Dialogues on Disability: Shelley Tremain Interviews Alison Reiheld

Hello, I’m Shelley Tremain and I’d like to welcome you to the fifty-fourth installment of Dialogues on Disability, the series of interviews that I’m conducting with disabled philosophers and post to BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY on the third Wednesday of each month. The series is designed to provide a public venue for discussion with disabled philosophers about a range of topics, including their philosophical work on disability; the place of philosophy of disability vis-à-vis the discipline and profession; their experiences of institutional discrimination and personal prejudice in philosophy, in particular, and in academia, more generally; resistance to ableism, racism, sexism, and other apparatuses of power; accessibility; and anti-oppressive pedagogy.

I acknowledge that the land on which I sit to conduct these interviews is the traditional territory of the Haudenosaunee and Anishnaabeg, covered by the Upper Canada Treaties and directly adjacent to Haldiman Treaty territory. I offer these interviews with respect and in the spirit of reconciliation.

My guest today is Alison Reiheld. Alison (she/her/hers) is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Southern Illinois University—Edwardsville where, from 2015-2019, she served as Director of Women’s Studies. Alison writes broadly on themes of power and vulnerability within bioethics and philosophy, focusing on topics ranging from miscarriage to civility to fatness. She is an all-purpose geek, has coached elementary and middle school robotics teams in the FIRST Lego League, and enjoys weightlifting, hiking, kayaking, and recreational cycling (doing some of these things with her kids), as well as therapeutic baking.

Welcome to Dialogues on Disability, Alison! You attended a math and science magnet high school with the intention of pursuing a career in these areas. At some point, you shifted to philosophy. Please tell us about your background and the motivation for this shift, as well as about the focus of your current work.

Sure. My grandfather was an electrical engineer who really supported me in pursuing a career in what we now call STEM fields: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. I always loved trying to understand how things worked, from the level of organisms all the way down to cellular biology. My public math and science magnet high school required students to take humanities classes that either were entirely separate from STEM tracks—such as Russian short stories—or overlapped with STEM, as in a course on science, society, and the future. In part, this feature of my high-school education led me to realize that I cared deeply about how people would use what science and engineering develop and how society would structure that use. I didn’t really see this point of view as a career option until my senior year of college when I had almost completed my B.A. in biology and was aiming for a career in cancer research. 

The way that this kind of education led me to value persons by their intellectual capabilities is one of its downsides. Valuing certain people in this way is, of course, how bullied nerds regain their sense of self-esteem—we were only half-joking when we called our maths and science high school “the nerd reserve.” But this way of valuing people has an unfortunate implication for how one views folks with cognitive differences: this attitude reinforces disabling approaches to people who think differently. I didn’t see the discriminatory aspects of this attitude clearly until I was far along in graduate philosophy. But that was yet to come. The attention to society’s use of science and technology would prove an abiding theme as I came into my senior year of my bio major.

For my senior research project, I returned to the University of Aberdeen where, to pursue an opportunity to do cancer research in mouse models, I had spent a year abroad. We used mice that had been bred to develop cancer, then treated them to see if we could inhibit the tumors’ ability to hijack the mouse’s circulatory system in order to feed and grow. To see whether we had succeeded, we needed to kill the experimental and control mice, slice the tissue up, stain it, and compare tumor growth and vasculature.

In the process, the professor with whom I was working let me know that I couldn’t do any of the killing of the mice because I hadn’t been trained in animal ethics protocols. In the back of my mind, I constantly wondered why it was right to use animals this way, to use to animals to serve human health. I was certain that it was. But it bugged me that I couldn’t say why. My desire for a justification of this practice led me to take a bioethics course when I returned to my home institution of Kalamazoo College. Taking this bioethics course profoundly changed my life plans. In bioethics, I found a discipline that allowed me to use my interest in technology, biology, and medicine, along with my concern for the uses to which these knowledges and practices would be put.

It’s been two decades since that shift in my plans. And I keep discovering empty spots in my understanding, new questions, and a need for new tools and lenses that help me overlook less and help me see angles that I hadn’t seen before. Interdisciplinary work seems to suit me. But more than that, it seems to be necessary for the kinds of questions that matter to me, indeed, to questions that I frankly think ought to matter to more folks.

You describe yourself as fat. What does that mean and how is it experienced?

I am unambiguously fat. I’ve always been short and muscular, never smaller than a size 6 once I hit adult sizes. But I began to grow wide in my 20’s, layering fat over my whole body in ways that seemed largely beyond my control. When I say that I am fat, I mean it as a descriptor: my body is larger than people think that a standard woman’s body is, and not just because of muscle. When I flatly say that I am fat, people who are trying to be kind (and who aren’t versed in the fat-acceptance movement) will often tell me that I’m beautiful or cute, as though I had said that I am ugly.

[Description of image below: photo of Alison standing in an open area outside in Florence, Italy. She is wearing glasses and is smiling widely for the photographer. Other people (tourists?) and a large stone building can be seen in the background of the shot.]

Although I have maintained a pretty active lifestyle throughout my adult life so far, there is no doubt that I not only have a sizable body but that I also get read by society as someone who has a sedentary lifestyle. Doctors and nurses who weigh me or see my body talk to me about “starting an exercise routine,” implying that I do not already have one; that if I had one, I would not be as I am.

Strangers will alternate between the backhanded compliment of telling me that I could “be so pretty” (if only I… shrank?) and shouting at me from cars or across open spaces to get out of public. At one point in my life, when I was an older teen, merely a bit overweight, but working out at gyms and still fitting into a size 10, which is not considered “plus sized,” I was told that “spandex is a privilege, not a right.”  A few years ago, ironically, a young man leaned out the window of a car and yelled “Go home, fatty!” while I was riding a bike and being active, outside of the house, being, what fat activists sometimes call, “Fat in Public.” Being fat means being at academic parties and hearing a man who prides himself on being a trim and fit long-distance cyclist critique two fat women whom he has routinely seen walking in his neighborhood: as he put it, they “took up the whole sidewalk.” It was irrelevant to him that in most neighborhoods, any two people, of any size, walking side-by-side, will take up the whole sidewalk, and also irrelevant to him that one cannot logically both (1) claim that fat people are lazy and (2) criticize them for being actively out in the world. It never occurred to him to have those thoughts.

I am, however, fortunate to have a body shape that distributes my fat evenly across my body. While finding clothes can be difficult, it is not wildly impossible. This fat distribution also means that airplane seat-belts actually fit me; so, I don’t have to ask for a belt extender, as many fat people do. I do not spill over beyond the edges of my seat any more than, say, a very muscular man might. When I say “fortunate,” I mean “fortunate”: there is little that I do which makes my body have this shape that better fits this world.  And yet, desks and chairs with fixed distance or fixed armrests are too often a tight squeeze. Clothes are still much more difficult to find than if I had a less unruly body, a body more governed by dominant norms. Furthermore, there is broad-based disrespect for me on the basis of my body. Fitting the built environment and gaining respect and finding clothes that look professional and even fashionable is even more challenging for fat folks with bodies that take different shapes than my body does, such as fat people whose fat is concentrated in the belly area.

How do you conceptualize the relation between fatness and disability? Do you think that the category of disability encompasses fatness? Are these categories analogous or similar in some ways but different in other ways? Do your research and teaching focus on these sorts of questions and concerns?

In my previous answer, I emphasized the way that our bodies mesh into the world in which we live and how others respond to us.

I used to think of disability as something that I, as a fat person, had to prove that I did not suffer from. The lens that I used was a kind of classic medical model of disability: disability is in the body and the conditions which affect (afflict) the body. I have been critical of this model for a long time. But it took me years to see just how much I had fallen for it hook, line, and sinker in thinking about my own body. For many, many years, I demanded respect for my fat self by trying to prove that I was NOT disabled: “See here, Doc, how I hiked 18 miles with my family.” “Look, gym rats, at how much I can bench.” “Behold my full body weight push-ups which, let’s be honest, is pretty impressive given how fat I am.” “I can carry both my children, one on my front and one on my back, even though they now have a combined weight of 180 pounds.” And: “Did you know I can run a 5k?” “Can you see my muscles when I flex?” 

[Description of image below: In the lower left of the frame, Alison can be seen from the chest up. She is smiling widely, sans glasses, and wearing a bathing suit. A body of water can be seen in the background of the shot, with ferns, trees, and other greenery surrounding it.]

This kind of defense of my fatness amounts to assuring people that I am what is sometimes called “a good fatty.” The concept of “the good fatty” is complex. It embraces the notion that fatness is bad, fatness is disabling, fat folks are not deserving of respect, and fatness is to be avoided UNLESS. Unless what? Unless we who are fat are, all other things being equal, the same as everyone else, unless we are striving to not be fat. Unless we who are fat are healthy. Unless we who are fat are as able as we can make ourselves.  And of course, some fat folks cannot be “good fatties.” There’s too much moral luck here for my taste: in the way that our bodies deposit fat uniformly or in certain places, in the way that our bodies fit into a built environment made for more ruly bodies.

And of course, this moral luck—which makes it easier or harder to be “good” through none of our own doing as individuals—is part of what reveals that fighting the medical concept of disability as a fat person is a losing proposition. It simply fails to take account of social and physical structural features of the human-built world that disable fat folks, systems of valuing and building that say: “We don’t need to make space—metaphorical or literal—for fat folks.” Nowhere is this omission more apparent than in the case of fat folks who use assistive devices and find that these devices are built for normatively small bodies. Just try being “the wrong kind of fat” person and finding a wheelchair, or crutches, or resting walker—the kind with a built-in seat. Heck, try finding a bra. Try finding a MRI machine or CT scanner. Try finding a place where you can sit and be sure that the chair won’t collapse.

We see this same kind of “unless” with other disabilities, where some people are lauded for how they “rise to the challenge of their disability” and others are not. Such a requirement for being valued is cloaked in healthism. Healthism is the idea that of all possible things that are valuable, health is paramount. Healthism feeds into the medical model of disability. Trying to (as I have done for so long) prove one’s worth by trying to prove one’s health individualizes the way that fat folks are disabled by a world that doesn’t design things to include them and, in addition, presumes that they have no abilities of any worth on any other standards of value. We see this latter presumption happen with employment discrimination and educational discrimination against fat folks, of which I will say a bit more later. 

The disability models that helped me to make the most sense of what happens to fat folks are the models that conceive disability as something imposed by a power structure and structure of values that result in behaviors and built environments that exclude folks with certain traits, thereby disabling them. A number of models take variations of this approach, including various social constructivist models and other models that focus on analyses of power and oppression. Working through them, I began to see that my defense of my fat self’s worth with appeals to my fitness was much like my defense of my nerd self’s worth with appeals to my intellect: I was gaining worth by tapping into systems of power and valuation which, ultimately, would continue to devalue me and people like me.

Alison, would you like to share some of your experiences of the discrimination that you have confronted in philosophy and the university more broadly because of your size?

I mentioned the single biggest, unambiguous, issue above: that desks and chairs are designed for slim folks. This exclusionary design means that when fat folks like me (or bigger or differently shaped than me) walk into a room at a college or university, they cannot be sure that they will be able to use a desk, table, or chair. 

I have walked into rooms, while pregnant and while fat, where the only seating had fixed-distance or swing-tablet surfaces. In these circumstances, anyone with a belly of any size must either sit sideways in a chair or not use a swing-tablet surface. In some cases, fat folks cannot sit, period. Because I am fortunate in the way that my body distributes fat, I am able to fit in most cases, though sometimes only if I make sure that my belly slides in under the edge of the table; I could not do this if I were fatter around the middle or if our classroom desks did not have adjustable-height seats using the classic task chair mechanism.

In my classrooms, there are only two tables at which a quite fat person or a person using a wheelchair can sit: the single “handicapped” desk at the front of the classroom, which has a chair that is not fixed to it, and the teacher’s table, which has no chair. If there is more than one student who needs a desk that is not attached to a chair, they are out of luck. 

If, at any point, I need to sit down while teaching, as I sometimes did while pregnant, I must use the high stool-style chair at the lectern, which is precarious for me since I am also quite short. Were I to take the single regular-height chair in the room for myself, the single accessible desk would be without a chair: fine if a wheelchair-user needs it, but not fine if another fat person needs it. Statistically, about one third of students will have larger bodies than is normatively expected. How many of those will be unable to fit in traditional classroom seating with fixed-distance desks? How many classrooms are arranged in ways that require fat profs to choose between their own functionality and student functionality?

Student issues are only part of the problem. We must consider what happens to faculty when large meetings are held in auditoriums with fixed-distance arms and surfaces, or when department meetings are held in classrooms such that faculty and staff are subject to the same constraints as students. To walk into these rooms if one is unable to fit is to know that one is, at best, not considered and at worst viewed as requiring no accommodation.

[Description of image below: Alison in teaching mode! She has on a full smile, is wearing her glasses, and her hands and forearms are in motion, the index finger of both hands pointed. In the background of the shot, a blackboard can be seen.]

A classroom’s design literally limits the number of people with different bodies who can be in the classroom.  So does the design of office furniture from which professors can choose to furnish their offices: it can be rare to find that the university offers task chairs with no arms or with adjustable distance arms (mine does). It can be rare to find that the university offers chairs for other people to sit on in the office, chairs that are armless and yet have a wide surface area for sitting. Mine does, but they are not the default and I chose the chairs. Many profs’ offices have no chairs in which a fat student or colleague could sit. When colleagues cannot sit in one’s office for a meeting, and when students cannot sit while coming to one’s office hours, we have a serious problem. Simply having armless chairs is not a perfect solution, as some students and faculty who do not use wheelchairs nonetheless use the arms of chairs to help them raise and lower themselves from sitting positions.

Classroom design is often disabling, as is meeting room design, as is office design.  For more information on the student and professor perspective about exclusionary academic design—including from fat students who have literally had to drop classes because they found out on the first day that the classes were in rooms that had no suitable seating—readers and listeners should check out this article about students and this article about professors. I encourage faculty and staff to consider who gets excluded or included—that is, whose needs are anticipated—when they make choices about their office furniture and when they advise their institutions about the replacement of classroom furniture.

But that’s just—”just”—the built environment. One of the most insidious things with which we who are fat must often contend is that we simply do not know whether we have been discriminated against in academia, as is the case for other disabled folks, non-white folks, folks of non-Christian religions, and queer folks.

Have we not been asked to participate in projects because accommodating our needs makes the project planning just a wee bit harder or less pleasant or even, yes, a bit more expensive? Are there committees that could have benefitted from our advice and on which our participation would have been beneficial to our advancement that we have not been invited to join simply because these committees usually meet in an inaccessible place for the convenience of administrators or other faculty members? Have we who are fat not been offered opportunities or not been chosen for opportunities for which we applied because we are perceived as lazy by virtue of being fat? How many of our co-workers’ decisions are driven by attitudes like that of the professor who famously tweeted that he would not work with fat graduate students because they have no work ethic?  

It is exceedingly rare for anyone to explicitly make these sorts of discriminatory statements. Yet, across professions, fat folks are less likely to be hired (not just in the U.S., but also in Europe) and, if hired, are less likely to be promoted. We are more likely to earn less than folks whose bodies better fit the norm, in the U.S. and elsewhere.  In some places, gender affects the social status of fat folks: in Korea, fat men actually earn more than their “normal-weight counterparts,” while fat women earn substantially less. This pattern also occurs in the U.S.

Just as faculty of color and women faculty feel driven to produce more for the same results in terms of promotion, so too do fat faculty. Over the last decade and a bit, Christina Fisanick has revisited this issue at regular intervals, from her 2007 article in the journal Feminist Teachers called “They are Weighted with Authority: Fat Female Professors in Academic and Popular Culture” to her 2014 Chronicle Vitae follow-up interview with Stacey Patton, “Fat Professors Feel Compelled to Overperform.” Such pressure is enormously draining and, as Fisanick notes, it comes from stereotypes of laziness that structure how academia interprets the work of members of marginalized communities, especially fat folks.

How prevalent are such attitudes? It is very hard to tell, as implicit bias rarely comes out in explicit utterances. But, I will tell you that at the academic party where I witnessed the attendee slam two fat women for taking up space on a sidewalk while exercising, not a single person saw it as bias, or—if they did—none of them spoke up about it explicitly. I and one other woman only pushed back gently, with comments such as “Well, at least they were out and about!” which had no impact and certainly did not give any straightforward analysis of what had just happened. I wrote about this incident at the IJFAB Blog here.

I can tell you this much: we who are fat know that these attitudes exist. We do not know who holds them. We do not know who interprets the world according to them. But we do know that our colleagues are just as much part of our society and inculcated in its attitudes about fatness as are our doctors. And as are we ourselves.

This question asked me to share personal experiences of discrimination. It’s unambiguous in the built environment and in the choices that designers and purchasers make. It’s extremely ambiguous when it comes to opportunities and advancement, especially because I have been able to take advantage of opportunities and I have been able to advance. I will never know whether that was harder than it had to be because of my fatness. Or my woman-ness. But, the next time that I walk into any one of my hundreds of annual events on my campus or at conferences and see that there is no space for bodies like mine, or for bodies larger or differently shaped than mine, or for bodies using assistive devices, my heart will sink again. For I will know that even if we are told that we are welcome and appreciated, we are not in fact anticipated.

How do the university, philosophy, and feminist philosophy in particular need to change in order to promote the flourishing of fat people and demonstrate that their participation and contributions are valued?

I think some of the answers to this question are strongly implied by what I’ve discussed above. But strongly implying a thing is rarely enough. Academia needs to see investigation of anti-fat bias as a legitimate scholarly pursuit, even when done by fat folks.  Just as women doing feminist philosophy and people of color doing race theory are often derided as doing “me studies” and ironically granted less epistemic authority than men talking about gender or white folks talking about race, fat folks theorizing fatness often get discounted. This general attitude within academia and within philosophy is simply poor knowledge-seeking. It also contributes to derision for these people as philosophers, and as academics. We cannot pursue knowledge if we so arrogantly restrict both who gets to be knowers and what is worth knowing.

Academia and philosophy must anticipate us and plan for us so that when we show up there is literal space for us, whether we are students or professors. When feminist philosophers work on bodies without considering fatness, that exclusion should be questioned. When feminist philosophers at conferences judge fat folks’ meal choices, their judgements should be questioned. When feminist philosophers find themselves questioning whether to bring fat folks onto projects or include fat folks for activities at conferences, question that as well. It’s hard to change habits of thought and action; but the only way to do it is by beginning to question the habits that we have.

The feminist philosophy realm also presents additional issues. There is a great deal of surface endorsement of body positivity as an ethos in feminist philosophy, e.g. welcoming of all bodies. But in actual fact, feminist philosophers and conferences still have a lot of work to do about anticipating all bodies. Fatness in feminist philosophy is often treated as of concern primarily because of how it relates to beauty standards and the male gaze, in other words, to patriarchy and misogyny. It surely does! I find this line of inquiry valuable and have in fact used it in my own work. But fatness is of much wider interest to feminist philosophy, requiring feminist philosophy to expand the array of disability theories and philosophy of race used to consider fatness. 

Due to space limitations in this interview, I’ve barely touched on how fatness may manifest differently for men, women, and gender-queer folks in academia. I haven’t touched on the differences for fat white women and fat black women in academia, or on the implications of fatness for black men (though I have written about it in other contexts), or for people of other races and religions. I have not looked into whether fat folks in other cultures’ academic contexts find that they are better anticipated.

These areas of investigation are rich and important areas of investigation that, as Alison Jaggar and Therese Tobin would say, cannot be resolved by “solitary philosophers sitting alone in their armchairs.” These areas of investigation require “both moral teamwork and moral fieldwork.” They are areas of investigation that make feminist philosophy, itself, subject to feminist critiques about knowledge and knowers.

How much is fatness of wider interest to feminist philosophy and to philosophy as a whole? How can we make sure that fat folks are able to contribute to whatever fields they want to work in? Let’s open up this discussion and see. Anticipate us.

Alison, thank you for taking the time to produce this terrific interview with me. Would you like to make additional remarks about something that you’ve discussed and recommend some resources on any of these topics or add anything about something that you haven’t discussed?

Hmmmm.  I was able to work most of my considerations into my previous remarks in this interview; nevertheless, I’d like to expand on the way that academia and nerd culture teaches us to look down on people with different cognition and what this means for broader patterns of how we seek respect at the expense of others. 

I briefly mentioned that I think the way in which I demanded respect for myself as a younger person—through my fitness and an intellect that functioned very well for traditional academic assessments—shaped my views of who else was worthy of respect. This behavior was really driven home to me as I worked on a piece about Journal of Controversial Ideas and the eugenicist research agenda of Jonathon Anomaly. To write that piece, I delved deeper into Eli Claire’s short, clear, and bittersweet book Brilliant Imperfection: Grappling With Cure. Claire helped me to see that in that piece—which I acknowledged near the end—and in my own life, I subtly and implicitly reproduced pernicious values about who matters, based on how good they are at thinking. Claire himself movingly notes that when he establishes his right to exist and be respected based on his intelligence, he implicitly devalues people with cognitive differences, preventing these people from demonstrating value in this established way. 

We exist in a network of very complex biases and norms. Even as we fight free from some of these biases and norms, we remain trapped in others. We who are able to use some of these biases and norms to claw our way back to a social status that is livable must be aware that we are often reinforcing pernicious biases and norms that we do not endorse.

Women face this bind when they choose whether to gain safety by attaching themselves to men with higher social status and sticking by them even in the face of very bad action by the men towards other women. Physically disabled folks who are academically “gifted” face this bind when they choose whether to gain status by appealing to intellectual norms at the expense of folks with cognitive differences. Fat folks whose bodies deposit their fat in ways that allow them to fit into the world, or who are otherwise as “fit” as most slimmer folks, face this bind when they decide whether to claw back some status or respect by pointing out how they fit and how they are fit, at the expense of fat folks who don’t and aren’t.

How do we gain respect here and now, to survive and thrive, without pushing someone else down in order to get up? I don’t think that I can give any universal advice for how to get out of this bind, but we cannot hope to get out of it if we do not know that it’s there.

Thank you for giving me the space to explore this issue a bit further, Shelley.

Here are some resources—in addition to the articles that I have already hyperlinked in my responses above—for folks who want to explore issues of fatness and also the intersection of fatness and disability. These resources aren’t purely philosophical. They don’t get it all right (could anyone?). Nor is this list exhaustive. Readers and listeners of this interview who have additional suggestions, including their own work, should feel free to post in comments. Nonetheless, these ideas, by these authors, are worth some time and some headspace.

Saguy also writes occasionally for major outlets such as The Washington Post and Huffington Post, as well as for scholarly journals. Gay writes for Medium and has some superb reflections at that site on fatness, including the online magazine that they edit and contribute to called Unruly Bodies. Marilyn Wann has a Facebook page you can follow to get regular doses of ideas about fatness. Readers and listeners interested in what I’ve written elsewhere about fatness and obesity can search the internet for my name in combination with either of these terms. I think that a few of my pieces are worth reading, even if only as a foil; I haven’t yet mastered the art of shameless self-promotion, so I won’t list them all.

Thanks again, Shelley, for this opportunity to explore fatness and disability with you.

Alison, thank you again for your tremendously informative and instructive remarks throughout this interview, as well as for the many references and resources that you have offered. You’ve given your colleagues and other readers and listeners a great deal to consider.

Readers/listeners are invited to use the Comments section below to respond to Alison Reiheld’s remarks, ask questions, and so on. Comments will be moderated. As always, although signed comments are preferred, anonymous comments may be permitted.


Please join me here again on Wednesday, October 16th, at 8 a.m. EST, for the fifty-fifth installment of the Dialogues on Disability series and, indeed, on every third Wednesday of the months ahead. I have a fabulous line-up of interviews planned. If you would like to nominate someone to be interviewed (self-nominations are welcomed), please feel free to write me at s.tremain@yahoo.ca. I prioritize diversity with respect to disability, class, race, gender, institutional status, nationality, culture, age, and sexuality in my selection of interviewees and my scheduling of interviews.

Follow BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY on Twitter at @biopoliticalph

14 Responses

  1. alisonreiheld

    Hi, Caleb. Thank you. Shelley’s questions gave me an opportunity to delve into some important things I have been working out in my head for a good while, now. It wouldn’t have been quite the same if someone else had been asking different questions.


  2. Thanks for such an amazing exploration of these issues! Great stuff! I’d like to offer my own book to your list of resources, too: Body of Truth: How Science, History, and Culture Drive Our Obsession with Weight–and What We Can Do About it.


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