By Mercy Harper
Discriminating based on weight is fully legal in 48 U.S. states. Yes, you read that correctly. Go ahead and do a Google search to confirm, I’ll wait. So this is the society that we are living in. A nation where you can be fired for having curves.
People in larger bodies are 37 times more likely to report being discriminated against in hiring, performance evaluations, and promotions. On average, plus-size women earn 18% less than women with a “healthy weight” BMI — and this pay gap is trending upwards. Harvard researchers found that anti-fat bias has increased by 40% since the early 2000s.
“This is a human rights issue,” says Virgie Tovar, body positivity activist and author of You Have the Right to Remain Fat. “The adverse outcomes for people in larger bodies are on par with — and at times, exceed — other stigmatized groups currently under the DEI umbrella.”
How Corporate Culture and Initiatives Make Life Harder
Every company wants happy and healthy workers. But many aspects of employee engagement and wellness programs — like step-counting challenges, “biggest loser” contests, weight-restricted physical activities, and corporate swag that doesn’t come in every size — reinforce the stigma against people in bigger bodies. Combine this with the diet talk that is already so prevalent in most workplace kitchens, it becomes indisputable that companies need to do better to create an environment that welcomes people of every size.
“It’s important to look critically at programs, policies, and initiatives that presume everyone should, wants to, or can lose weight, as well as those that are insensitive to the ways that people in larger bodies have generally been socialized to feel shame within engaging in activities that activate the body,” says Tovar.
These common corporate practices aren’t just damaging for plus-size people. They can also harm employees of all sizes who have eating disorders. “If you’ve struggled with anorexia or orthorexia in the past, it can be really triggering when there’s a fitness challenge or everyone’s talking about wanting to lose weight,” says Tiffany Carreker, General Manager and VP of Sales at White Castle. Carreker, who shared her experience as an executive with an eating disorder, recommends that companies take a more thoughtful approach to wellness. “If you’re going to introduce fitness or nutrition at work, you also need to introduce watch-outs for people that might take it too far.”
Change the Conversation About Body Size
Body size discrimination isn’t just unfair, it’s also bad for business. Companies risk making serious missteps in their hiring, promotion, retention, and engagement strategies if they fail to consider the experiences of people who — like more than 70% of all U.S. adults — don't fit into the “healthy weight” BMI range.
For those looking to change the conversation and build body size into their DEI programs, Tovar recommends two steps for getting started. First, educate yourself and your peers about weight stigma as a form of bigotry and the scope of devastation it wreaks on people’s lives and careers. “It’s also important to learn that our cultural understanding of weight and body size is not empirically supported,” adds Tovar. “Commonly held assumptions that higher body weight equals poorer health and that long-term weight loss is widely achievable aren’t proven out in the data.”
Knowing this, Tovar recommends dissecting your company’s policies, programs, and even informal cultural behaviors based on these learnings. “Long-term goal setting could include tactics like auditing visual assets and the company website for size diverse representation, offering implicit and explicit bias training to staff, and making sure there are seating options that go above the standard 200/250 pound weight limit,” says Tovar. But she also notes that there are many actions leaders can take to drive change right now.
“Don’t engage in language that speaks directly or indirectly to the belief that being in a larger body is negative or undesirable — this includes refraining from discussing dieting. Understand the basic realities for employees in larger bodies, like the fact that high-quality professional clothing is not available in extended sizing. Don’t host weight challenges or plan weight-restricted activities,” says Tovar. “Body size urgently needs to be incorporated into corporate DEI. You can and should act now.”
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