- Fatphobia is one of the last acceptable forms of prejudice, and weight discrimination is legal in all but two states.
- Obese and overweight people experience discrimination at every stage of employment, which can have a severe impact on their careers and overall quality of life.
- Worryingly, weight bias is also on the rise, intersecting with other forms of discrimination that target the most vulnerable of us.
- Fortunately, there are ways we can help — from adjusting company policies to speaking up when we see fatphobia in action.
Today, 8 out of 10 Americans are either overweight or obese. Research has shown that 30.7% of the population are overweight, while 42.4% are considered obese. Another 9.2% classify as severely obese.
These numbers are determined by one’s BMI, or body mass index, which is computed by dividing your weight in kilograms by the square of your height in meters. According to the BMI framework, a quotient anywhere between 18.5 and 24.9 is considered healthy. The U.S. average, however, is 26.5.
Of course, the BMI system, which the National Institute of Health adopted in the ‘80s, has been criticized as a deeply flawed predictor of health from the very beginning. It doesn’t, for example, take into account muscularity, bone density, and genetics. It’s also worth noting that its creator, Adolphe Quetelet, wasn’t a medical practitioner at all. He also happened to be racist.
But validity issues aside, the BMI system has made an indelible mark on how we understand our bodies and what we consider healthy. Just as we can understand disability as separate from impairment — that is, disability as the experience of physical barriers, as well as social and attitudinal ones based on one’s impairment — we can also understand being “overweight” as something that’s socially created as a result of bigger bodies.
Sure, there are very real health risks associated with higher levels of weight. But being seen as overweight or obese under the BMI framework also affects how you experience the world in and out of healthcare. And over the years, the negative bias we’ve developed against bigger bodies has come to be known as fatphobia.
This stigma is most often discussed in terms of the fashion industry. After all, finding clothes that fit 8 out of 10 Americans can be incredibly frustrating, even for men. Plus, as we’ve seen with the controversy surrounding Nike’s inclusive activewear, brands that dare to move a pinky to provide plus-size clothing come under fire for “promoting obesity” (an accusation that is extra ridiculous when you consider that Nike doesn’t even carry sizes as big as, say, Girlfriend Collective does.)
But fatphobia goes beyond clothing racks and runways. Described as one of the last acceptable forms of prejudice, fatphobia can threaten one’s socioeconomic status, too, and has plenty of implications in the world of work.
Understanding the Persecution of the Plus-Sized
Fatphobia is generally understood as the aversion to or discrimination against people with obesity. Other words for it are “weight bias,” and “the stigma against obesity.”
Despite the overwhelming evidence that obesity and weight gain are things that are, too often, out of our control, those with obesity are still blamed for their excess weight.
Because people think that obesity is a choice, people with bigger bodies are seen as lacking the willpower and grit to achieve what is considered healthy weight levels.
Studies have shown how they are unfairly stereotyped as being lazy, incompetent, or lacking self-discipline and ambition.
And despite anti-fat people who claim they only care about the health of those with bigger bodies, scholars in and out of the U.S. point out that fatphobia only makes the health problems worse.
The overall effect, among those who are obese and overweight, is that they tend to get so used to the stigma that many start believing they deserve it.
Weight Bias at Work
America has one of the highest obesity rates in the world, but it’s also one of the most fatphobic. Overweight workers are 12 times more likely than workers of “normal” weight to report employment discrimination — a number that rises to 37 for obese workers, and 100 to severely obese workers.
But because fatphobia is so entwined with a culture of blame, people with bigger bodies are not considered an oppressed group. In fact, it is technically legal to discriminate based on weight in all but two states.
Michigan, with its Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, outlawed weight discrimination back in 1976, alongside other protected attributes like race, color, disability, religion, age, and sex. Washington followed suit over four decades later in 2019, alongside a few cities like San Francisco.
This lapse in legislation is even more worrisome when you consider that weight discrimination is on the rise. In the world of work, weight discrimination is felt in every stage of employment, and while it can take on different forms, each is equally insidious.
It all starts with recruitment: Fatphobia keeps bigger-bodied people from getting jobs.
In 2009, a survey of 2,000 employers found that all things being equal, 93% would choose an applicant with a “normal” weight instead of an applicant who happened to have a bigger body — all because we’ve been socialized into thinking an excess amount of weight somehow translates to a lack of virtue.
A 2015 study, this time from the UK, had similar findings: 45% of recruiters are more likely to turn down a fat candidate solely because of their weight.
When people with bigger bodies do manage to get hired, they tend to get paid less. This is something researchers call a wage penalty — and obese Black women tend to suffer the most.
Obese men, for instance, had a wage penalty of around 0.7% to 3.4%. Among obese women, this range is from 2.3% to 6.1%.
Other studies found that an increase of 64 pounds translates to a 9% cut in wages — a decrease that is equivalent to around 1.5 years of education or 3 years of work experience.
In the Roles Given
Fat employees also don’t tend to get hired in customer-facing positions. Because weight and obesity are associated with such negative traits, employers tend to keep bigger-bodied people away from more visible roles to avoid associating their brand with those same traits — that is, if they’re even hiring obese people in the first place.
“Sometimes you’ll see that manifest as, ‘We really want our company to project this kind of image,’” explains Dr. Mary Himmselstein of Kent State University. “‘And you don’t fit that image.’”
In Climbing the Ladder
The struggles don’t stop there, however.
According to research by the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA), people who are overweight or obese are less likely to receive salary increases or get promoted, as compared to workers who have a “normal” weight.
This prevents obese and overweight workers from climbing up the ladder, earning bonuses, and stepping into leadership roles that may help stop the vicious cycle of discrimination.
In Tiny, Everyday Things
It’s also in the little things. Aside from the problems in recruitment, wages, job placement, and career advancement, obese and overweight folk also have to contend with microaggressions every day.
Maybe your thin coworker might make patronizing comments about the vegetables in your obese coworker’s lunch, or perhaps a colleague might make a fat joke around you, and then call you overly sensitive or lacking a sense of humor when you refuse to laugh.
… While in Tandem With Other Forms of Discrimination
Fatphobia doesn’t operate in a vacuum. Women, for example, are 16 times more likely to experience weight-related discrimination in the workplace. And on top of sexism, weight bias also has racist roots (yup, just like the BMI).
Dr. Sabrina Strings, a sociologist at the University of California, Irvine, explains that fatphobia is a byproduct of the transatlantic slave trade.
In her book, Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia, Strings explores how a few hundred years into enslaving African people, mixed-race children began being more common. This posed a problem for colonizers, as color became an unreliable determinant of who, for them, didn’t deserve to be free.
And so it was that eating and body size became new categories for talking about racial identity: Colonizers thought Black people were, by default, more sensuous, both in terms of sex and food.
“So the idea was that Black people had more venereal diseases, and that Black people were inherently obese, because they lack self-control,” Strings tells CBS News. “And of course, self-control and rationality, after the Enlightenment, were characteristics that were deemed integral to Whiteness.”
From then on, middle- and upper-class white women began being told that it was important to watch what they eat not just for health in general but to also demonstrate their racial superiority and Christian values.
This intersection of race and fat discrimination can also help explain why, today, the BMI consistently overestimates obesity among Black folk. Asians, meanwhile, tend to have a higher risk of weight-related diseases even when our BMIs tend to be lower.
This history is why it’s also a little sad how the body positivity movement, which was built by Black women, largely centers white women. Fatphobia affects everyone across genders and races, to be sure, but it’s important to acknowledge this history, too, and how it intersects with other forms of discrimination today to make life especially hard for those who have the triple whammy of being fat, Black, and female.
What Can We Do?
But just like we can be sexist without knowing it — thanks, internalized misogyny! — we can also act in ways that harm those with bigger bodies. And if you’re overweight or obese, it’s not uncommon to internalize these feelings, too, and start thinking you deserve the maltreatment (hint: you don’t).
Recognize the Problem
The key to addressing the problem is to first recognize it in and around you. And if you’ve made it this far, then you’re starting to learn more about how to do that.
Ask yourself: Do you make assumptions about a person’s character, lifestyle, and intelligence based on how big their bodies are?
If you’re in a managerial position at work, it’s worth taking a step back and thinking about how the overweight or obese people in your staff are treated — if they’re there at all. One tool that might help is Harvard’s Implicit Bias Tests, which can assess weight-related prejudice you might not know you harbor.
While you’re at it, the tests cover religious, racial, and gender-based biases, too.
After taking it, you can encourage coworkers and other company leaders to take the tests as well. This can open the doors to more conscious and meaningful discussions about fatphobic ideas and behaviors.
Adjust Company Policies
This part is where it gets a little more challenging. But once you’ve begun the conversation on creating a more equitable workplace for people of all shapes and sizes, you can then start work on rethinking company policies.
A good place to start would be healthcare. Under the Affordable Care Act, employers can (and tend to) charge their employees an extra 30% in insurance premiums if they don’t meet BMI guidelines.
Moreover, just because weight-based discrimination isn’t illegal in most states doesn’t mean you can’t craft guidelines that can prevent it. Consider conducting a review of employee manuals and other pertinent documents to see how these can be improved to be more equitable for employees with bigger bodies. You can also connect with organizations like the NAAFA for guidance.
In this process, it would be good to consult with your overweight and obese staff, too, who experience the discrimination firsthand. You can use the opportunity to learn about other workplace adjustments that can help them be more comfortable at work — whether it’s more spacious office chairs or a clearer anti-discrimination advocacy that can help educate their coworkers, too.
Speak Up When You See Fatphobia
Whether it’s a fat joke or unsolicited weight loss advice, it’s important to step in when you see coworkers behaving in fatphobic ways. It might be our first instinct to stay out of it and move on, but speaking up and showing others that their behavior, no matter how normalized, can be harmful to others is a powerful way to combat fatphobia.
You don’t even have to resort to fighting. Gentle reminders can work, as is questioning why they say those things.
A small “What do you mean by that?” said in response to a fatphobic joke someone expects you to laugh at can help the person question their own beliefs and biases, and hopefully, avoid similar jokes in the future.
If the harassment is a bit more threatening, then it’s worth advocating for your obese and overweight coworkers as well if they want to take the issue to upper management.
You can also start at home. Studies have shown that children as young as three can pick up fatphobic behavior around them. And so, it’s worth gently helping them unlearn what media and caregivers might be teaching them.
Showing them that discrimination of any kind shouldn’t go unchallenged does two things. First, it lets them know that they can count on you to side with them if they ever experience discrimination themselves. And second, it helps them grow up to be adults who understand that it’s important to not judge others based on physical appearance — and can also help improve workplaces of the future.