Living through the ’90s and early 2000s would be enough to make anyone self-conscious about their body. In the age of low-rise jeans and “heroin chic” (yikes) beauty standards, no one was safe from criticism. Things didn’t improve in the 2010s, when “thigh gaps” became all the rage and a 2015 study cited that between 7 and 14 percent of Americans had eating disorders.
American society has long been enchanted by the idea of thinness. Although trends ebb and flow, the idealization of thin bodies remains constant, and this hurts women disproportionately. Anyone, regardless of gender, can experience fatphobia, but society’s desire to control women’s bodies leads women to feel the impacts more often.
“But ‘thick’ is in in 2021,” you might say, “bigger women are finally getting their time to shine.”
That’s wishful thinking. Google “ideal body of 2021,” and look at the top results. The top article boldly reads “2021: The Year Of The Hourglass” and is accompanied by an image of a thin (but curvaceous) woman. Although bigger women can have hourglass figures, we all know that’s not what the article, or the beauty standard of this decade, is referring to. “Slim thick” (emphasis on the slim) might be “in” in 2021, but that doesn’t mean fatphobia is any less prevalent.
We’re molded by the environment in which we grow up, and those ideas, implicit biases, and perceptions impact every part of our lives.
“It all starts with the children whose parents have taught them that being overweight is unacceptable,” says psychologist Cynthia Halow. Those children judge their overweight peers, and “the cycle continues until it is ingrained in the entire society.”
Despite having one of the highest obesity rates in the world, America is fatphobic, and so are our workplaces. Here are some ways to ensure your office isn’t part of the problem.
What is fatphobia?
Fatphobia is defined by Collins dictionary as “irrational fear of, aversion to, or discrimination against obesity or people with obesity.” A lot of the time, the discrimination is subtle, and involves things like passing up fat individuals for promotions and opportunities rather than blatant verbal harassment. However, in every state but Michigan (all hail Michigan), discrimination based on weight in the workplace is technically legal.
It’s also important to understand the racist history of fatphobia. According to Sabrina Strings, the author of Fearing the Black Body, fatphobia evolved alongside the trasatlantic slave trade. In the first few decades after enslaved Africans were brought to the Americas, it was easy to identify enslaved people and their colonist enslavers because of their skin tones. However, over the course of several generations, mixed race children were born into slavery, and skin tone wasn’t always a reliable way of identifying enslaved people.
At this point, European colonists decided to attribute new characteristics to define racial groups. “One of the things that the colonists believed was that Black people were inherently more sensuous, that people love sex and they love food, and so the idea was that Black people had more venereal diseases, and that Black people were inherently obese, because they lack self-control,” Strings said in an interview with CBS News. “And of course, self-control and rationality, after the Enlightenment, were characteristics that were deemed integral to Whiteness."
Although fatphobia impacts people of all races and genders, being aware of the racist origins of fatphobia is important, as it further illuminates the depth to which discrimination, particularly racial discrimination, is engrained in our society.
4 ways fatphobia impacts our workplaces
Now that we know why fatphobia exists, it’s up to us to combat it in the office and beyond. Here are just a few examples of how fatphobia appears in the workplace, and what you should do to stop it.
It all starts with hiring. “The most common way of being fatphobic in the workplace is by not hiring people because of their body size,” says Halow. “Many people are turned down for jobs because they appear to be ‘incapable’ of working well.”
Forty-five percent of recruiters say they are less likely to hire a fat candidate because of their weight. And, because sexist beauty standards make everything worse, fat women in particular are less likely to be hired for customer-facing positions than thin candidates.
Why is this the case? Implicit biases (and sometimes outright prejudices). The same people who grew up in societies that praised thinness are now making decisions about who to hire, fire, and promote. When making these decisions, managers are impacted by the negative stereotypes society perpetuates about fat people.
Although most of us don’t recognize the implicit biases we hold, it’s important to address them within companies to make sure stereotypes don’t impact things like hiring. Harvard’s Implicit Bias Tests can be a good place to start. Not only do these tests assess weight-related prejudices, but they also detect religious, gender-based, and other biases. After taking a bias test yourself, encourage your coworkers to do the same. Use it as an opportunity to have candid conversations about fatphobic behaviors.
2. Bullying and discrimination
The struggles of being fat in the office don’t stop once someone actually lands a job; microaggressions impact fat people long after they’re on the payroll. A study on employee discrimination found that fat employees are 12 times more likely to report unfair treatment at work than thin employees. This can range from snide remarks to blatant harassment. And it only gets worse. Obese people are 37 times more likely and severely obese people are 100 times more likely to experience discrimination than their thinner coworkers.
Although all fat people can experience discrimination, women feel the impacts disproportionately. Women are 16 times more likely than men to report weight-related discrimination at work.
Pay is impacted by weight as well. According to a 2004 study from Middle Tennessee State University, obesity lowers a woman’s annual earnings by 4.5 percent on average, and a man’s annual earnings by as much as 2.3 percent. This wage discrepancy is in part because employees who are fat aren’t hired for as many customer-facing positions that come with opportunities to make commissions.
“In Western society, thin bodies are seen as healthy, beautiful, and successful. Fat bodies are viewed as the opposite,” says nutritionist and body positivity blogger Brandy Minks. “The media is a prime example of an industry that perpetuates fatphobia. Fat actors and actresses are often characterized as lazy, slobbish, unhygienic, clumsy, unlovable, and stupid (think of the character Kevin from the TV show The Office).”
To an extent, customer-facing employees occupy the same roles as actors. They are the “face” of a company. Since society associates fat bodies with such negative traits, employers might subconsciously or consciously limit opportunities for fat employees to avoid connecting the company to negative perceptions. If an employer associates being fat with being lazy or unintelligent, they also might not fairly reward fat employees for their work. That is another reason why fat employees are often not given bonuses, leadership roles, and raises at the same rate as thinner coworkers.
These stigmas run so deeply that they impact the judgement of almost everyone. Studies have shown that obese people are often so used to stigmitization that they sometimes even start to believe they deserve poor treatment. “These stigmas are internalized by everyone, thin or fat, and lead to unequal treatment of fat people across all areas of life, including the workplace,” says Minks.
It’s lunchtime, and you’re heating up some veggie stir fry in the break room. Amanda, your quintessential mean girl coworker waltzes in, and you brace yourself. She’s always commenting about other peoples’ meals, or chatting about the newest fad diet.
“Whoa,” she says, feigning shock. “You’re actually eating vegetables? Thank God, I’m so glad you’ve started taking care of yourself.”
Shoot. “Is she being fatphobic?” you might wonder. “She didn’t exactly come out and say, ‘you’re fat and disgusting,’ but was it implied?” Yes. The answer is yes. Amanda’s a jerk, and you’ve just experienced a microaggression.
It can be hard to tell whether coworkers, employers, or company policies have good intentions and are just inconsiderate, or if they’re using more subtle language to get away with actual discrimination. The truth: It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if Amanda has an outdated idea of what’s appropriate to say in a work environment. Commenting on someone else’s size, eating habits, or weight at work (or in life in general!) is never appropriate.
In situations where someone is subtly aggressive, you can feel a bit stuck. You’re uncomfortable, but what are you supposed to do about it? Tell your boss that Amanda said she’s happy you’re eating vegetables? Isn’t that a giant waste of time? Absolutely not. In order to end fatphobia in the workplace, we have to call people out when they exhibit inappropriate behaviors. It can be scary, but it’s up to employers to make the office into an environment that does not tolerate discrimination in any form.
Sometimes, confronting bullies directly is the best plan. If a fatphobic comment is directed at you, a good strategy is to force the person to explain what they meant by the comment. Asking “what do you mean by that?” forces the person to stop and think, “what do I actually mean?” If they meant to be sneakily hurtful, explaining their comment shows their true colors. If they didn’t mean to be inappropriate, thinking about the comment’s deeper meaning gives them the opportunity to reflect. Either way, it embarasses them to the point that they’ll likely think twice before making another fatphobic comment.
How to combat fatphobia at work
1. Change company policies
This one might take a bit of paperwork, but it’s worth it. Take a look at your company’s policies, starting with health care. If you’re implementing a health care plan that punishes fat people financially, start changing that. As a result of the Affordable Care Act, employers can charge employees an extra 30 percent of the cost of their health care plans if they don’t meet wellness or BMI guidelines. In 2015, Tracy Raymond made national news after her employer informed her that if she didn’t lose weight, her insurance premiums would increase by $50 monthly. You can’t preach acceptance at work if you support policies that are inherently fatphobic.
Making an effort to accommodate fat employees is important. We’re used to having to make reasonable and thoughtful accommodations for other needs, and there’s no reason that can’t extend to include fat employees. Imagine you have an employee with a peanut allergy, for example. It would seem cruel to cater peanut butter sandwiches at meetings, because they’d never get to eat. Thinking ahead about what fat employees might need in different situations is just as important.
For example, If you are a part of a team that travels a lot by plane, consider how that impacts your fat employees. Do they need an extra seat to be comfortable? If so, figure out if your team can accommodate that. Sometimes, asking for a seat belt extender can be uncomfortable. Offer to purchase some extenders to keep in the office so employees can discreetly grab one before business trips. When thinking about all needs, consider the ones of fat individuals just as you would consider those of thinner employees.
Have a plan in place for reporting all kinds of discrimination at the office. Even though weight discrimination isn’t illegal in most states, it doesn’t mean your company needs to accept it. Create a “no tolerence” policy for all kinds of discrimination, and make sure everyone knows exactly what that means. This is a great time for everyone to take implicit bias tests, too, so they can be aware of what they might need to work on. Sensitivity training is also an important step offices should take to clarify what discrimination looks like and how to combat it.
Read More: Let’s End Body Shaming in the Workplace
2. Be mindful of negative self-talk
Watch how you speak about weight, including what you express about your own. Putting yourself down, especially around fat people, is often fatphobic and doesn’t help to change the societal rhetoric around weight. You might think saying, “ugh, I feel so gross and fat today” is harmless, but really, it does two negative things. It associates being “fat” with being “gross,” and especially if you’re thinner, it might make other people feel self-conscious about their size.
3. Speak up when you witness fatphobia
If you hear someone being fatphobic, it might be tempting to pretend you didn’t notice and move on with your day. You might feel like it’s not your business to interfere, or just not want to deal with the conflict, but speaking up when you witness fatphobia is how we end it once and for all.
There are a few paths to choose when it comes to dealing with fatphobic remarks. Sometimes, confronting a nasty coworker directly is a good move. Especially if the person who the fatphobic remark was directed toward is on the quieter side or seems unsure of how to respond, stepping in might be important. Like we advised above, try asking “what did you mean by that remark?” or simply state, “That remark was really insensitive. Why did you say that?”
If you feel like a person is acting in a threatening way toward a fat coworker, or if the harassment is severe, contacting upper management is an essential next step. If your company doesn’t already have a policy against fatphobia, starting those conversations with your boss and bringing attention to problems are a good start.
Finally, check in with fat coworkers. Experiencing discrimination can be traumatizing. Let them know that you recognize how inappropriate the remarks made were, and you are here to support them. Assure them that if they want to talk to management about the discrimination, you will back them up.
4. Educate others on fatphobia—especially kids
Have frank discussions about fatphobia, not just at work, but in your community. “We need to stop pathologizing higher weights,” Minks says. “We cannot assume anything about a person's personality or health status just by looking at their weight!”
Start by breaking down myths that society perpetuates with your friends and family. For example, according to Minks, contrary to popular belief, higher BMIs are not associated with increased risk of death. In fact, higher BMIs are associated with longer lives.
Remember that fatphobia starts and ends with children. The habits and beliefs that are solidified when we’re young stick with us, and become formative parts of our lives. “Teaching children that everyone is beautiful regardless of their size goes a long way toward promoting acceptance of all body types,” says Halow. “These children grow up to be adults who understand that no one should be judged based on their physical appearance.”
If you have children in your life, consider how you speak about their and your bodies to them. Avoid making generalizations about health based on weight, and try to shield them from “diet culture.” Encourage health, and teach them that healthy bodies come in all sizes.
*Editor’s note: This article uses the term “fat” to describe bodies that might otherwise be described as “overweight” or “plus-sized.” Our decision to use “fat” follows the guidance of fat activists and writers who’ve reclaimed the term as a neutral descriptor free of negative connotations. You can read more about that here.
About our sources
Cynthia Halow is a psychologist and the founder of Personality Max, a company that has developed personality tests backed by psychology to help users learn about their personality type, optimal career paths and interpersonal relationships. She holds a MA in psychology, and her work has been featured by The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNBC and many other media outlets.
Brandy Minks is the owner of Minks Medical Nutrition Therapy and is a registered dietitian and nutrition counselor. She became a Certified Nutrition Support Clinician (CNSC) in 2020 and specializes in helping clients to achieve health goals, assess their nutritional statuses, and develop nutrition plans. Her focus is on helping clients to develop healthier relationships with food using a weight-inclusive approach.