Signs Removed for “Shaming” Concerns


Photo Courtesy of James van Kuilenburg ’22

Jacob DeCarli ’22, Associate Managing Editor

Signs encouraging students to “Take the stairs and become more fit” and burn calories rather than taking the elevators have recently been removed by the administration per the request of students. 

Students first noticed the elevator signs in Bosler Hall which led to more investigations of other locations. The signs had calculations of how many calories a student could lose per day, per year and how many pounds they could lose after four years by choosing to use the stairs instead of elevators.

Prabhleen Kaur ’21 first noticed the signs in Bosler when she started taking classes on the third floor and used the elevator. “I began to feel guilty every time that I took the elevator,” Kaur said. She explained that taking the stairs caused uncomfortable physical symptoms including dizziness and loss of breath. “I started realizing that I shouldn’t put my body through pain or stress when there is an elevator I could use,” she said. 

When Kaur started using the elevator again, she saw the sign every day. 

James van Kuilenburg ’22 also noticed the signs and discussed their presence on campus with Kaur. “These signs were effectively fat shaming as they promoted weight loss as a positive thing,” van Kuilenburg said. “It had a negative impact on campus to have a series of signs that glorified a dangerous narrative that feeds into eating disorders.” 

Additionally, the signs were viewed as “shaming” towards students who may have physical disabilities or mobility impairment.

“There are a number of Dickinsonians–many of whom are very fit–who may need to take an elevator due to a physical disability that is invisible to others,” said Marni Jones, dean and director of access and disability services and SOAR: strategies, organization and achievement resources, in an email to The Dickinsonian. “There are students whose doctors have instructed them not to use stairs. They may be recovering from a spinal injury, have a heart condition, or be contending with chronic pain exacerbated by walking (or a number of other factors).”

To get the signs removed, van Kuilenburg and Kaur reached out to Amy Farrell, professor of American studies, and expressed his concerns. Van Kuilenburg said that, Farrell, who teaches courses in fat studies, then forwarded his thoughts to Brenda Bretz, vice president of campus inclusion.

Bretz said she contacted Facilities Operations directly after finding out about the signs. She explained that a member of the Human Resources offices and facilities looked for the location of the signs in the elevators. “No one in the facilities area was aware of the signs before this, nor was I,” Bretz said. 

The signs were described as placards bolted to the walls but appeared to be there for years because “no one currently employed who is responsible for maintenance of the elevators had any conversations about them,” according to Bretz. “We suspect that these were signs routinely placed by a vendor associated with servicing the elevators at some point in the past.” Bretz affirmed that not every elevator had these signs and that facilities took the signs down within three hours of the search.

“While we do not believe that these [signs] were intended to send a negative message,” Bretz said. “We removed them because we do not support any signs that directly or indirectly shame a group of individuals.”

Van Kuilenburg said that the removal of the signs was swift and “demonstrated admin’s willingness to learn about new issues and support students when they asked for help.” He continued with his hopes that the administration’s actions will help the campus move towards body positivity and “less emphasis on dangerous social body expectations.” 

“Even with the qualifier “if you are physically able,” seeing a sign like this can feel shaming to those who have no choice but to use the elevator,” said Jones. “I showed a picture of one of the posters to a student with a mobility impairment, who has difficulty using steps after having had four hip surgeries, to see what she thought about it, and she was visibly dejected upon reading it, saying, ‘That’s really unfair. You don’t know what other people are going through.’”

Kaur said she felt revived and proud after the signs were removed. “Fat activism is important for people to learn about,” Kaur said. “Fat is not a bad word and fat is not ugly.”