Business Value of Soft Skills
The Business Value of Soft Skills
What are microaggressions, and how do they show up? Blog header
What Are Microaggressions and How Do They Show Up?

What’s Fat Got To Do With It?: Sizeism and Appearance Privilege in the Workplace

What’s fat got to do with it?: Sizeism and appearance privilege in the workplace blog post header

Why are we talking about fat, fat positivity, and body acceptance in reference to workplace discrimination? Well, all bodies are present in our work environments, and I’ve witnessed bias towards bodies that defy the norm as deemed by Western standards (and this conversation can extend well beyond body size!). For example, the Western norm for bodies is dependent on whiteness, having a low BMI, being petite, athleticism, flawless skin that's free of stretch marks, etc.

I often hear that a thin person doesn’t have privilege because they have experienced unkindness and discrimination (think, “Hey, eat a cheeseburger.”) This is a valid sentiment if we're looking at an individual's level of oppression. To begin to explore and break down cultural biases, we have to examine the entire systems by which certain people benefit.

Thin privilege is real and measurable

Thin privilege exists, and people experience benefits from being thin or even in proximity to thinness. There is data that tells a straightforward story about the advantages that straight-size people (non-plus size wearers) can access that fat people can’t. Additionally, data as early as 1988 demonstrates that fat workers are more likely to experience discrimination and stereotyping in the workplace, which can have tangible long-term effects on employee wages.

For example, Linkedin found that, on average fat workers earned $2,512 less than their colleagues with average or “normal” BMI ranges per year. Other studies have shown that the likelihood of being discriminated against at work increases if you are fat. In the US, on average, ​​obese people can expect to earn anywhere from 1 to 6 percent less than normal-weight employees. Heavier women are the ones who experience the most loss when it comes to their paychecks, according to a study by Tennessee State University economists Charles Baum and William Ford.

Let's start with language

Often you’ll hear fatphobia, but fatphobia focuses on the individual much like other isms (racism, sexism, etc.); we also need to focus on the system. So Aubrey Gordon proposes there are a few ways to talk about the system:

  • fatmisia, using the Greek miso-, meaning “hatred” (think misogyny). Fatmisia is certainly more focused on the hatred and bigotry of anti-fat attitudes, though it’s less intuitive to many and takes some defining with each use.
  • I’m partial to sizeism, defined as “discrimination or prejudice directed against people because of their size and especially because of their weight.” While sizeism is more intuitive than fatmisia, it isn’t inherently explicit that fat people bear the brunt of anti-fat behaviors and policies.
Like the word disability, fat isn’t a dirty word but has been used pejoratively against people with larger bodies for a long time. Myself included! We're fighting something that is deeply individual and deeply systemic.

Dr. Victoria Verlezza

Fat isn't a bad word

Like the word disability, fat isn’t a dirty word. It has been used pejoratively against people with larger bodies for a long time (myself included!) We're fighting something that is deeply individual and deeply systemic. In my opinion, we must tackle both the individual and the system. So, let’s start with things you can do as an individual who exists within the system.

  • Increase your understanding of awareness gaps. If you have never considered this conversation before, there’s probably a reason why! Look at our resource list below and start reading, listening, and learning about others’ experiences of moving through the world as a fat person. 
  • Challenge your language. Stop using fat as a "dirty" or "bad" word. Attempt to challenge your thinking about your body and the belief of having to earn food. Listen to Maintenance Phase: the highly recommended podcast that debunks and decodes the wellness world! Read ‘How to Decolonize the Way You Think About Your Body.’
  • If your organization has any appearance codes or dress codes, challenge them. What’s the purpose? Why do they exist? Are they rooted in white supremacy culture? Dress codes often perpetuate oppression. Check out “Fearing the Black Body,” which explores how the female body has been racialized and explores the connection between fatphobia and racism. Also, consider some of these resources on “professional dress” and how office appearance codes can perpetuate racism and sexism.

Now for the systems and how we can challenge our organizations:

  • Focus on the process, not the person. Ensure that your organization doesn’t focus on appearance, and comments about size, weight, and appearance, including hairstyles, aren't permitted to be part of performance reviews or feedback – formal or informal. 
  • Ensure that pay equity is in place so that people who defy your default for size and appearance are paid what they deserve and not based on your implicit association of size and success. Use role-level expectations and rubrics to measure performance, not characteristics of someone’s personality.
  • Divest from workplace exercise challenges. It’s not your organization’s place to challenge folks to lose weight, move more, or ‘get their steps in.’ Rather than celebrating thinness, give people the time and resources to take care of themselves in whatever way they deem best. 

For more information on fatphobia, fatmisia, or sizeism (whichever word you use!), check out the following:

BEGIN YOUR DEI JOURNEY TODAY

Learn the foundations of diversity, equity, and inclusion and how unconscious bias can impact the workplace, along with actionable steps to mitigate bias.