Weight at Whitman: let’s talk about it

Zoe Schacter-Brodie, Feature Editor

Note: All of the names used in this article are pseudonyms. 

Sophomore Bella Dickinson wishes people would call her “fat” more often.

Illustration by Madeleine Stolp.

“That sounds wrong—I’m not saying I want people to walk up to me and tell me I’m fat,” she clarified over email. “In an ideal world, fat wouldn’t be a word we shy away from, because it wouldn’t be an insult. It should be like calling somebody tall.”

Of course, Dickinson acknowledges that the word “fat” and its synonyms are laden with far more complications and cultural context than adjectives like “tall” or “brunette.” Weight has become so tightly linked to virtue and morality that the word “fat” seems to be most often used in conjunction with, or even in place of, words like “lazy” or “unworthy.” Dickinson is not advocating for flippant usage of the word, which she acknowledges can be painful to hear. Instead, she hopes we can collectively unlearn the negative connotations attached to the word and to fatness in general.

“We need to be comfortable talking about weight if we want to change anything,” Dickinson said. “A lot of Whitman students are really careful with their language, which can be great, but when it comes to talking about fat people, they’re so nervous about saying something wrong or offensive that they don’t talk about it at all.”

This was an impediment I encountered even in developing and writing this article. There is little consensus in terms of terminology: most fat liberation activists proudly use the word “fat,” a word at which some others chafe. Some people embrace terms like “plus-sized” and “larger-bodied,” while others argue they needlessly obfuscate. 

Even among my interviewees, consensus was difficult to find. Dickinson advocated for the word “fat,” while junior Felix Bain urged me towards the phrase “students who wear plus-sized clothes,” explaining that it emphasized personhood and identity over the secondary characteristic of weight.

“No one should be reduced to one identity or a size,” Bain said. 

As with all other sensitive, contentious issues, it is imperative to push past this apprehension. While I fretted over word choice, searching for the elusive terms with which nobody would take issue, I avoided the actual work—and it’s important work! Harvard’s Implicit Association Test found that the majority of people hold severe anti-fat biases, a conclusion that can be corroborated by basically anybody tuned in to culture and media. As writer and activist Aubrey Gordon explained, weight bias is so thoroughly baked into our culture that people rarely question its existence—rather, people question whether or not its targets deserve it.

Unfortunately, weight bias and anti-fat attitudes exist everywhere, and the Whitman campus is no exception. Both Dickinson and Bain produced extensive lists when prompted to share experiences of weight bias at Whitman, ranging from conversations at parties to pointed remarks at Cleveland.

Bain is frequently served extra portions at Cleveland, which he has to decline. He also finds that Cleveland baristas automatically charge him for sixteen-ounce drinks, the largest size.

“I have to always tell them, ‘Oh, not that cup, can I get 12oz please?’,” he said, adding that nobody ever fails to ask his thinner friends which size they prefer.

Dickinson’s most painful experience came from a professor.

“Last spring, I had a class on the third floor of Olin, so I always showed up out of breath,” she said. “One day, I was running late, so I came in panting really hard, and the professor looked at me and made some remark like, ‘Gotta get in shape!’ I guess it was subtle enough that I couldn’t say anything about it, but it was pretty humiliating. Plus, everyone is out of breath after walking up the Olin stairs, thin people included.”

Dickinson also lamented the additional social difficulties that her weight initially gave her at Whitman. While she has since found a group of friends that she loves dearly, she found her first on-campus semester to be pretty lonely.

“People don’t notice that they’re doing it, but they just subconsciously approach fat people less,” she said. “I always feel like people have made a million assumptions about me before I even say anything.”

At Whitman, Dickinson explained, this experience felt amplified: surrounded by outdoorsy people, she feared that her peers would assume she did not share these interests. Even though Dickinson does consider herself a fairly outdoorsy person, she still shies away from most of Whitman’s athletic and outdoor offerings.

“I don’t think a lot of people realize how uncomfortable spaces like [the climbing gym and the Outdoor Program (OP)] can be for fat students,” Dickinson said. 

Senior Alissa Smith spends time in both of these spaces, and agrees that these communities hold particularly “high standards” around “health and athleticism.” While there is no explicit exclusion, Smith frequently hears climbers (mostly male, she specified) complain about beginners and easy routes.

It’s frustrating because I feel like the exclusionary nature of these communities has been brought up numerous times to members of this community, and no one has the willingness to change,” she said.

In the Baker Ferguson Fitness Center, Whitman’s gym, Bain feels this judgment. When he vacates a machine for a brief break between sets—typically under a minute—people will attempt to take over, ostensibly assuming that he is unable to continue. 

Observing these dynamics from afar, Dickinson prefers not to engage with the OP. Communities like these, she argues, need to be extra intentional about promoting body positivity and opening their spaces to all.

“I don’t think they feel like they’re excluding anyone,” Dickinson said. “They probably think everyone there is thin because that’s what health looks like in their minds … Lots of Whitman students have a very rigid definition of health.”

It’s true at Whitman, and it’s true in general: when the average person thinks of health, thinness is often linked. We may think of certain habits, dietary choices, and aesthetics, even though health can look different for everybody. Smith added that this narrow conception of health often leaps to morality as well: diets like vegetarianism and veganism can be perceived on campus as ethical necessities. 

While Smith acknowledges that these diets can benefit the environment, she finds that discussions around them lack nuance and larger context.

I don’t believe it’s productive to have conversations where people are chastised for the food that they eat just because it isn’t the most environmentally conscious,” she said.

Equating food choices with morality can foster anxious, unhealthy attitudes around eating. Dickinson claims that these attitudes are evident on campus: many of her peers frequently obsess over caloric intakes, undereat on weekends to “save room” for alcohol and loudly worry that dining hall food will cause weight gain.

“That kind of talk is hard for me to hear,” she said. “There are so many better ways to say that Cleveland food sucks than ‘this is going to make me fat’, because what I hear is that you’re afraid to look like me.”

Bain concurs: around campus, he says he hears phrases like “I’m so fat” more frequently than “good morning,” and sees his peers struggling with body image. All of these issues suggest underlying problems, both specific to Whitman and ingrained in our larger culture. The ways we view bodies, health and food are deeply flawed, and those who do not align with these inflexible perceptions are harmed as a result. 

To address weight bias and its resulting issues, Bain says that Whitman needs more education on the matter: we need to share stories, hold sessions dedicated to the topic, and confront it head-on. Dickinson agrees that we need to address the issue rather than ignoring it out of apathy or discomfort. 

“I would love to see anti-fat bias openly discussed here,” Dickinson said. “The first step has to be helping people realize it’s a bias they even hold.”

It’s a discussion that is long overdue at Whitman. Let’s begin.