Students in a peace and conflict studies course, Human Rights, Law, and Advocacy, organized a teach-in about institutionalized fatphobia on Wednesday, April 5th. The teach-in was organized by Jiwoo Choi ’25, Julie Tan ’26, Leo Douhovnikoff ’25, and Mehreen Shahid ’25.
According to the Boston Medical Center, fatphobia “is the implicit and explicit bias of overweight individuals that is rooted in a sense of blame and presumed moral failing.”
The teach-in started by distinguishing the different categories of fatphobia. Interpersonal fatphobia occurs on an individual level, such as name-calling. Systematic fatphobia occurs on a broader, institutional scale. An example of systematic fatphobia is when a person who cannot comfortably fit in a standard airline seat needs to purchase multiple tickets to travel by air. The teach-in organizers also delved into issues including the idea of weight being a choice, the negative effects of focusing on weight, and the relationship between health and wealth.
The teach-in also emphasized how weight discrimination is not protected under the American Disabilities Act (ADA), meaning that there is no federal law that prohibits fatphobia.
Although certain states and cities like Michigan and San Francisco have protections against fatphobia, both interpersonal and institutionalized fatphobia are legally allowed in many places across the country.
The panel organizers expressed their desire for Swarthmore to account for fatphobia when considering accessibility on campus, even if it is not currently mandated by federal law.
“Swarthmore is technically not legally bound [under the ADA] to consider weight as a disability or consider different weights of students when trying to build a campus that’s accessible. Accessibility doesn’t mean weight-friendly in legal terms,” Shahid explained. “So what we want is that, even if it’s not yet legally mandated, Swarthmore should be aware that fatphobia is something that exists. In all future construction [on campus], we want the college to be more aware about the spatial constraints that they are placing on students, constraints that affect their student’s academic success.”
Shahid further explained the motivation for choosing institutionalized fatphobia as their advocacy project. The broad project idea assigned for the class was institutionalized supremacy, and Shahid and the other teach-in organizers decided to cover fatphobia.
“One topic that gets overlooked is the supremacy of certain body types. It’s especially relevant to people who are our age, who are told how they should grow and look. This specifically occurs over social media, which pushes the idea of needing to look a certain way,” she explained.
Shahid also mentioned the intersectional nature of fatphobia, specifically noting its connection with race, class, and gender. She emphasized that the issue’s intersectionality made it an important topic to discuss with the Swarthmore community,
“Race and class dynamics come into play — based on what race you are and which social class you belong to, you’re more likely to face fatphobia. Gender plays a role too. Women are more likely to face it, especially in workplaces where women are expected to look a certain way to pave their way into a career that’s mostly for men,” Shahid said. “So the intersections are very interesting, and we feel like it’s a shame that even though the larger international human rights law looks at [fatphobia] as a violation, they refuse to put labels on it. They refuse to call out fatphobia,” she said.
The teach-in on fatphobia was just one of multiple advocacy projects organized by students in the course. Other projects include a workshop on gender justice and human trafficking and a policing and prisons town hall. Professor Michael Wilson Becerril, who teaches the Human Rights, Law, and Advocacy class, shared why he formatted the class project to be entirely student-directed and organized.
“I think one of the cool things that brings us to Swarthmore is the hands-on experience, the fact that we’re not just here to develop an understanding of definitions but also to apply that knowledge,” Becerril said in an interview with The Phoenix. “We can talk about advocacy and law all day, but until you’re actually facing the obstacles that come with organizing, then you’re not going to really experience it and understand it fully.”
During the panel, there were multiple opportunities for participants to engage in open discussion with one another about fatphobia and its relation to Swarthmore. The teach-in included a speed-dating portion where attendees spoke with one another about their thoughts on key questions raised by the teach-in organizers before switching to talk to another participant. Nancy Vu ’24 explained how these conversations helped her better understand fatphobia.
“I really liked the open discussion because it allows for people to bring in a lot of their personal experiences and expand the conversation beyond just theorizing what fatphobia is like and how it impacts people. We were able to ground those in actual genuine experiences and then take those experiences and envision alternatives to fatphobic structures,” Vu said. “I feel like part of effective advocacy is being able to address those individualized experiences and make sure that those who come from different spaces can be accommodated for.”
After the teach-in, the organizers outlined the action steps they planned to take to push for greater awareness of weight discrimination on campus.
“We’re going to send an advice letter to Swarthmore that states that any construction and projects they are doing from now be weight aware,” Shahid said. “Even if the ADA doesn’t say at the moment that weight is a protected category, Swarthmore [needs to] be aware of it. Student support is really important, so we hope to gather signatures from the student body in support of our cause.”