As a plus-size woman working in offices filled with birthday cakes and free snacks, Laura Bogart was hyper-aware of the looks and stares.
“I would want it and not eat it and think ‘What am I going to look like as the only person of size and I’m eating the cupcake?’” she says.
Bogart, now a freelance writer, has learned to stay silent during discussion of diets and cleanses.
“This is not the most empowered answer ever, but I put my headphones on and I just don’t pay attention,” she says.
Bogart isn’t just being paranoid. Research shows that in the workplace, obese employees are stereotyped as “lazy, unmotivated, unintelligent, sloppy and lacking willpower.” These stereotypes aren’t just hurtful, they can have a direct impact on an employer’s perception of an employee.
The shadow of stigma
Studies show that discrimination increases the higher a person’s body mass index. Obese or overweight people are often viewed as lacking self-control, which then translates to a lack of desirable leadership skills. As a result, they may be passed over for promotions or, in some cases, they may not get hired in the first place.
Women are slightly more likely than men to suffer the fallout from such stereotypes, says Rebecca Pearl, a psychologist and assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania. Women tend to experience discrimination beginning at lower BMIs than men, in part because a woman’s level of attractiveness can have more of an impact on her career.
It’s not only plus-size people who suffer, Pearl says. In an office obsessed with appearance and weight, for example, internalized weight bias can even affect how people perceive themselves and their abilities.
“Weight stigma affects everyone,” she says. “So even people who are lean can be affected.”
Fighting the stigma
With the exception of Michigan and cities like San Francisco and Washington, DC, overweight people are not a protected class throughout most of the United States, meaning it is technically legal to discriminate against someone based on his or her weight.
“This is the bigger issue: if someone is blatantly discriminated against, there is no legal recourse,” Pearl says. “It seems common sense, but it is not included in civil rights protections.”
Because of this, Pearl says, there’s often a blind spot in company diversity trainings. Companies may address microaggressions and hostile behavior related to race, gender, and religion, but few address how this behavior relates to size.
“When we see diversity trainings, we don’t hear ‘body size’ and ‘body shape’ talked about, even though it is a diversity issue,” she says. “A major issue with obesity is it’s seen as controllable. People face more blame; something like race, it’s pretty agreed upon that someone cannot choose or change their race.”
Pearl recommends companies include body and size diversity in their workplace trainings, taking special care to include examples of microaggressive behaviors that can spread the bias.
“Even if it’s not directed toward them, if they hear someone commenting on other peoples’ weight, a negative comment about what someone else’s body looks like and the clothing they’re wearing — I’ve heard from patients that’s hard not to apply to yourself if you’re of that same weight status,” Pearl says. “It’s not uncommon in our culture. There’s a lot of talk about weight and dieting and for some reason people feel more inclined to comment on weight than other things.”
Bogart says to some extent, she’s given up on trying to fit into the office mold.
“When I was younger, I would hear that stuff and I would be like, ‘Oh my God, your nightmare is looking like I look,’” she says. “It’s interesting because to some degree, we are always ingrained to look at people of size differently. It’s a profound cultural bias. Things will get better, but it will never fully change.”