Home The "Study" Guide Study: Fat Prejudice Plays a Role in Graduate School Admissions

Study: Fat Prejudice Plays a Role in Graduate School Admissions

by Erika Nicole Kendall

Remember when this happened?

Geoffrey Miller's awesome lack of will power on public display.

Geoffrey Miller’s awesome lack of will power on public display.

…and remember when I said this?

The weird thing about this dialogue – and the people who chimed in agreeing with him – is that it leaves us to wonder. Does size discrimination play any kind of role in graduate school admissions? Is this something worthy of exploration? Are biases playing a role in the process? I mean, education is clearly identified as a marker of upward mobility – even though the unemployment rate was high, it was considerably lower for college graduates than it was for non-college grads – and closing those doors to some because of their size directly affects their ability to live the healthy lives people expect us all to lead. The size discrimination is counter-intuitive used in this way.

Well….someone else followed up on that. It’s as bad as we thought.

The study by Bowling Green State University Ph.D. candidates Jacob Burmeister and Allison Kiefner; Dr. Dara Musher-Eizenman, a professor of developmental psychology; and Dr. Robert Carels, an associate professor of clinical psychology, appeared in the May edition of the journal Obesity.


“Weight Bias in Graduate School Admissions” found that applicants with a high body mass index (BMI) were less likely to be offered admission after an in-person interview.

The researchers followed 97 applicants who had applied to psychology graduate programs at more than 950 universities in the United States. Letters of recommendation were coded for positive and negative statements as well as overall quality.

“One of the things we suspected was the quality of their letters of recommendation written by their undergrad mentors would be associated with the applicants’ body weight, but it really wasn’t,” said Burmeister. “It may be that letter writers come to know students well and body weight no longer played a factor.”

The students told researchers about their application experiences, including whether they had an interview in person or on the phone, and whether or not they received an offer of admission.

“When we looked at that we could see a clear relation between their weight and offers of admission for those applicants who had had an in-person interview,” Burmeister said. “The success rate for people who had had no interview or a phone interview was pretty much equal, but when in-person interviews were involved, there was quite a bit of difference, even when applicants started out on equal footing with their grades, test scores and letters of recommendation.”

The results also suggested the weight bias was stronger for female applicants.

Burmeister said the research team was not surprised. “We know that these kinds of biases are pretty common and even somewhat acceptable compared to other biases, and there’s not much legally forbidding it.”

He said additional research is necessary into other fields besides psychology, and those results could show an even stronger bias against applicants with a high BMI.

“We might expect psychology faculty to be more aware of these types of biases. Thus, the level of bias found in this study could be a conservative estimate of the level of bias in the graduate admissions process in other fields.” [source]

Words cannot express how dumbfounding this is to me.

“The results also suggested the weight bias was stronger for female applicants.” Raise your hand if you’re surprised by this. Anyone? Bueller? Bueller?

THIS is why fat-shaming is ridiculous, and its defenders are insane. It is sexism masked in epic, epic concern trolling.

“we could see a clear relation between their weight and offers of admission for those applicants who had had an in-person interview” Which, basically, implies that “larger” applicants have to metaphorically “hide themselves” and avoid in-person interviews, or even only apply to schools that don’t do in-person interviews in order to succeed? How is this not disgusting?

“It may be that letter writers come to know students well and body weight no longer played a factor.” Yes, because body weight should be a factor – hell, the factor – until you get to know a student.

I just, am I imagining this?

So, basically, Professor Miller’s tweet was symptomatic of a [potentially] far larger issue… which explains why he had his followers jumping over hoops to agree with him publicly.

I am seriously saddened by the implications of this.

Even worse, I can’t help but wonder what the numbers would look like if we were dealing with race.

Walk me through this one, y’all. Thoughts?


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Subrina July 25, 2013 - 11:51 AM

You will not like my answer. But this is not only with with graduate school, but employment, promotions, dating, etc.

I recently interviewed 5 candidates. And 2 were obese, very capable of the job, intelligent, dressed professionally. 2 were equal and 1 was just not qualified.

And I did not hire the 2 obese, but one was breathing so hard that I was uncomfortable (thought she was going to have a asthma attack). And the other literally was stuck in the chair when trying to leave.

The position is a sales and require a lot of activity and public interaction. So was I wrong in choosing the person with all the credential, plus lots of physical energy and physical presence.

As ugly as these situations are. This is a reality, so this is why I get up everyday at 5:30 a.m. and run/jog 5 miles and hit the gym in the evening, plus eat clean. I want to change my life. And yes I’m a better mother, employer, sister, lover because I have decided to take care of myself.

nichole July 25, 2013 - 2:42 PM

Hello Subrina. It saddend me that you would use someones body composition as a basis for employment. You made prejudicial assumptions about those two individuals concerning their health and wellness that was not factual. Thin does not equate health just as body fat percentage does not equate to disease.

Its good that you workout and feel better about yourself but thst does not mean that you are superior because of it. You are not a better person than those so called obese applicants because of your workout habits, in my opinion your character could use some exercise in love and justice.
The bible says that bodily exercise profits little but rather exercise ourselves unto godliness.
In my opinion showing love,compassion, respect, and most of all Godly wisdom is what makes us the better person,not how we physically look.
Thank God Heaven and salvation is based on Christ Jesus and not body weight.

nichole July 26, 2013 - 1:44 AM

upon further reflection of my earlier remarks:
I would like to personally apologize for my comment to you subrinna about character. while i do not agree with the reasoning behind your hiring decision i also do not believe that one decision or act defines us.
My intent was not meant to pass judgement on you as a person, so my sincerest apologies for any and all parts of my reply that did so.

Grace July 26, 2013 - 12:19 AM

I just wish people would be more honest with each other, and would want each other to live healthier lifestyles. Despite the fact you dont agree with the stereotype of overweight individuals, that is how society views them. Yes it is unfortunate but there is truth behind their ideaology. Why cant a black man come into an interview with baggy pants and a bandana? Appearance /Perception is everything in this world! And until you realize that you will be fighting a battle you most likely wont win. No one is saying you need to wear a size 6, but you need to care about your health. You can spend all of this money on clothes and making yourself look pretty but cant take the time to care for something God created in his image. Your body is your temple, and i think if people thought of it that way it would be easier for them totreat their body how it deserves to be treated.

Erika Nicole Kendall July 27, 2013 - 4:48 PM

“Yes it is unfortunate but there is truth behind their ideaology.”

There is truth behind believing in a stereotype? I have to admit, I’ve always felt like relying on stereotypes is lazy. What is so hard about doing a second or two of critical thinking about the person in front of you?

Mel July 25, 2013 - 3:35 PM

I have to say that I agree with you – it is ridiculous and outrageous that someone would be denied admission to graduate school because of her weight. I was very overweight when I started graduate school (no in-person interview, I wonder how or if it would have made a difference now that I have read this study, interesting…).

When I was overweight, I was far less confident – it had to do with my appearance, but now that I look at it from the other side, it bled over into other things as well. Even after graduate school, I was very accomplished, did well, and had a good job before I graduated…but I was incredibly self-conscious. Maybe it’s just me and maybe it’s just an issue that I had – but I think that it’s worth mentioning that the way a person feels about herself / himself shows in situations like interviews, and for some people (for me) being overweight contributes to how they feel about themselves and as a result contributes to how they present themselves. I am not excusing discrimination at all, there is no excuse – but I wonder if the this issue may have contributed to the outcomes here. It’s likely that not everyone has the issue, but I wonder if enough people do that it may have had an impact here…

Kami July 25, 2013 - 5:25 PM

I find this to be disturbing on so many levels. This would hurt me if I found out someone has not hired or rejected me based on my weight. Another issues is that fatness is in the eye of beholder. Fat prejudice is a serious issue. Everybody needs love and affection and dicrimination is not the answer. This is a form of fat shaming.

Decalo July 25, 2013 - 8:56 PM

This is sad and totally unfair. However, I am not surprised. So many things in American society are driven by appearance.

Subrina July 25, 2013 - 11:42 PM

I am over weight…so this decision was not made lightly.

This was a business decision…not a weight decision. This is a position that will be in front of people and will require you to be able to walk without breathing hard..PERIOD. So if a skinny person had presented that..then the same decision.

If I have made a practice of not hiring overweight candidates..this is discriminatory…I made the decision with the knowledge I had before me. And just so happen in my 15 year career…the smartest and best hire I’ve made was an overweight person…can I lie and say I did notice that the person was very large. Is this the only overweight, black, white, Hispanic, etc….No I’ve hired many on their credentials, how they will fit into an environment…there are lots of factors.

Yes when it’s a practice as in the case of this article…yes you can consider it discrimination. But as the article state…all of the candidates started out with the same credentials…so was the decisions always about weight.

But when you have to make business decisions…such as asking someone to purchase 2 seat on an airplane, because they are taking the space of the passenger next to them…do you call this thinking you better than someone or serving the needs of both clients.

Kitana July 26, 2013 - 6:55 PM

To be honest, I don’t really think the situation you’re describing is the same as what we’re discussing here, even though I have my feels about what you’ve said. It’s one thing to not hire someone because they don’t appear to be physically healthy enough to do a job that requires a certain measure of physical fitness — it’s another thing entirely to deny students the opportunity to continue learning because of their weight.

By sharing this anecdote, I feel like you are implicitly saying that this kind of discrimination is okay because you yourself have engaged in it, albeit for different (perceived) reasons. At the end of the day, overweight people are still very much mentally capable and physically capable of many things. I’m overweight (230 lbs), I can run a 5K in 40 minutes, but sometimes my wide hips still get me stuck in chairs. Weight is just simply not a good indicator of healthiness OR the ability to do a job, learn, compete, and being an active participant in life.

Lora July 26, 2013 - 2:54 AM

Its their choice who they want to hire, but its an another thing to hate fat people. But in the end if you are qualified for work you are gonna get the job. Afterall its better for business for having someone overqualified than underqualified. just my 2 cents.

John July 26, 2013 - 1:58 PM

Bad, this is true and very disturbing for me! What a shame, this makes me really sad 🙁

Pteryxx July 27, 2013 - 2:52 PM

“Even worse, I can’t help but wonder what the numbers would look like if we were dealing with race.”

Have you seen the studies with identical resumes, only changing the names to look more or less ethnic? Here’s one of the first:

“White names got about one callback per 10 resumes; black names got one per 15. Carries and Kristens had call-back rates of more than 13 percent, but Aisha, Keisha and Tamika got 2.2 percent, 3.8 percent and 5.4 percent, respectively. And having a higher quality resume, featuring more skills and experience, made a white-sounding name 30 percent more likely to elicit a callback, but only 9 percent more likely for black-sounding names.

Even employers who specified “equal opportunity employer” showed bias, leading Mullainathan to suggest companies serious about diversity must take steps to confront even unconscious biases – for instance, by not looking at names when first evaluating a resume.”

source: http://www.cbsnews.com/2100-201_162-575685.html

Tdixonspeaks July 29, 2013 - 9:00 AM

I haven’t ever experienced weight bias for work. Rather, I hadn’t considered it. I AM aware that companies hire for looks, whatever that may mean. I don’t look like the girl who will go for a diet coke run (or any run!) on a crazy day at work or shrieking about how fat I must be for even wanting a cheeseburger for lunch.

I think employers tend to look for people who not only are qualified for the job but fit into organizational culture. So if it’s a place where healthy living is embraced and required a lot of schmoozing to people who are likely to not be overweight…I might stick out like a sore thumb. It’s the little things that will make the difference. Ex. I can’t wear heels. My feet are flat and I have a lot of weight to carry around. A job where all the women wear 4″ pumps and sheath dresses would not make me feel like I fit in, as I’m likely to wear flats and a pants suit, if i can find enough plus-sized suits to have a decent wardrobe. Ex. If my lunch is typically a burger and fries or the like, I might feel uncomfortable eating with women who glare at my food with judgement and say “I could never! I’d have to hit the gym hard” ex. Coworkers signing up for the company 5K but you can hardly run for the bus. Ex. Male employees ranking women employees’ pictures in the online directory a la the old days of FB. Yeah these things happen.

This is incredibly frustrating as I am applying to graduate school now. Ive accepted being the only BW, or one of few, in a potential cohort, but to be the only overweight…definitely makes me consider this “beauty vs brains” dichotomy, in that many overweight (myself included) try to make up for being (unacceptably) overweight by being smart.

Lisa July 29, 2013 - 10:54 PM

Well this rather confirms what I always thought about medical school applications (at least when I applied)- why did applications to these particular schools, out of all the schools (i.e. graduate programs, etc.), require photographs? There’s definitely a bias. You may argue that you don’t want a fat doctor, actually I’d just like an intelligent doctor who looks at health holistically. Why he or she is fat is none of my business; if you’re asking, you’re judging.

I don’t mean to be a pain but every time I read that someone didn’t hire an overweight person feeling that they are justified or talking about plane seats or health insurance costs, etc., it’s always followed by how the speaker works out, eats well, tries to be healthy and so on and so forth. What one does personally isn’t the point, but it does come across as if the fat person is being judged when that type of commentary is made. It’s kind of saying in a backhanded way that I’m better than you. Something to think about.

Karen September 27, 2013 - 7:39 AM

If I had to choose between two qualified candidates, one obese and one not, identical on EVERY level except weight, I would chose the slimmer one. Based solely on my personal experience. I have more energy at a healthy weight, and am just more motivated in general.

Denise October 24, 2013 - 4:54 PM

I remember when this tweet surfaced and I find it very sad that someone would make an assumption about how hard someone will work in a Graduate program based on weight. smh….I know a number of skinny graduate students that haven’t had the discipline to finish their degrees. Honestly, I don’t think face to face interviews should be allowed because people bring all kinds of biases to the table.

Nicole July 7, 2014 - 12:32 AM

As someone who suffers from PCOS, I would hate if someone looked at me and said, “UGH! She’s too unhealthy for this position,” just because I’m not a certain size.

I workout 5 days a week, run a good 12:15 mile (hey, I started out at 16:30), can lift a good amount of weight, and my doctor says I’m healthy. Do I need to start bringing my doctors notes when I meet with potential clients? Show my bank statements and other proof that I don’t pig out at McDonald’s?

I’m so tired of the stereotypes. It’s ridiculous. It’s upsetting and it hurts like hell.

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