Stigma Threat and the Fat Professor
Reducing Student Prejudice in the Classroom
Elena Andrea Escalera
Weight discrimination in the workplace has long been documented in many disciplines (Kristen, 2002; Roehling, 1999). This study looks at how fat discrimination plays out in a very specialized venue: the college classroom.
In academic settings, professors are not only evaluated by their colleagues, department chairs, and deans, but also by their students. Students, who have relatively less status in the system, have significant power in the evaluation of their professors. Rank and tenure committees use these evaluations to determine promotion and retention. Quite literally, a professor's job is on the line if student evaluations are low.
Student evaluations have been studied in relation to bias and discrimination, and many studies have found that these all important evaluations may not be the reliable form of teacher review that they are hoped to be. Sprague and Massoni (2005) found that student evaluations vary depending on how closely the teacher adhered to their expected gender role.
Discrimination in student evaluation extends to professors based on their appearance as well. Attractive professors received much higher evaluations than those who were rated less attractive by students (Hamermesh & Parker, 2005). Professors who dress in formal or stylish attire are also likely to receive better evaluations. Stylish clothing is often not available in larger sizes, resulting in an institutional barrier to large-sized faculty. In addition, fat is considered unattractive in this culture (Allon, 1982; Crandall, 1984). This being the case, a fat professor is going to be considered unattractive, and will likely see the impact of this cultural value in their evaluations.
In a recent course that I taught in Health Psychology, a student of mine made a comment that was much more subtle. The student said, “She talks too much about weight and disability, which have nothing to do with Health Psychology.” Although I spent no more time on weight and disability than any other subject, and considerably less on the topic than on stress and cancer, this student was distressed that a fat disabled person was teaching about health. If this distress can be better understood, perhaps there are ways to diffuse student reactivity that can result in discriminatory behavior.