Professor Geoffry Miller, a psychologist who teaches at the University of New Mexico and at NYU, posted a controversial tweet this week that enraged many students. He tweeted:
Dear obese Phd applicants: If you didn’t have the willpower to stop eating carbs, you won’t have the willpower to do a dissertation.
Miller later apologized and stated that his tweet doesn’t represent his selection criteria or the selection criteria of any university. His tweet has since been deleted but the issue of contemporary “fat phobia” remains in its wake. Is it true that people who can’t control their diets have less willpower in other parts of their lives?
In my junior year of college, I remember sitting one night at a bar with a close friend of mine who happened to be slightly overweight. We were chatting about midterms and an upcoming party when seemingly out of nowhere Sharon blurted out, “You know I hate you? You’re so thin it’s unfair. That’s why you got into every sorority on your list. That’s why it doesn’t even matter how well you do on your midterms. That’s why you’re looking forward to this party while I would rather just hide in the dorm.”
I was stunned. Sharon thought my life was easy just because I was thin. I had my own problems, and honestly they seemed a lot more challenging than a little bit of weight. In fact, it seemed to me that Sharon had the better deal. She was twice as smart as I was, which meant that I had to study far harder to keep up the same grades. She had a much better personality; she was funny and easygoing and kind. And to top it all off, she had a picture perfect family and a childhood that sounded idyllic to me. So what exactly was she jealous of? A smaller waist?
“I think you had too much to drink,” I said because I couldn’t think of any other response. But this turned out to be the wrong thing to say.
“You see, this is exactly what I mean. We have both had two drinks, but for me it’s too much and for you it’s fine, right? Because fat people aren’t allowed to drink or eat without everyone thinking that they have no self- discipline.”
Culturally, we assume thinner people are happier and more disciplined than their heavier counterparts.
What was with her? I wouldn’t even have thought of her as fat; I had no idea what she was suddenly so angry about. Much later, I completely understood. Culturally, we assume thinner people are happier, more disciplined and more successful than their heavier counterparts. But these assumptions are false and shallow.
Many thin people are skinny because of their genetic pre-dispositions, and conversely, most people struggling with their weight have naturally slower metabolisms. And even in the cases where an obese person is suffering because he or she lacks the willpower to diet, it doesn’t mean that they can’t discipline themselves in other areas of their lives. Of course this is true for thin people who work hard to stay that way too; they may be able to make it to the gym every day but that doesn’t mean that this willpower extends to every area of their lives.
Willpower is a gift that we’re all given, but like any muscle, we need to use it to keep it strong and functioning. And recent studies show that self- discipline used in one area or even one time period in one’s day can make it harder for us to be disciplined in other areas.1 The willpower muscle gets tired.
However, Rabbi Dessler ztz”l teaches that we can always move our “point of free will” forward in specific areas of our lives. For example, once a person has used his willpower to overcome a junk food diet for long enough, he will eventually no longer need to use the discipline muscle to tackle that habit. It will be behind him, and he can use his willpower to move forward in a different arena in his life. This reassures us that even though the willpower muscle becomes fatigued, it is needed to fix a habit only until that action becomes second nature for us, and then it is no longer something we need to use our free will to conquer.
This also reinforces the fallacy of the idea that obese students don’t have the same willpower as their thinner peers. Even if they are obese due to poor dieting, their motivation and discipline in their work is completely independent of their dress size. Unfortunately, this bias against obese people still exists despite the fact that people know intellectually that a high BMI doesn’t equal laziness. And often it also occurs in one of the worst places for discrimination: the doctor’s office.
A study recently showed that one third of third year medical students at the Wake Forest School of Medicine have an unconscious bias against obese patients. The study’s author, David Miller, says that these assumptions about obese people can seriously undermine the treatments that doctors offer: “If doctors assume obese patients are lazy or lack willpower, they will be less likely to spend time counseling patients about lifestyle changes they could make.”
And these false assumptions about the overweight seep into almost every area in our lives including stores, schools and the workplace. Unfortunately, Professor Geoffry Miller’s recent tweet is voicing an opinion that many people think without ever saying.
Being thin isn’t a ticket to success, but for a culture that believes we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, many of us unintentionally do just that. Perhaps we could all use our willpower muscle to overcome this discrimination. Because the real battlefields are within us as we strive to move our points of free will forward. One move at a time, without judging each other.
1. Self Regulation and Depletion of Limited Resources: Does Self Control Resemble a Muscle?,Mark Muraven and Roy F. Baumeister, Case Western University, American Psychological Association Bulletin 2000