Home > rant, women in math > I’m already fat so I may as well be smart

I’m already fat so I may as well be smart

November 20, 2013

I seem to be in a mood this week for provocative posts about body image and appearance (maybe this is what happens when I skip an Aunt Pythia column). Apologies to people who came for math talk.

I just wanted to mention something positive about the experience of being fat all my life, but especially as a school kid. Because just to be clear, this isn’t a phase. I’ve been pudgy since I was 2 weeks old. And overall it kind of works for me, and I’ll say why.

Namely, being a fat school kid meant that I was so uncool, so outside of normal social activity with boys and the like, that I was freed up to be as smart and as nerdy as I wanted, with very little stress about how that would “look”. You’re already fat, so why not be smart too? You’re not doing anything else, nobody’s paying attention to you, and there’s nothing to gossip about, so might as well join the math team.

It’s really a testament to both the pressure to be thin and the pressure to conform intellectually, i.e. not be a nerd, when you’re a young girl: they are both intense and super unpleasant. The happy truth is, one can be cover for the other. More than that, really: being fat (or “overweight” for people who are squeamish about the word “fat”) has opened up many doors that I honestly think would have, or at least could have, remained shut had I been more socially acceptable.

Going back to dress code at work for a moment: while people claim that corporate dress codes are meant to keep our minds off of sex, that is clearly a huge lie when it comes to many categories of women’s work clothes. Who are we kidding? The mere fact that many women wear high heels to work kind of says it all. And that’s fine, but let’s freaking acknowledge it.

On the other hand, it’s pretty hard to look sexy in a plus-sized suit (although not impossible), and the idea of high heels at work is just nuts. This ends up being a weirdly good thing for me, though: people take me more seriously because I have taken myself out of the sex game altogether – or at least the traditional sex game.

By the way, I’m not saying all fat women have the same perspective on it. I’m lucky enough to have figured out pretty early on how to separate other people’s projected feelings about my body from my own feelings. I am an observer of fat hatred, in other words. That doesn’t make me entirely insulated but it does give me one critical advantage: I have a lot of time on my hands to do stuff that I might otherwise spend fretting about my body.

It also might help partly explain why some girls get on the math team and others don’t. Being fat is something you don’t have control over (the continuing and damaging myth that each person does have control over it notwithstanding) but joining the math team is something you do have control over. And if you aren’t already excluded for some other reason (being fat is one but by no means the only way this could happen of course), you might not want to start that whole thing intentionally. Just a theory.

Categories: rant, women in math
  1. seniorsamurai
    November 20, 2013 at 10:06 am



  2. r_shiffman
    November 20, 2013 at 10:11 am

    I think you are hot, as in the ephemerally out-of-fashion word voluptuous, to which being smart contributes exponentially. Best, RS


  3. Dg
    November 20, 2013 at 10:49 am

    Hold on a second, there is NO WAY I would have had control over getting on my high school’s math team, any more than I could have sprouted boobs earlier than 15 (I had the opposite problem). Just sayin.


  4. November 20, 2013 at 12:06 pm

    Good article and I get tired of the numerous articles out there that insurers and others use to use this as an excuse for not making their revenue goal because they insure people that are overweight..drives me nuts and it’s out there all the time. I don’t see their profits hurting at all if you look.

    I get a kick out of Governor Christie and how he addressed it as it’s the brain not the fanny that has value:) His appearance a while back on Letterman was just that, mocking this and the Barbara Walters interview asking him if his weight was an issue with the potential of him running for President, it’s the crap the media builds and sells.

    Anyone want to look at members of Congress to see how many of them have issues, no they are excluded from persecution of this nature and nobody ever mentions “their” weight. Truth be known is we all have issues of some sort as we are humans, and as you said the value is your brain and what you contribute.


  5. Laminated Lychee
    November 20, 2013 at 12:44 pm

    I appreciate you relating being freed of the early ‘s/expectation’ because of being heavy to your expanded ‘freedom to be smart’. Bravo to you for claiming that!

    Especially since we are used to hearing ‘she got there because she is sexy’…truth is unless you are a sex worker being ‘sexy’ distracts from the skills you trained for.

    There are dis/advantages for everyone especially when diverting from the norm of a group. It’s a fascinating subject and important to claim characteristics one got and encourage to/expand regardless of what comes easier based on others perception.


  6. Jon Ziegler
    November 20, 2013 at 2:58 pm

    Embracing your social unacceptability (whatever the reason) is very freeing.


  7. Leila Schneps
    November 20, 2013 at 4:18 pm

    I wear high heels to work every day, but it has nothing to do with trying to look sexy (!), just that I’m short and get tired of looking way up at everybody I meet in the halls all the time. I really like being closer to “average height” and at least being able to chat with (the very few) women my own age in the department at eye-level. (The young ones mostly seem to be much taller.) Also, since my work is 90% sedentary, there’s no comfort issue.


    • November 21, 2013 at 10:49 am

      Leila, you are one example of the type of women who is both sexy and very powerful. At least I’ve always thought so! It’s the way you own your sexiness – you are not “sexualized.”


  8. MathChick
    November 20, 2013 at 4:22 pm

    Yep, agree. I was on the math team in 8th grade (and even won a trophy!), but then decided it was way too nerdy of me, and never participated again. Though I did go on to be a math major, so go figure. I think it was tough striking a balance between not being too nerdy, yet also wanting to assert my intellect by getting degrees in such a difficult (in other words, impressive) field.


  9. rtg
    November 20, 2013 at 7:49 pm

    You had me nodding my head until the part where you said that not dressing in the way women are pressured to dress means people take you more seriously since you are not obviously trying to be sexy.

    I can’t really comment on how your coworkers interact with you, though the pictures I’ve seen of you are not unattractive or show you to be particularly disheveled. But you’re essentially saying that attractive women (and maybe men) who present themselves in a way that flatters them won’t be taken seriously. I personally haven’t found that to be the case. And though not quite so overtly, I feel a bit like it’s a subtle form of reverse body-shaming. A reinforcement of the “Just a pretty face” stereotype.

    Now, I’ve read enough of your posts to know that’s unlikely what you mean…just an observation about the framing of this particular post.


    • November 21, 2013 at 10:51 am

      No. I just mean that there’s not even that option. Sometimes when there’s that option it works to the advantage of the sexy person, sometimes it doesn’t. I’m just saying I wasn’t even in the game. It’s sometimes an advantage – say when I’m with men who might otherwise try to be assholes – and I’ve noticed that.


  10. math
    November 21, 2013 at 8:28 am

    Even once you’re in the math club this issue stays in various forms. At a certain prestigious institution, a secretary privately warned “the girls” (i.e. super smart grad students), one by one, not to eat too many cookies at tea time, so as to keep their figures. No mention of such a matter was made to any male graduate students.


  11. Marie Parham
    November 21, 2013 at 10:44 am

    I shared this blog with my husband who then told me his middle school math team in the late 60’s had one girl and she was fat. Wonder how many girls went this route.


  12. November 21, 2013 at 11:12 am

    You always found a way not to let upper middle class, white socio-cultural bullshite define your mind or your body-and that confidence in and of itself is sexy! I’ve heard people call your kind of confidence charisma-but I think it’s fearlessness. (Some of your less confident comrades-ahem-aspired to such fearlessness.) And this column is written without fear, too. Go you.


  13. EJD
    November 21, 2013 at 12:28 pm

    Our society with respect to this and similar issues, might want to make burkas optional Independent of individual’s background. If we all got judged by our brains and what came out of our mouths…


  14. Joshua
    November 22, 2013 at 5:30 am

    You claim that you can’t control being fat, but you can control being smart. With exceptions, the latter is true and the former isn’t. Both cases have strong structural similarities:
    – change is hard
    – achievement is hard
    – environmental factors are strong sources of influence
    – success does not relate to personal moral strength or weakness

    I think the following string of questions is helpful:
    (1) What do you want to achieve?
    (2) Do you really want it?
    (3) Do you know what you need to do to be on the right path?
    (4) Do the people around you help or hinder? If the latter, how can they be enlisted to help and stop hindering?
    (5) Does the environment (schedule, location, etc) make it easier or harder to execute your plan? How can you change things to make it easier/more supportive?

    Most anything worth doing is, objectively, difficult. If you want to prioritize time and attention on some objective and not others, that is perfectly legitimate. Your circumstances (personal motivation, knowledge, social circle, environment) will make some pursuits easier and others harder than for other people.

    Most of these points come from work by Joseph Greny et al which, for me, is best presented in a talk he gave at Google (available through a quick search on youtube).

    Another writer lurking in my thoughts is Caroline Dweck with her dichotomy between a fixed and a growth mindset. To my ear, most fixed mindset comments are really annoying, while they become acceptable and at least a bit cute (imagine them being said by a 6 year old) when rephrased as growth ideas:

    Fixed mindset:
    I’m smart, I’m popular, I’m cool, I’m fat, I’m dumb, I’m slow, I’m poor, I’m rich, . . .
    I can’t do X because I’m Y
    I have to do X because I’m Y
    I want to be X

    Growth mindset:
    I’m getting smarter, I’m learning, My social skills are improving, I’m getting healthier, I’m getting cooler every day . . .
    I can improve A by doing B
    I want to have skill A

    But you actually knew all of this already.


    • November 22, 2013 at 6:59 am

      This line seems to be causing people issues.

      First of all, you can choose whether to join the math team. That’s different from “choosing to be smart”. As far as I know there is no math team in the nation that gives a test to people to see if they’re good at math. It’s just a group of nerds doing math competitions. It’s true that people talk about their scores, but my experience is that you don’t have to. If you love being on the math team, say because you love math, then you can be on the math team.

      Second of all, I personally can’t control being fat. Maybe that will calm people down. I think of myself as someone with quite a large share of willpower, impulse control, and planning capabilities – I have a PhD and three kids after all, and I’ve never freaked out on them and I’ve never hit them – and I have never successfully lost weight, although in my youth I tried. That is, I lost plenty of weight, but then it all came back, and more. It was a net failure. I am done with that experiment, and, having done it in good faith and with real incentives and effort, my conclusion is that I can’t actually control being fat.

      And moreover, other people can’t either, judging from available statistics. Sorry, I can’t help it, because it’s true. I’m not making shit up. If they could, Weight Watchers would be telling us all about their success rate, but they’re not. That’s not to say people can’t control anything about their weight. It’s certainly true that, through reasonable eating habits and exercise you can prevent yourself from being very very fat versus your natural very fat, say, but to the outsider that isn’t really all that perceptible a victory. It is of course an internal victory because it feels great to exercise and to eat well.

      As for mindsets, I honestly believe the best mindset for fat people is to ignore other people’s insistence that they should just try harder and then they’d be thin.


      • Josh
        November 22, 2013 at 5:27 pm

        You didn’t watch the Grenny video, but that’s my fault because I didn’t include the link and I mispelled his name. Here’s the link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=daOf4QMN6vA

        Though i am pretty sure I can’t convince you to reassess your thinking on fat, I really hope you will think about this influencers framework. The insights that it helps clarify are useful for thinking about the structural problems with personal finance in the US, too:
        – trying harder and willpower aren’t relevant, they are weak influencers relative to other factors. Heroshit isn’t the answer!

        – non-obvious structural factors are huge and these are most easily recognized and manipulated by institutions analyzing large data sets (even just through repeated trial-and-error)

        – for an individual to achieve their objectives usually requires a lucky set of circumstances in which the influencers line up for them or a tremendous effort to reshape and resist.

        – the alternative is an informed, data-driven, and performance-measured regulator to stand for the interests of individual people.

        For the US, I don’t hold much hope of this type of regulator coming into existence because of two features. First, Americans love a simple answer, usually with only one dimension: carbs are evil, fat is evil, prop trading is evil, leverage is evil. In both systems, the interactions are complex and there are conflicting models and empirical data.

        Second, we seem drawn to absolute and all-or-nothing rules, instead of broader principles. And then we follow the rules in a way that is cheating on the related principles. In nutrition, this becomes “I can’t eat any carbs, but I can eat 10lbs of crispy bacon!” In finance, it is more subtle because the rules are more technical, but something like “I can’t steal my customer’s deposit, but I can layer it in a juicy coat of fees and charges.”

        Third, I have to come back to motivation. Basically, most people and, apparently all, the institutional players seem pretty happy with things the way they are, at least relative to the cost and bother of making a change. As a business, Weight Watchers is kicking ass in almost equal proportion to how much the product fails to deliver. Similarly, the retail brokerage industry never asks itself whether the customers are making any money.

        A parting shot in the spirit of the web: I’m guessing there are at least an order of magnitude more people in the US who have successfully lost weight than there are math club nerds who aren’t good at math.


  15. observer
    November 23, 2013 at 5:20 am

    I grew up with a mother who was very thin before having children and then became inexplicably fat right after her last of several children. My whole life our nuclear family has been structured around her ferocious desire to lose weight. I have never seen anyone eat and exercise with as much discipline as she does. Yet over the 30 years I have witnessed she has remained obese. My point is not about weight however but about how deeply miserable and depressed she is about being fat. She has literally put decades of her life on hold “until I lose the weight.” She won’t consider in engaging in a new occupation or hobby or a family gathering or trip “until I lose the weight.” It makes me so sad to see this incredibly talented woman cede her adult life to despair over her weight. She’s never going to be not fat, despite her incredible energy fighting fatness. I see that. I also see that society is terribly, terribly harsh on fatness and I totally understand her desire not to be fat. I just wish she could accept it, somehow, and live a day in her life where the focus is not on losing weight. Cathy I really respect your attitude and admire it deeply.


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