In America, it is still legal to fire someone based on their weight. Yes, in 2022. For every six pounds a woman gains, on average, her hourly pay drops by 2%, according to this study. But that’s not all: There’s the diet talk in the lunchroom, problematic perceptions of what a professional body looks like (read: skinny, white, able-bodied), microaggressions, group bonding activities that often isolate and exclude larger bodies and so much more. In New York and Massachusetts, bills have been introduced in an attempt to end weight-based discrimination, but what can be done right now?
We chatted with four body positive experts about what a more inclusive workplace looks like for all bodies: (from left to right) Virgie Tovar, author of The Body Positive Journal and host of the podcast, Rebel Eaters Club, Lindsay Johnson, business coach and founder of The Radical Connector, Vivian Kaye, business and empowerment expert and the founder and CEO of KinkyCurlyYaki, and Alison Zupancic, a law enforcement professional.
Here’s what they had to say:
How does office culture uphold problematic ideas of fatphobia?
Virgie Tovar: “Higher-weight people are less likely to have advanced degrees and are less likely to get promotions. The income gap between plus-size women and straight-size women is anywhere between $9,000 to $19,000 a year. And there's a lot of bias around how people are hired. There's evidence that employers think that higher-weight people have less potential and are less intelligent or less trustworthy. That really eats away at your confidence, your sense of belonging, your sense of deserving to be there. Straight-size people are funnelled into higher-paying, client-facing job jobs and higher-weight people are funnelled into more physically laborious, care and retail-oriented jobs that are very taxing on the body and pay less.
Then, there’s the logistics: Are there chairs I can fit comfortably in? But the most triggering space in the office is the lunch room. Just the ubiquitous, incessant talk about food and calories and diet, about whether people are being good or bad. ‘Are you going to ‘work off’ the lunch? Are you taking lunch off to do exercise?’ When everyone is talking about weight loss, it creates a sense that being in a bigger body is an extremely undesirable outcome for everyone around this person, which is very alienating.”
Lindsay Johnson: “I don’t believe that office culture upholds fatphobia intentionally or even consciously. This is a widespread societal issue that stems from racism, classism, ableism, misogyny and good old-fashioned capitalism. These beliefs are indoctrinated into all of us from a very young age and reinforced through policy, healthcare, fashion, media, marketing—pretty much every system we touch. Being in any kind of community or organization that isn’t doing the work to bring awareness to fatphobia, toxic diet culture and our own unconscious bias will undoubtedly uphold these problematic ideas.
Because we are conditioned to believe that being fat is unhealthy, the pressure is often put on fat people to change who they are, often through unhealthy weight loss tactics, and they carry the bulk of the responsibility for the office’s overall boost in health.
People in larger bodies also experience wildly inappropriate and hurtful microaggressions from fatphobic, straight-sized coworkers and superiors: people who are petrified of becoming fat as they see being fat as the worst thing imaginable. All of that communicates to fat people that they are inherently bad, someone worth hating. Then, there’s gossip about people’s weights and bodies in general and never-ending diet talk which is often incredibly triggering for anyone dealing with an eating disorder, no matter their body size. We have created a society where we feel entitled to comment on fat people’s bodies and health history, ask invasive questions and offer unsolicited advice that is harmful and insensitive.”
For every six pounds a woman gains, on average, her hourly pay drops by 2%.
Vivian Kaye: “Office culture upholds problematic ideas of fatphobia now more than ever, especially with the back-to-office weight loss challenges to lose the ‘quarantine 15.’ Instead of focusing on feeling good about yourself, the culture obsesses over a certain number of pounds that must be lost on the scale.”
Alison Zupancic: “For those that aren’t the societal version of skinny, office culture often adds an unnecessary layer of navigation for fat folks. We are stereotyped as lazy, food indulgent or sloppy before our work ethic is even established… and unfortunately, for some, never given the opportunity to prove themselves otherwise.
By the same token, say, a fit coworker indulges in a burger or dessert at lunch or at an office party, then immediately expresses their desire to workout longer or run farther to justify the additional calories. This can be straight-up harmful to those struggling with eating disorders.”
Have you experienced any of this firsthand?
Virgie Tovar: “I was interviewing for an administrative assistant job, and I had gone through three rounds of interviews, all with women. It was all green lights and thumbs ups. And the final interview was with a man. As we were walking from the elevator to his office, there's like a pathway of thin, beautiful, young women and he's flirting with every single one. When we sat down, he body checked me up and down, and I just knew from that, that it just wasn't going to happen. It was clear. This was a formality. He was absolutely not going to hire me.
I've experienced this in my past where a straight man is dismissive to me, like doesn't really want to make eye contact. You're not really of interest to him. This is normal. This is a normal part of finding a job.”
Lindsay Johnson: “Do I exist in a fat body? Then of course I have. We all have. It happens at the office, at the gym, with friends, with family, at the doctors office, when shopping for clothes, when going for dinner, when reading a book, when watching a movie, when listening to an inspirational speaker, when at a professional development conference. Fatphobia is a 24/7 gig and inescapable. It is hurtful, dehumanizing, objectifying and bad for anyone’s self-esteem, self-worth and mental health.”
Vivian Kaye: “I haven't experienced this current iteration of fatphobia in office culture, but I've had family members and friends who've been returning to the office who've been met with comments and competitions over who can lose the most pandemic weight.”
"I’m expected to 'have thick skin, keep my head up, look past it, and be the better person.'"
Alison Zupancic: “Yes, as recent as last week—but I’m expected to ‘have thick skin, keep my head up, look past it, and be the better person.’ Fitness requirements are a part of my job. I accepted that when I applied for the position, but what my coworkers and most friends don’t know is that I was recently diagnosed with hypothyroidism. I’ve been going to doctor’s appointments the last two years and having my blood drawn about every three months. The health system is not kind to the overweight and obese… (which is a separate issue). You really have to be your own advocate and keep pushing if you feel off or think something is wrong.”
Why do you think it's still legal to fire someone based on their weight?
Virgie Tovar: “Because there's a misconception that weight is an immutable characteristic. We have this history in our culture that you can and should control your body weight. There’s an estimate of 0.8% to 0.10% of people who are classified as ‘obese’ ever becoming ‘normal’ weight, so this is a failure rate of anywhere between 90% to 99%. There's no other medical intervention that has that high of a failure rate and is prescribed to a very large percentage of people.
Fatphobia goes back to puritanism and men in the 1800s who influenced how we understand morality and body sizes connected to it. It's connected to our history of slavery—looking at the Black body as the fat body and not wanting to have that body because of anti-Blackness.”
Lindsay Johnson: “Excuse me? It's legal to fire someone based on their weight? I’m up in Canada and also have been self-employed for a very long time. I am not familiar with American anti-discrimination laws. I do know that discrimination against fat people is the last legal bastion of open discrimination in most social systems and quite frankly it’s disgusting and shameful. Marketers and the media have done a good job convincing the world that fat people are bad and not worthy of health, happiness, love or success. Logically, I have no idea why this would be legal. You might have broken my brain on this question.”
Vivian Kaye: “Women who gain weight are judged far more harshly than men who gain weight. Women have always had our value based on how we look instead of our skillset or expertise. I think it's another way to get around discrimination that has been outlawed—sex, race, gender, class, ability, etc.”
"Women have always had our value based on how we look instead of our skillset or expertise."
Alison Zupancic: “I think it’s because certain health problems have been deemed higher risk (like obesity) or are considered 'gateways' to larger issues (such as cancer or diabetes), and that is directly related to insurance costs that an employer might have to pay out in the future.
For some job applications, you are required to release your medical history or be seen by a physician as part of the hiring process. But isn’t this based on probability and not possibility?”
What advice would you give employers who are hoping to foster a more inclusive, body positive workplace?
Virgie Tovar: “Employers should take a page out of Athleta’s handbook. They decided to invest in bias training to their entire C-suite. So, investing the time and the money into anti-bias training around weight based discrimination is something that the leadership can do.
Another thing? Hire higher-weight people. Promote higher-weight people. Have office furniture that is accessible to people in larger bodies. Do not have weight-restricted, physically oriented, team-building activities or incentives. Adopt a no diet, talk policy. Start a body positive affinity group.”
Lindsay Johnson: “Get your butt into some training that will dismantle fatphobia now. Start reading books like Health at Every Size, The F*ck It Diet, What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Fat, The Body Is Not an Apology and Fearing the Black Body. (Then read the books these books recommend.) Work with coaches and consultants to undo your own internalized fatphobia. You can’t make systemic change if you are still fatphobic and are fully bought into these belief systems.
Leaders need to do their own work first. Only then will you be able to see how prevalent and pervasive fatphobia and toxic diet culture is within your office culture, and the way your plus-size employees are being objectified and harassed through microaggressions. When you can see it, and see through the gaslighting and the lies, then you can change it.
Employers can’t ‘foster’ an inclusive, body positive workplace; they must embody it.”
"Employers can’t 'foster' an inclusive, body positive workplace; they must embody it."
Vivian Kaye: “Scrap the competitions and challenges. Focus on providing more inclusive, body-positive initiatives that don't focus on numbers but on having better wellbeing.”
Alison Zupancic: “Communication and conversation. If we are willing to fill out forms and check the box for attending a mandatory online course or training, they should be willing to listen. Education of what your body needs is a personal responsibility, but knowing that others have different nutritional requirements has to become an open dialogue.
Additionally, making it a safe space for all if your employer provides a gym or includes gym memberships. Not only is everyone’s level of fitness and range of movement different, and can change over the years, but stress management can also play a factor.”