Photo: Julius Don Bailey in the classroom. (Photographer: Don Reed)
Late in the fall semester of 2011, as he guided his students into a discussion of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Julius Don Bailey broke down.
Bailey, a professor of philosophy at Wittenberg University, stands 5’11” and weighs 361 pounds. Two weeks prior, he told his students that he’d be taking a brief leave of absence, during which he planned to undergo gastric bypass surgery. He had high hopes that, by helping him shed weight, the procedure would “combine what I’ve got intellectually with more of a social life.”
But once his doctors opened him up, they determined that they couldn’t go through with the operation: Bailey had too much scar tissue from two previous surgical procedures. The professor returned to Wittenberg, still sore from his surgical scar, with crushed hopes. “I felt ugly, despondent, and useless as a 40-year-old unmarried fat man,” he says.
As he stood before his class, the famous opening lines of Dostoyevsky’s Notes From Underground stopped him cold: “I am a sick man. I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man.” Bailey could no longer mask his pain. His body slumped, and he leaned on his desk for support. He retreated from his students, sat down, and paused to catch himself.
When a female student started to cry, he snapped back into focus. “Don’t feel sorry for me,” he told her. “Part of the existential process is undergoing a crisis when the self confronts the self, and you have to wrestle with the ugliness of your human spirit.”
“I opened up to my students,” he now says, “because I wanted them to see just how dark the human soul can get. But I also wanted to lift them up, to get them to be better intellectually and socially.”
“I’m an overweight man,” he says, “and this is the truth for me.”
Read Julius Don Bailey's story: 'I'm the Only Obese Professor We Have'
Bailey is by no means alone. Overweight professors across academe describe similar battles to achieve self-acceptance, full inclusion in academic life, and genuine respect from students and colleagues. Some struggle daily to navigate campus spaces that don’t comfortably accommodate their size. Some stand in front of classrooms and wonder whether their bodies influence how students perceive their minds. Some say they have trouble adhering to exercise plans or healthy eating habits because their jobs come with lots of research and little structure.
Yet larger professors often grapple with these concerns in isolation and silence. On a national level, discussions of obesity have become increasingly common—and, at times, increasingly contentious. But many fat professors, along with allies in the emerging field of fat studies, feel that colleges and universities have yet to hold productive conversations on the topic, especially when it comes to “fat shaming” and how size influences hiring, tenure, and promotion decisions.
“The situation for fat academics has worsened as our national discourse about obesity has ramped up,” says Christina Fisanick, an associate professor of English at California University of Pennsylvania.
Fisanick has tracked the discourse for some time, in part because she herself has struggled with obesity. (Due to a binge-eating disorder, her weight has risen as high as 353 pounds; it’s now down to 228.) Writing in 2007 for Feminist Teacher, she pointed out that the few fat professors depicted on film are treated farcically: Think of Sherman Klump in Eddie Murphy’s remake of The Nutty Professor, for example, or the unnamed (but Colonel Sandersesque) biology professor played by Robert Kokol in Adam Sandler’s The Waterboy. These images, according to Fisanick, affect students’, professors’, and administrators’ expectations of what a scholar should look like.
Fisanick’s piece also hinted at a question that many fat academics have found themselves asking: Will they face bias in job interviews or in tenure and promotion decisions? There’s no data to prove size discrimination in academia, according to representatives of the National Association for the Advancement of Fat Acceptance, an advocacy organization, but there’s no reason to believe that academe is immune, either.
Read Christina Fisanick's story: 'Fat Professors Feel Compelled to Overperform'
In the meantime, fat-studies scholars trade anecdotes. Linda Bacon, a nutrition professor at the City College of San Francisco and author of Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight, shares one, from a search committee she served on. One overweight candidate applied for the position. She was at least as qualified as the other applicants, Bacon says, but she didn’t get the job.
“When it came time to discuss the lone fat candidate, one of my colleagues dismissed her by saying, ‘Well, she really isn’t the role model for someone who eats nutritiously, is she?’” Bacon recalls. “I was horrified. What it reinforced for me was that had this candidate had been up against a thinner woman similar in other aspects, or even with lesser qualifications, the thinner person would have gotten the job just by virtue of what she weighed.”
When Bacon attends NAAFA’s conference, an annual gathering place for fat people, she says she’s usually the only thin person in attendance. She says a good number of the attendees are academics.
“I’m struck by how many people in the room have Ph.D.’s, how many of them are incredibly brilliant, but they are underemployed and can’t get tenure-track positions,” Bacon says. “It’s got to be because they are fat. But how do you prove any of this stuff?”
That may always prove to be a difficult assignment. But in the meantime, scholars say that it’s time to have more candid conversations about fat professors—and about the difficulties they face on campus and beyond. We spoke with three professors, including Bailey and Fisanick, who described the myriad ways in which their weight has altered their scholarly lives. Click through below to read their stories.
Julius Don Bailey
assistant professor of philosophy, Wittenberg University
"At my university of 144 professors, I’m a double minority. I’m black and fat. There are only three black faculty members and I’m the only obese professor we have."
associate professor of English, California University of Pennsylvania
"In our culture, obesity equals moral and intellectual laziness. Fat professors feel compelled to overperform."
assistant professor of English and women's studies, University of New Hampshire
"Stairs are a problem. You don’t want to be sweaty when you get to class. You want to keep the persona of a polished professor and have your body portray it."