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Monday, December 22, 2014

Doctor’s hateful tweet can be a lesson

assistant professor
Drexel University
Department of History and Politics

“Dear obese Ph.D. applicants: if you didn’t have the willpower to stop eating carbs, you won’t have the willpower to do a dissertation #truth.”

This hateful, hurtful and deeply inaccurate statement is the work of UNM professor Geoffrey Miller. My response addresses him individually, but it also addresses Miller’s direct superiors at UNM and the academic community more broadly, because Miller’s sentiment implicates all of us.

This letter is not about what Miller’s message really meant, or whether or not he regrets it. Nor does it address the claim that the tweet was research-related. We all deserve the benefit of the doubt when we err publicly. Many of us have said hurtful things in moments of frustration, and none of us wants to be remembered for our worst moments; most of us are lucky enough to have those in private.

For better or worse, though, Miller recorded his thoughts for posterity, with a #truth hashtag, no less. Mostly for worse, of course.

His words, which I first read a week ago, turned me — a certified Ph.D., a well-reviewed teacher, the holder of a tenure-track position, a person with serious willpower — into a bullied kid.

Just as I did in childhood, I felt defined by my body size and shape. I felt painfully aware that most people don’t think my body size and shape are OK. Indeed, many of them — Miller plainly included — believe that my fatness is both ugly in itself and a symptom of moral weakness.

When I got over feeling hurt — a thing I am pretty good at, having faced down both street harassers and the Yale Comparative Politics Workshop — I was furious. People with opinions like Miller’s blighted my childhood. They hounded me because I was fat and congratulated me heartily on the eating disorder that destroyed my health. Maintaining a “normal” weight required me, like most people whose set point is higher than average, to engage in an all-consuming, ever-escalating battle against homeostasis.

As I began my Ph.D. at Yale, my weight was “normal” and my willpower exceptional, but I was miserable, ill and unable to finish serious academic work. Only in my fifth year of graduate school, after fifteen physiologically and psychologically unsustainable years in total, did I use my very impressive willpower to stop compulsively restricting calories. Then, and only then, was I able to finish my dissertation. Miller’s tweet, in addition to demonstrating disrespect for the considerable scientific literature on fatness and dieting, dismissed my experience and profoundly insulted me.

Despite the considerable damage it inflicted, and reflected, Miller’s tweet represents a rare opportunity for forthright dialogue about appearance politics. The tweet stated openly an opinion that many people in academia hold quietly. When Jane Smith, UNM psychology department chair, released a video that took issue with Miller’s public lack of decorum, rather than his opinion per se, I was far from surprised. Which of my colleagues believes, along with Miller, that my fatness indicates a general failure of willpower? I don’t know, and this not-knowing is itself a significant workplace equity issue. I do know, however, that people who assume connections between physical traits and moral character are dangerous colleagues in a field like academia, which places its trust in peer review.

Why “dangerous”? I use the word because invidious distinctions based on appearance do not limit themselves to fatness or other seemingly voluntary characteristics. Gender-nonconforming people in the academy may be accused of looking “unprofessional” because others see clothing that matches one’s gender, rather than one’s sex, as inherently informal. Whereas students tend to assess male professors on the basis of their teaching, my female colleagues and I frequently receive comments about our bodies or clothing on course evaluations. People of color in the academy may be, and often are, required to fend off appearance-based assumptions that they hold their jobs “because of affirmative action.”

The presumption that those who look different do not deserve a place in an academic institution takes many forms, some of them outright illegal and all of them inappropriate to an institution that prefers to think of itself as a meritocracy.

Given Miller’s clear support for exclusion on the basis of visible difference, and the fact that this type of exclusion runs directly counter to the ideals of higher education, I call on him to recuse himself indefinitely from service commitments that involve assessing colleagues or potential colleagues. These include Ph.D. admissions committees, hiring committees and tenure and promotion committees, among others. I ask that administrators in Miller’s department and school, such as Smith and Mark Peceny, UNM’s dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, support Miller’s recusal and offer him alternative service assignments.

Administrators at both UNM and NYU ought also to consider whether Miller’s weight bias has colored his student assessments, and whether there is any mechanism for providing remediation to those who may have been affected. Finally, I ask that Miller participate in a formal dialogue about appearance biases, particularly as they pertain to the academic environment, as a precondition of his returning to any position in which he evaluates colleagues or potential colleagues.

More broadly, I ask that academics across disciplines and universities seize the opportunity presented by Miller’s hateful remark. We need to reconsider the practical processes involved in reviewing our colleagues’ work, particularly the work of colleagues whose physical appearance we find different or distasteful. We need to consider how biases related to conventional attractiveness standards may intersect with and reinforce biases against legally recognized protected classes such as people of color, women and queer or gender-nonconforming people.

Finally, as educators, we should consider how our appearance judgments affect our students. We know that colleges are afflicted by epidemic levels of eating disorders, and that risk of eating disorder onset is associated with beliefs about the importance of thinness, such as the beliefs Miller has expressed. Perhaps more importantly, we know that colleges teach students, overtly and covertly, how to be citizens, and how to assess citizenship. Fat-shaming by college professors encourages self-harm and emboldens bullies. It also promotes a vision of citizenship that rests on appearances, not actions or ideals. We can do better by our students, and ourselves.