Size Matters: Is Bodyshaming Blocking Your Career Path?

Health programs at work may increase weight discrimination.

Health programs at work may increase weight discrimination.

In her latest critically acclaimed, bestselling book, Hunger, journalist, academic and social critic Roxane Gay writes soulfully about how her size is inextricably connected to her work in a very public way.

“There is no hiding the truth of me. Often there is video, then my truth, my fatness, is amplified. As my career has taken off, my visibility has exploded. There are pictures of me everywhere. I have been on MSNBC and CNN and PBS. When a certain kind of people see me on television, they take the time to email me or tweet at me to tell me that I’m fat or ugly or fat and ugly. They make memes of me with captions like ‘Typical Feminist’ or ‘The Ugliest Woman in The World.’”

In Hunger, Roxane Gay @rgay writes how size is inextricably connected to her work #EndBodyshaming

While Gay has an extremely high public profile as a bestselling author and associate professor of creative writing at Purdue University, bodyshaming in the workplace is experienced by millions of Americans who are not in the public arena.

More than 65 percent of American women wear size 14 or larger. Weight discrimination and bias against the hiring and promotion of workers perceived as overweight is complicated by cyberbullying and discriminatory workplace culture practices.

Weight discrimination in the workplace is more common against women than men.  Implicit and unconscious bias play roles in the treatment of women in the workplace who are larger than average.

Music icon and Grammy-winner Kelly Clarkson recently defended herself against someone who bodyshamed her on Twitter, according to CNN. Her response prompted overwhelming support.

NBC-TV’s “This Is Us” star Chrissy Metz reports she deals with stereotyping and issues playing a character who is a large woman on the show, as does Gabourey Sidibe on Fox’s “Empire.”

While many performers, actresses, models and new mothers fight back against social media attacks on their appearance, many working women who are not in the public spotlight experience bodyshaming and discrimination that directly affect their paychecks.

Many working women experience bodyshaming & #discrimination directly affecting their paychecks

The bottom line is research shows the more the weight, the less the pay, the fewer the promotions and the more severe the repercussions.

In a 2012 study in “the International Journal of Obesity, researchers gave participants a series of resumes with small photos of applicants attached, both before and after weight-loss surgery. The researchers discovered that criteria like starting salary, leadership potential and the selection of the candidate for the job were all negatively affected for women who were considered obese,” according to Time.

“The study also shows that people who were more confident with their own overall physical attributes responded more negatively to those who were overweight,” Time reported.

This is where bullying and bodyshaming can affect how you are treated, assignments you are given and influence your position of leadership in an organization or workplace culture.

“Bodyshaming is a pervasive form of prejudice, found in cyber bullying, critiques of celebrities’ appearances, at work and school, and in public places for everyday Americans. People who are battling obesity face being stereotyped as lazy, incompetent, unattractive, lacking willpower, and to blame for their excess weight, according to a new study published in Obesity, the journal of The Obesity Society, led by a research team from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania,” according to Medical Net News

The problem of weight discrimination is not new, but new research shows it is growing as a concern in the workplace because the incidence of obesity is growing.

#WeightDiscrimination isn’t new, but new research shows it’s a growing concern in the workplace

The latest Global Burden of Disease study shows that “the United States has the greatest percentage of obese children and young adults, at 13 percent,” according to CNN. “While 2.2 billion people were obese or overweight in 2015, more than 710 million of them were classed as obese, with 12 percent of adults fitting into this category. The data revealed that the number of people affected by obesity has doubled since 1980 in 73 countries, and continued to rise across most other countries included in the analysis.”

Ironically, a new study shows that health programs at the workplace may backfire and make the workplace culture even more toxic for persons of size.

According to a new study out of Stanford University:  “Health promotion programs have become increasingly common in U.S. workplaces, yet little research has examined the unintended and potentially negative consequences of these initiatives. Overweight and obese employees face widespread prejudice and pervasive discrimination in employment settings.”

The study continues, “Overweight and obese employees are rated more negatively and receive lower hiring recommendations when evaluated for companies with health promotion programs. These findings suggest that health promotion increases the salience and perceived legitimacy of negative fat stereotypes that facilitate weight-based discrimination.”

On the message board, Women For Hire, a recent topic was fat shaming at work.

One participant posted this: “This happens all the time at my job. If not daily, then weekly. I’m the assistant to the COO/CEO for a real estate development/property management company. The men (who are far from perfect) comment on why certain women of certain sizes don’t eat a salad more often. There are women in the company who are just as guilty. I’ve had someone comment on my lunch (it was a burger and fries) and asked “how could I eat ALL of that?”

Bodyshaming and weight discrimination not only affect comments and treatment of co-workers, but who will get hired or promoted, and also who will be reprimanded for a work mistake.

According to a new study in the Journal of Psychology from Northern Illinois University researchers, “Participants read about either the controllable or uncontrollable causes of obesity before reviewing an ostensible employee file that included a description of an employee mistake. Depending on condition, the file contained a photo of the employee that either depicted them as obese or average weight. Participants were more willing to withhold a raise or promotion from an obese employee than from an average-weight employee.”

Another study from Vanderbilt University shows “overweight women may have a compelling case about being mistreated and discriminated against in the workplace.” According to the study, “women employees who are viewed as overweight are not as likely to wind up in jobs involving personal interaction with customers.”

Nearly 600 participants from Obesity Action Coalition, a national non-profit organization, responded to a survey about their treatment at work, according to a new study in Obesity Science and Practice by researchers at the University of Connecticut and University of Massachusetts.

More than 87 percent of participants were women, with 78 percent reporting they have been treated unfairly because of their weight, while 65 percent said they were discriminated against because of weight.

That form of discrimination not only has its bullies, but also its bystanders who say and do nothing.

So what can be done as a leader to shift the culture and to illuminate – and eliminate–weight discrimination in the workplace?

Awareness and sensitivity training may help. Creating a culture of acceptance of diversity as well as  a culture of respect and kindness for all may create a change in attitude.

Gloria Feldt, president and co-founder of Take The Lead, established 9 Leadership Power Tools to affect change in leadership. Power Tool # 6, Wear the Shirt of Your Convictions, addresses owning your core values. If your vision of the workplace culture is one of inclusion and fairness for all stakeholders, then you can articulate that vision, enact it and “stand in your power and realize your intentions.”

In her latest book, Gay writes of the stigma she encounters daily as a woman who is both tall and large. She confronts the apparent paradox people encounter with her physicality as a successful writer.

“People don’t expect the writer who will be speaking at their event to look like me. They don’t know how to hide their shock when they realize that a reasonably successful writer is this overweight. These reactions hurt, for many reasons. They illustrate how little people think of fat people, how they assume we are neither smart nor capable if we have such unruly bodies.”

About the Author

Michele Weldon is editorial director of Take The Lead, an award-winning author, journalist, emerita faculty in journalism at Northwestern University and a senior leader with The OpEd Project. @micheleweldon