Beth Castle is the managing editor at InHerSight. Based in Durham, she writes about women in the workforce as well as Southern travel, tourism, arts and culture, and food.
Last week, I binge-watched Shrill, Hulu’s new show starring SNL comedian Aidy Bryant as Annie, a budding journalist who’s learning how to report, date, and juggle the expectations of her friends and family, all while dealing with career and body insecurities.
If you haven’t watched the show yet, stop here. I don’t want to ruin key plot points for you. But if you have: Let’s talk about Annie’s boss, Gabe.
In the show, Gabe pushes the entire company to participate in a work-endorsed fitness program; he says they all have to meet to ride bikes together (among other things) in order to stay fit to save the company money. When Annie shows up late to the cycle-thon—because she was really feeling herself at the pool party—Gabe pulls her aside. He tells her she’s sloppy and lazy because she’s not trying to lose weight. (We’ll come back to that for sure.)
Reeling from Gabe’s blatant body-shaming, Annie proceeds to post an unapproved blog post on the company site titled “Hello, I’m Fat.” The article goes viral, but eventually leads Annie to quit her job—but only because Gabe pens his own nasty response to her post. Needless to say, what he says is not nice or necessary.
For those of you who are thinking, This entire scenario is clearly an HR violation, congratulations, you’re just like me—wrong.
“Right now, there are very few places anywhere in the world where it is explicitly illegal to discriminate against someone based on body size,” says Tigress Osborn, director of community outreach for the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA).
Read more: 6 Times You Should Talk to Human Resources
While what Gabe is doing would constitute as bullying on any other playground, federal and state laws only explicitely protect employees based on certain characteristics: race, color, national origin, religion, sex, age, and disability. Osborn says only one state, Michigan, has a law that prohibits employers from discriminating against people based on weight. And only six additional cities have legislature that addresses personal appearance and physical description in relation to discrimination.
For women in the workforce, that lack of protection is particularly damaging. In addition to general sexism in the workforce, Osborn says overweight women have to deal with the damaging effects of weight stigma, which can lead to depression, eating disorders, reduced self-esteem, and even weight gain. Adding fuel to that fire, a 2014 study out of Vanderbilt University also found that overweight women earn less than their peers, even when they have the same level of education, causing what researchers call an “obesity wage penalty.” To echo what Osborn said, that’s a wage gap on top of the current gender pay gap.
“Some of the gender differences in how fat people experience a hostile workplace depend on industry and how much appearance matters in a particular workplace culture,” Osborn says. The Vanderbilt study found overweight women are less likely to hold jobs that involve public interaction, for instance, and historically, courts have ruled in favor of employers when women working at restaurants like Hooters have filed suits after being told to shed a few pounds, the basis for their argument being that their “image standard” is crucial to the work they do.
To no one’s surprise (except, perhaps, the Gabes of the world), mandatory group fitness or health initiatives don’t help the cause, either. A study in Frontiers in Psychology found workplace health promotion programs often emphasize employees’ need to take control of their weight, while simultaneously telling them they’re “out of control,” which can be extremely damaging to employees’ wellbeing. “Ignoring an obnoxious colleague's constant diet talk is hard enough,” Osborn says, “but having your boss blame you and your body for everything from insurance costs to the sedentary lifestyles of Americans can be incredibly stressful, especially if coworkers pile on in an attempt to impress the boss.”
Read more: 15 Ways to Crush Self-Doubt at Work
The Frontiers study suggests choosing an alternative route—providing healthy snacks in the breakroom or offering flexible work hours so employees can make it to the gym. But NAAFA is advocating for outright legislation, because even with the move toward body positivity, Osborn says people aren’t as sympathetic when they believe weight gain or body size is “fixable.”
“I think the mainstreaming of body positivity, which grew out of the fat activism movement started in the 60s, has made people think that anti-fat discrimination is a thing of the past, but we're just not there yet,” Osborn says. “Just because plus-size fashion is expanding and more fat entertainers are making their way into the mainstream doesn't mean that the serious ways fat people are stigmatized in education, employment, and medical treatment have disappeared.
“I do think there are many people who are appalled to discover that it's legal to discriminate based on size,” Osborn continues. “I also think that fat is still something many people believe can just be easily changed, and people tend to be more sympathetic about discrimination for aspects of our identity that they believe are out of our control. Quite frankly, a lot of people feel like, If you don't want to face fat discrimination, just don't be fat.”
Now, that's a Gabe attitude if there ever were one.