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Leadership

The Hidden Discrimination Against Being Fat At Work

Overweight people experience many forms of discrimination at work, and much of it is perfectly legal. These people are trying to change it.

[Photo: Flickr user Daniel Tuttle]

Journalist and author Lindy West is done hating her body. As an important step to self-acceptance, she "came out as fat" to friends and coworkers. This is her body. Get used to it.

These days, the term "fat" no longer bothers her. Allowing it to be a "big, scary word" gives it power, she explains, while "the more PC "overweight" implies there is a "correct" weight to be.

West chronicles her experiences with the various forms of fat shaming and discrimination she's faced throughout her life in her new memoir Shrill: Notes From A Loud Woman. In one of the book's biggest moments, she confronts her boss, writer Dan Savage, about the series of derogatory remarks he had made in his columns about fat people. Their disagreement came to a head when West wrote a blog post on the publication's website directly calling out her boss, saying, in part: "I get that you think you're actually helping people and society by contributing to the fucking alp of shame that crushes every fat person every day of their lives, but you're not helping."

While that confrontation ended with the two semi-amicably agreeing to disagree, most fat people don't feel as comfortable expressing their feelings about the subtle and overt shaming that goes on in their workplaces. This can come in the form of many things, from awkward confrontations with office managers about not fitting into office chairs, to employers who utterly fail to hide their disgust. For women, West points out that it's often worse: An example is the female bonding of coworkers huddled by the mirror in the office bathroom, complaining about how it would be a travesty if they packed on a few pounds. "It's anxiety producing, and it takes me back to this time where my overwhelming feelings were shame and failure," West says. "You’re sitting around saying your worst nightmare is to look like me."

But these kinds of experiences are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to size-based prejudices at the workplace. Studies have found that many Americans hold onto the stereotype that overweight or obese individuals are lazy, unintelligent, and lacking in self-discipline. And more than half of Americans have no qualms about making negative comments about a person's weight, including in the workplace.

Facing Discrimination

Numerous studies have found that obese and overweight people experience all manner of discrimination at work, and much of it is perfectly legal. Some struggle to find a job at all. In recent years, employers like Victoria Hospital in Texas have explicitly stated that they won't hire anyone with a body mass index (BMI) of more than 35 (about 220 pounds for someone who is 5-foot-6), which is far from a foolproof predictor of good health.

Those who do manage to land a job are less likely to be offered a salary bump or promotion compared to their slimmer peers. Obesity was found to lower a woman's annual earnings an average of 4.5% and men's earnings as much as 2.3%, according to a 2004 study by Charles L. Baum of Middle Tennessee State University. Some pundits have argued that this may be the last accepted form of prejudice in the U.S.

Progress to end this form of discrimination has been slow, with only a handful of states passing laws to curtail it. Meanwhile, researchers found in 2008 that weight-based discrimination is "increasing at disturbing rates."

West is an advocate for the "fat acceptance" movement, which is pushing for new laws to tackle the bias in social attitudes. This movement has its fair share of critics, including those who argue that it minimizes the problem of obesity in America. But many public health researchers argue that it's the body shaming that's making things worse, not better. As psychologist Rebecca Puhl explained in an interview with Reuters, researchers are held back from getting funding for policies that would change the environment, which "are likely to have a much larger impact than trying to change individuals."

Peggy Howell, a spokeswoman at the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance , says she got involved with the movement after her boss threatened to fire her from her job as a school counselor if she didn't lose weight. "He believed that if I couldn't control my weight, then my life was out of control and I had no business being a counselor to others who needed help," she says. Now, she spends much of her time doing advocacy work and responding to letters from those who face similar issues in the workplace.

For Howell, corporate wellness is a particularly sinister trend. In the past decade or so, many of the largest employers have instituted programs that reward employees who enroll in weight-management programs. That often involves the use of an activity tracker, like a Fitbit, which tracks the number of steps that employees take per day.

Howell argues that such programs should be scrapped altogether. It focuses undue attention on body weight in a workplace setting, and she fears that it will push employers to place much of the penalties on people of a larger body size. "My body is not public property, and it's not someone else's right to tell me how to live," she says.

Finding Solutions

Not everyone has a platform to confront coworkers and air grievances like West. So we asked her for tips and advice for those who face this kind of prejudice at work, but wouldn't feel comfortable speaking out about it on a public blog.

Unfortunately, there are no quick-fix solutions or easy answers. As a first step, West suggests that all people, regardless of size, refrain from body talk in the office. That's harder than you might think, West admits, given that many office social events involve food (birthday parties, happy hours, and so on). "It's good for all of us to avoid spending too much time obsessing over what's wrong with our bodies," she says.

One of the big challenges is the challenge of finding an advocate or defender in the office. Even people in human resources might harbor a fat bias. But West has had some success leveling with colleagues on a "human level," perhaps even sharing experiences about what life is really like. Some coworkers might be hardened to the message, but others will feel empathy.

"Change is incremental," West says. "It's a slow process of people learning not to hate their bodies, stand up for themselves, and demand respect."

Related Video: Being Fat In The Workplace Is Hard. Admitting It Is Harder.

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