains the reality of weight discrimination in the workplace and legal efforts to prevent it.
  • Podcast: Tell Me I’m Fat – This podcast series touches on topics like self-acceptance, the morality ascribed to weight, and what we can do to upend weight stigma.