Dear Virgie: How Do I Make it Through Grad School as a Fat Person of Color?
I’m a fat person of color currently in grad school trying to do intersectional work in Fat Studies. This is more challenging than I thought it would be for reasons I didn’t expect. Do you have any tips on how to survive grad school as a fat POC?
Well, shit. The academy is a legit dangerous place to be if you’re a woke person with integrity.
Truth be told, I almost lost my mind in grad school. And I’m not saying that in an ableist attempt at hyperbole. I was in anger management throughout grad school and my boo would slip me his anti-anxiety meds whenever I couldn’t stop pacing up and down my bedroom crying.
I felt like I had no allies in my cohort or among the faculty, and when I announced I was interested in pursuing fat studies I was met with immediate resistance from my advisor. “Everything about fat has already been written,” she assured me. Thankfully my boo was sitting within earshot of her office when she said that. As I left her office feeling like shit he stood up and said, “Fuck her and her fatphobia. Find another advisor.”
I was lucky to be in a relationship with someone willing to be my advocate, and it’s important to find a person or people who can do that for you. Barring that, you’ve got to be that advocate for yourself — a challenging but not impossible task.
This week I’ve been reading a chapter about the academy from The Labyrinth of Solitude by Octavio Paz. He, like, perfectly articulates the tension inherent to the Ivory Tower:
“If the university were to disappear, so would the possibility of criticism; at the same time, its existence is a proof — and more, a guarantee – of the permanence of the object of criticism…” (223)
So I’ll tackle this question by giving you the advice I wish someone had given me when I was in grad school:
1. Don’t drink the Kool-aid without knowing the flavor.
Figure out what the academy is and what it isn’t, and figure out what it will give you and what it won’t. Here’s what I feel the academy can offer people:
- Training in a really specific way of thinking about a really specific area
- Heightened cognition
- Networking (not the same as friendship) with potential future colleagues and people who care about the shit you care about
- Access to publishing, internships, mentorship, career advice
Here’s what it (probably) can’t give you:
- Guarantee of a job
- A sense that you’re a worthwhile human
2. The academy will not save you.
I was born into an immigrant family in the 1980s and that means I was sold the line that education was gonna save me.
The idea was that the culture wouldn’t have to deal with racism or sexism or xenophobia because education would naturally do that work for us, like the invisible hand of economics. I guess it was like the invisible book that was supposed to fix all the things. Guess what? It totally didn’t.
Implicit to entering the university is this promise: “follow all these rules, toe the line and you can have what you want — a secure and rewarding career, influence and income.” These, not coincidentally, are the same kinds of implicit (and fallacious) promises that diet culture/patriarchy/normativity offer us everyday.
After all that propaganda, we come to discover that the university is a business with the same agenda that every business has: to survive at nearly any expense. Furthermore, the academy is in fact an “institution,” the very same kind of institution we are referencing when we talk about “institutional racism” and “institutional violence.”
When we begin to see the academy as a business/institution rather than a benevolent patriarch, we can begin to appropriately view the role of the university in our lives. As Paz mentions, the university is a special container for knowledge production and critique. That’s real, but like for example you wouldn’t walk into a mall and hand over your most vulnerable self in the hopes of having all your dreams come true. No, you walk into the mall knowing you’re going to leave with some cute shoes, a delicious cookie and perhaps a phone number if the boo safari was good that day. Being grounded about what grad school can offer you is an excellent way to be clear about how to navigate challenges.
3. Be honest with yourself about what you want from the academy.
I had a really hard time admitting that when I entered the academy that I wanted more than the opportunity to be part of knowledge production. I wanted some of that institutional power. It’s super taboo to own that desire within radical anti-racist spaces, and I did not feel totally comfortable with that desire. So I was reluctant to admit it, even to myself.
I wanted to pursue the power and also deny that I wanted it. That’s a recipe for some stressful-ass living.
Instead, I recommend being patient with the desire, trusting that you will ultimately work it out, that you’re a good person who is not evil for wanting a little bit of the access and privilege you see aggrandized all around you every day. Wanting stable income and name recognition doesn’t make you an asshole or a traitor.
4. Be intentional and strategic about intellectual and emotional output & who you consider a colleague/mentor
I recommend you sit down and write out your “reasons I do anything professionally” list. My list looks like this:
1. Does this thing or person inspire or excite me?
2. Does doing this thing or being around this person bring the world closer to becoming the kind of world I want to live in in the future?
3. Does doing this thing or being around this person lead to me getting paid fairly for my work?
If the answer is no to all three, then there is literally nothing I’m getting out of this. So I’m not going to do it.
5. The academy is a hustle. Treat it like one.
One of the ways that fat POC stay sane in an environment not designed for our success is being able to clearly delineate what is hustle and what is heart.
Heart is all the things you do that nourish you.
Hustle is all the things you do so you can have a life that sustains doing as much nourishing stuff as possible.
Don’t get the two twisted.
The academy is a tool; it’s not the magic or the medicine.
You are the medicine. You make the magic.
Hope this helps!
Dear Virgie is a weekly advice column by Virgie Tovar, author, activist and one of the nation’s leading experts and lecturers on fat discrimination and body image. She is the founder of Babecamp, the editor of Hot & Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love and Fashion (Seal Press, November 2012) and the mastermind behind #LoseHateNotWeight. She holds a Master’s degree in Human Sexuality with a focus on the intersections of body size, race, and gender. Virgie has been featured by the New York Times, MTV, Al Jazeera, the San Francisco Chronicle, NPR, Huffington Post, Cosmopolitan Magazine Online, and Bust Magazine. Find her at www.virgietovar.com.