Higher Ed Plus-Fat and Job Searching

A few months ago on the Student Affairs Professionals Facebook page, there was a post from a woman who stated that she had been advised by a family friend who had worked in higher ed for years to talk about her energy levels during an interview. The reason why? Because she was plus-sized, and she should let her potential employers know that, in case they didn’t want to hire her based on her body type.

Woaaah, slow down. You mean that employers in Higher Ed discriminate against larger bodies?

Sad to say, it’s apparent that they do. This post only highlighted that.

Most people were outraged. “They can’t do that!” They exclaimed. “If they do, they’re not worth your time.”

Obviously the friend of the woman knew more than these comments.

The thing is, being plus-sized in higher ed, when you go into a job interview and are rejected, you rarely if ever know the reason. So, it’s really not apparent whether or not we weren’t hired based on something we said or did, or if the employers felt we wouldn’t have enough “energy.” How could we possibly know that? This friend of this woman apparently knows something we don’t: that comments about people’s weight take place behind closed doors and are important in hiring meetings.

While reading the comments, it became apparent to me just how little people know or understand about the plus-sized community. For all of Higher Ed’s talk, there is little to show for it when it comes to this area. People were saying things like “THIS IS ILLEGAL!” And in fact, in many states, it’s not. Body size is only a protected class in a few cities and states throughout the U.S. Therefore, someone can be discriminated against because of their body size in their place of work, and it is perfectly okay. Other people shared stories of being called “frumpy” or even being told “get off your fat a$$ and do it yourself.” In front of students. So not okay.

There were also a lot of comments about showing your energy through your interview…but that’s problematic. Interviews are long and draining experiences. What if you happen to be plus-sized and introverted? You’re in a no-win situation there, because you may not be able to show “energy”, and therefore potential employers may assume it’s because of your weight and decide not to hire you. The REAL problem here is that fat or plus-sized people are assumed to have low energy, because that’s what society tells us. Fat people are lazy. Fat people don’t want to do anything to help themselves. Fat people are disgusting. Fat people could change their ways if they wanted to. Fat people lack “energy.”

And then there’s this thing within higher ed called #saFit. While there could be many benefits to this movement, I think that it can also be extremely harmful. A couple of the plus-sized people in the thread mentioned this movement and said they had received unsolicited advice from those who participated in order to “help” them. I also know of many offices that compete in weight loss competitions or go to Weight Watchers together. My question is, what does that do to the person who is plus-sized in these offices and doesn’t participate in these functions? And what does that say about what higher ed folks believe about weight in general?

Some offices take it too far. I know of a department where they were forced to take a “health assessment” and participate in a mandatory water drinking competition. MANDATORY.

Health is a singular experience. By that I mean that it is only the person who knows how healthy they are. Someone’s weight may not necessarily relate to their health. But we all assume it does. We want people to be healthy, sure. But only that person can tell you whether or not they are. And really it’s NO ONE ELSE’S BUSINESS.

Even if someone is “unhealthy”, does that mean that they are worth less? Does that mean they are treated like a second-class citizen? We place so much importance on this as a field, but I think that it is very misguided. We have a lot of work to do as far as this goes.

So, if you have an opportunity to hire individuals in your department, ask yourselves what you are presenting and promoting during your interviewing process. What questions do you ask? What factors do you consider during decision making? Because there are a lot of biases when it comes to weight within higher ed, as seen on that post.

Fat is not an insult-it’s who I am. And I am worthy.

Today I came across an article called My Boyfriend Loves Fat Women. It really struck a chord with me. I have felt so many of the feelings that the author has felt. One of the quotes really got to me:

 As a fat woman, I have been taught that there is an order of operations for love: First, you get thin; then, you can date who you want. Until you do the first thing, the second thing is impossible.

Until recently, as in, like, two years ago, I was truly unaware that people could be attracted to fat people. Really. I have heard for my entire life that fat people are not deserving of love, that I would never find love unless I became less fat, and that no one could ever be attracted to a fat person. Therefore, I have walked around for 23 years on this Earth thinking that I needed to be something different because no one would ever want me. Jeez. No wonder I’ve struggled with my self-confidence.

In this article, the author describes a similar situation. She thinks that by winning the affections of someone who is, shall we say, NOT fat, that she has beaten the system. She has overcome. She even states, “In my mind, I had done the impossible.” Suddenly I realized: it’s not just me. Other fat people have felt the exact same way that I have: that we are not capable of finding love because that is the message that we have always been told.

How TERRIBLE. Shame on us. And I say “us” because I do fall into that category myself. I have told myself that. I have had thoughts about fat people myself. I have judged before I have known what was going on. I am a contributor to this problem.

I have begun to surround myself with more body-positive and fat-positive images. I have recently begun following EffYourBeautyStandards on Instagram and have become an admirerer of Tess Munster. Tess runs the site, and, as you may have heard, has become the first plus-sized model to be signed to a major agency. One of the things that Tess has to clarify over and over again is that she is healthy. She works out with a trainer and eats healthily. She just so happens to be plus-sized. And she has SO much confidence. She’s gotten a lot of backlash because people believe that having plus-sized role models “glorify obesity.” Newsflash: FAT PEOPLE CAN BE HEALTHY. Shocking, I know. But one of the lies that society spreads is that fat people are always unhealthy and that it is not good to be fat. In fact, a lot of people believe it is the WORST thing to be fat. Everyone is always afraid of it. I can’t tell you how many times a day I hear “I ate this today. I am gonna be so fat.” or “Ew, gross. I feel so fat today.” or “I’m gonna be fat and eat all of this!”

I always struggle with what to say to these comments. First of all, many people who say this are not fat. Second of all, it’s like people are subtly saying “Fat is bad and I don’t want to be it, but I’ll continue to act this way because I know I’m not actually fat.” How insulting to people who actually are fat. Because let me tell you from experience: I can do all the right things, eat right and exercise and blah blah blah, and at the end of the day I will STILL be fat. It’s just me. Could I work to become more healthy in my daily habits? Absolutely. And I know I do need to work on it. But I know I won’t ever be a “skinny” person. And that doesn’t mean that I won’t be healthy. Nothing is guarunteed when it comes to health. Someone who could be considered healthy just by their appearance can suffer from heart attacks. Like so many other things, you cannot base how someone is just by how they look. And yet, we continue to do that with fat people AND tell them that they’re disgusting, lazy, and worthless. This is not okay.

It’s made me think a lot about my work in student affairs and how I’ve let this affect my life. I’ve spent far too many years thinking I’m not good enough. This has definitely translated into my work. I’m always afraid that people don’t like me, that my words and ideas don’t matter. On my worst days, I think I’m going to be fired over nothing. Part of that is because I really want to do my best, but part of that is also because I’ve always believed my best is not okay. Sometimes I think people don’t think I’m capable, that I can’t handle certain things. I fear that my colleagues think I’m not a good role model for students. I wonder if students whom I discipline or who don’t like me call me “fat” behind my back because to them, it’s an insult with a capital I. And I feel for the students who are overweight, and I wonder what they go through on a day-to-day basis and if it’s anything like what I’ve gone through.

So many of us in this field have made a commitment to being healthy. And that is wonderful. But with that, we also need to make a commitment to destroy the stigmas of health and fitness-one of them being that fat people absolutely cannot be healthy. If people want to lose weight, they should do it because they want to, not because they feel they have to in order to be able to fit in or be considered worth something. And we should also be open to considering the fact that fat people could potentially actually be healthy despite their size. We should make health more personal. It is a person’s own business of whether or not they are healthy-we shouldn’t be telling other people they need to do this or that in order to be healthier. You can say and share what you’re doing, sure. But no one should be shaming anyone into being what they consider to be healthy. And for the LOVE of ALL that is good-please stop using “fat” as an insult, even towards yourself. By doing this, you are telling people who are fat that they are themselves an insult. You therefore cannot fully help your students that are fat, because you believe that they have something wrong with them. They may have NOTHING wrong with them. It’s not for you to judge.

As for me, I will no longer continue to believe that I am not worthy of love, and that no one will ever be attracted to me. I know this is not true. I will continue to work on my confidence. I love my job, and I’m good at it. And I will work towards achieving justice and equality for my students of every shape, size, and color, because we all deserve to believe we have a place in this world.