You’ve probably body shamed a coworker without even realizing it.
Telling someone they look skinny, calling someone hilariously tall, asking if someone’s pregnant, and telling someone that they should try a different hairstyle are all forms of body shaming—and it’s time we put an end to this long-standing problem, which is toxic and mentally harmful and has absolutely no place at work.
Learn what body shaming is, how you’re contributing, and what must be done, formally and informally, to ensure that body-based discrimination is eliminated from the workplace.
What is body shaming?
Body shaming is the act of mocking or criticizing someone for their physical appearance. Height, hair, facial features, body structure, body stance, and weight are all aspects of our physical appearance.
When you suggest products related to appearance, such as diet drinks, hair loss products, or workout recommendations, you’re body shaming. When you make assumptions about someone’s food, drink, exercise, or personal preferences—or suggest certain preferences—related to appearance, you’re body shaming.
“I can’t believe you ate that whole doughnut,” “wouldn’t you prefer salad; pasta is so heavy for lunch,” or “I’m feeling fat,” are all examples of body shaming in the workplace, says Emily Lauren Dick, body image expert and author of Body Positive: A Guide to Loving Your Body.
Body shaming has compounding mental health effects
Body shaming often manifests as microaggressions, or small, seemingly innocent comments that subtly disparage or discriminate against others, like the offhand remarks Dick mentions above. Microaggressions can have a significant long-term impact on an employee’s happiness, physical health, and mental wellbeing, ultimately affecting their work productivity and their ability to succeed.
“As a society, and especially for women, we are taught that thinness and beauty are equal to our worth, so we fear fatness. Fatphobia is not always blatant, and a lot of the time, it’s unconsciously a part of [our] belief systems,” Dick says.
Kathleen Porter Kristiansen, lawyer, writer, and body acceptance activist, has experienced body shaming in every job she’s ever had, from being told she looked “too busty” during a photoshoot to not being invited to group exercise classes based on false assumptions that she doesn’t exercise (which she does).
“Many people don’t realize, but even commenting and congratulating someone for losing weight is body shaming. Often weight loss is not a victory but a result of trauma or difficulties arising in someone's life such as divorce, loss, or anxiety,” says Porter Kristiansen. “For me, it also is a signal that the person is looking at and observing my body.”
Taking action against body discrimination
“Body shaming—along with all other misconduct—should be approached proactively, with employers explicitly explaining to their employees that body shaming will not be tolerated, and providing examples of body shaming and what it looks like, whether in the office, working remotely, or on social media,” says Kia Roberts, principal and founder of Triangle Investigations.
When it comes to body discrimination in the workplace, the majority of states offer little to no protection to employees, which is why it’s so important for employers to step up and take action. This could mean adjusting dress code policies, adding body-based harassment to the employee handbook, and ensuring that all work-focused activities accommodate (and respect) all employees.
“Over the last several years, many companies have encouraged employees to participate in wellness programs, allegedly aimed at keeping employees healthy and happy, but arguably implemented in order to decrease potential health problems, the cost of which are often partially handled by employers having to help pay for costly medical procedures,” Roberts says. “Employees are becoming increasingly irritated by said programs and feel as if employers are keeping tabs on their body, their health, and their personal lives.”
“Employers need to realize the harmful effects of these policies. You’re [inadvertently] tying someone’s job performance to how much they weigh,” says Stephanie McClung, marketing manager at iFrog Marketing Solutions. “Stop incentivizing weight loss programs and stop bringing weight loss into the workplace.”
When most people think of workplace misconduct, they think of sexual harassment or discrimination, Roberts explains, but body shaming within the workplace can lead to very similar outcomes as other misconduct within the workplace, such as high employee turnover, decreased productivity, and expensive lawsuits.
The future of body acceptance
Society has perpetuated damaging external messages for decades (most often: thin and white) and while that’s beginning to change, thanks to the body positive movement, we still have a long way to go. Internalized beliefs may be hard to change, but we can change them.
If we want to prevent body shaming in the workplace, we must establish workplace policies that address body-based harassment, and we must prioritize body acceptance in the media—and in our society at large.
“Every time someone brings in a cake for a holiday, we don’t need a chorus of insecurity preaching that this is a ‘cheat day,’ or ‘I’ll have to walk this off later.’ Just eat the damn cake! You don’t have to justify your food choices to anyone,” McClung says.
About our sources
Emily Lauren Dick is a body image expert and author of Body Positive: A Guide to Loving Your Body. She is the founding editor of happydaughter.com, a body-positive online community for young women. When she is not being a champion of body positivity, she is a marketing manager for her family business and a part-time photographer.
Kathleen Porter Kristiansen is a lawyer and parenting, travel, and personal finance writer. Her work has been published on The Points Guy, The Portland Press Herald, and more.
Kia Roberts is the founder and principal of Triangle Investigations, a group of lawyers and expert investigators conducting misconduct investigations within workplaces, schools, and other organizations. Prior to founding Triangle, Roberts was the NFL’s first-ever director of investigations, a position in which she conducted investigations into NFL players and employees accused of violating the NFL’s Code of Conduct.
Stephanie McClung is the marketing manager for iFrog Marketing Solutions. She earned her MBA from Wayne State University in December 2019 with a double concentration in marketing and international business.