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Fat Stigma: The View from my Office Window

windowview.JPGMy office windows look out across the two main campus pedestrian malls of the largest and most diverse research university in the US. Every day, thousands upon thousands of people of all shapes and sizes stroll past. With more than 85,000 immersion students, the university population exceeds that of some small countries (including the Republic of Kiribati, where I did my dissertation fieldwork).

The huge student population at ASU is a boon for our research in many ways. Having students from over 120 countries with an array of language skills and life experience is a major asset when we want to prepare materials or hire and train field assistants for work in other countries. We can recruit easily for pilot studies** or when we want to try out new research tools, just by stepping out onto the mall (we use t-shirts as incentives — it works). Much of this campus-based research is ostensibly about prepping ourselves for doing research elsewhere. But several years of using ASU as our test-bed has yielded a lot of  information about what is up with weight stigma on our own campus.

students on mallSo, what have we learned so far? First, we know that ASU is a typical university in that a lot of students worry about weight, many students have high weights, and that significant average student weight gain happens across the years they study with us. We did spatially randomized surveys of students on campus in 2014 that actually measured weight and height. These unpublished data showed that 10%  are BMI>30, meaning about 8,500 of our students fall into the clinical category of “obese”. My own analysis of the National College Health Assessment (NCHA) surveys self-reported by ASU students in 2011-2013 found that weight gain across the undergrad years is also significant. Using the US army criteria for joining (maximum of 32% body fat for women and 26% for men), the percentage of qualifying students drops from 60% of ASU undergraduate freshman to only 40% of graduating seniors.

Second, from collecting both cognitive tests (like the “fat” IAT) and different types of self-report data (like the ATOP) with 1,000s of students over the last 5 years, we can say with some certainty that it also that anti-fat thinking is the norm on campus. Our students tend to exhibit extremely high levels of implicit (what they are thinking) weight stigma, and reasonably high level of explicit (what they are saying) weight stigma, compared to other US populations and internationally.  (I also suspect that weight stigma on other less diverse, more elite, campuses would be much higher than at ASU.)

Third, we know that students with high body weights feel this judgment. They often report campus an unwelcoming and unfriendly place. In one-on-one interviews done by our postdoc Sarah Trainer, she found that the single place on campus where people felt the most weight stigma was – ironically – the recreation center. The huge mirrors in the workout rooms made people feel especially uncomfortable. As a result, many larger students said they avoided the gym altogether. There are many other indirect reminders of misfitting implicit in campus design, such as when large students can’t find seats in lecture halls or faculty offices that fit them, and report getting through campus parking lots is a struggle. There is plenty of direct discrimination too once you start to pay attention. Last week I followed a truck across campus with a highly visible “No Fat Chicks” bumper sticker right next to a Sun Devil trident.

Fourth, some campus wellness efforts that target diet and exercise can feel like judgments as well. Even though young adults think and talk about their bodies a lot, we know that our students  don’t like to talk directly about being overweight even when it is framed as a health issue. Being labeled “obese” by a campus clinician turns out to be as uncomfortable for students as being called “fat” by their peers. Getting emails about the need for eating and more exercising from student wellness services can feel like a stab, however good the sender’s intentions.

So, our various studies show that many of our students are at risk of being stigmatized because of large bodies, weightism is common and tolerated on our campus, and that it is making many of our students less happy — and probably less healthy.

What can be done? We need to include weight-related stigma in our broader campus efforts toward building a culture of inclusion. We are in an age where colleges are seriously focused on clearing campuses of several different types harassment and discrimination — sexual/gender and racism among them. At ASU, significant effort is put into training everyone  – including our freshman – how to recognize and respond to a range of exclusions that are known to undermine student success. Weightism isn’t on the list. It affects a lot of our students, and should be.

But first, administrators need to recognize fat-stigma exists on campus, understand that it damages, and care enough to do something about it.  This sometimes feels a long way off. Last year I emailed the director of the recreation center with some relevant study findings. The response? Crickets. The huge mirrors still dominate the campus gym.


** With thanks to the Virginia G Piper Charitable Trust who has supported  some of these pilots through Mayo Clinic-ASU Obesity Solutions.

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Alex Brewis