May 03, 2023, 4:00 am UTC
When weight bias hinders your success at work
In a world obsessed with controlling women's bodies, messages about losing weight and eating less are ubiquitous. There's no escaping them, even in the workplace.
Weight stigma, the stereotyping and discrimination of people based on their size, is a serious problem in professional spaces, with women reporting higher rates of discriminatory experiences than men.
Experts are just beginning to uncover how it impacts women's mental and physical health. The data reveal the stark toll this form of discrimination takes on one's quality of life, linking women's experiences with binge eating, anxiety, depression, and chronic stress, among other problems, in the aftermath of being stigmatized for their weight.
So, what does weight stigma in the workplace look like, and how can we create healthier work environments for women?
Shouldering the burden
In 2015, a research group led by the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Health at the University of Connecticut studied the prevalence of weight bias across Canada, the U.S., Iceland, and Australia. Participants in the study were asked if obesity can be attributed to a lack of willpower and personal responsibility. Many responded yes. In countries where a higher proportion of participants endorsed blame for obesity, weight bias levels were also higher.
This culture of blaming and shaming breeds negative stereotypes towards employees with high weight, who are commonly seen as lazy, incompetent, and unintelligent, according to Rebecca Pearl, a psychologist at the University of Florida who was not involved in the study.
"These beliefs can manifest in different ways in the workplace," she adds. "They can affect decisions related to hiring, firing, promotions as well as wages." In fact, this form of discrimination is so common that 58 percent of respondents across six countries who participated in a weight management program said they've experienced workplace weight discrimination.
58 percent of people across six countries who participated in a weight management program said they've experienced workplace weight discrimination.
So, how are women who do not tick the "healthy weight" box faring, both mentally and physically?
Research has shown that people who internalize weight bias are more likely to binge eat and even develop metabolic conditions that put them at increased risk for diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and high blood pressure.
Numerous scientific studies suggest that inappropriate weight-based remarks from coworkers and supervisors can lead to depression, anxiety, and chronic stress that feed into a vicious cycle of feeling incompetent and struggling to stay productive at work.
"Shaming is just about the worst thing you can do to a person," says Angelina Sutin, a Florida State University psychologist who studies the health impacts of weight discrimination. "And it doesn't [motivate people to lose weight] anyways."
Researchers like Pearl and Sutin, who have studied the toxic health impacts of weight discrimination, say legislation that makes it unlawful for employers to consider weight when hiring will have a widespread impact, shifting the culture for the better. Michigan is currently the only U.S. state to ban weight discrimination. Other states, like New York, Massachusetts, and California, are considering passing bills on the issue.
But systemic change takes time, so what can workplaces do to protect women — and their health — from weight discrimination now?
People can push for changes like adopting policies to reduce bias in hiring practices, not requiring photographs of applicants, and even just as simple as withholding your own comments, positive or negative, about other people's bodies," says Pearl.
Recounting her personal experiences with fat-shaming, Anna Burns, the founder of Seen@Work, a consultancy firm dedicated to improving diversity, equity, and inclusion, recommends promoting a culture of accountability. This, she says, ensures that if remarks are made about people's bodies, they are not tolerated.
But workplace policies alone won't fix the problem. It is equally important for every employee to make an effort to check their own biases toward people with high weight and step up to be allies for those who are experiencing weight-based discrimination.
Some organizations across North America are leading by example and providing helpful resources for fighting weight stigma:
- Everymind at work offers resources for promoting body positivity at work.
- Microsoft’s unconscious bias training educates employees on identifying and tackling their assumptions based on a coworker's appearance.
- The Obesity Action Coalition's action center allows you to support legislature on weight bias and report issues of weight discrimination at work.
- UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy and Health provides employers with actionable steps to promote weight inclusion at work.