PhD: Small desks cause 'hostile' environment for fat students

The executive director of a research institute at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte (UNCC) recently argued that small desks cause a “hostile physical environment” to fat students.

Heather Brown, who heads the Women and Girls Research Alliance at UNCC, published an article in the new issue of the Fat Studies journal titled “There’s always stomach on the table and I gotta write! Physical space and learning in fat college women.”

For her research, Brown interviewed 13 fat women in college, ultimately finding that “classroom design and furniture,” especially “too-small desks,” not only make fat women feel “unwanted,” but also perpetuate “thin privilege and fat hatred.”

[RELATED: 'Fat Studies' course deems 'weightism' a 'social justice issue']

Kari, one student that Brown interviewed, lamented that she felt “self-conscious” in classes because of the size of the desks, saying, “I can’t help thinking about it, and then it would turn into, like, ‘Maybe if I lose ten pounds then I wouldn’t look so fat in this desk…’”

Later, Kari told Brown that she was too distracted in her classes to focus.

“Sometimes, it’s just, like, ‘Do I look okay in this shirt? What if someone’s looking at me weird? What if I don’t look good in this shirt? What if this shirt makes my arms look fat?’” Kari told Brown.

The fact that many fat students feel “fat stigma” on their campus may explain why they tend to get worse grades, Brown suggests, arguing that it “is not body weight but rather weight stigma that is a key barrier in learning.”

[RELATED: Prof fights swimsuit inequality with 'fat fashion pedagogy']

To fight this, Brown argues that colleges “must make attempts to alleviate the damage a hostile physical environment causes to fat women learners,” adding that this could be done by renovating classrooms with “differently sized chairs and tables.”

But Brown warns that colleges must be careful during renovations, because they could inadvertently make the situation worse, such as by implementing a “fat chair” or just a few seating options for fat students, since this could “further damage” fat students’ self-esteem.

Brown concludes by calling upon colleges to make a change. “Universities and colleges can mitigate the negative effects of the physical learning environment. Do they have the courage to listen?”

As the Executive Director of the UNCC Women + Girls Research Alliance, Brown’s work focuses on “intersections between weight and learning in women as well as on the ethics and practice of research with stigmatized populations.”

Her research has also been published in The Politics of Size and the Fat Pedagogy Reader, her faculty biography notes.

Campus Reform reached out to Brown for an interview, but she did not respond in time for publication.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @Toni_Airaksinen