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Obesity; the barrier to success

People who are overweight are less likely to be hired, are lower paid, have fewer opportunities and are often bullied in the workplace. And it is women who bear the brunt of the discrimination.

After Karen had gained weight, her boss told her she could no longer work as a receptionist. She was sent to work in the post room instead. “He told me the news during a team meeting – it wasn’t even in a private interview,” she says. “Everybody accepted it as a normal decision, including myself. I thought it was my own fault; I shouldn’t have gained the weight.’’

Karen actually worked for a clothing company and was supposed to wear the company’s clothes behind the reception desk.

“At one point I reached size 18, but their clothes only went up to size 14. I asked if I could wear something else – I said I had clothes in the same style. But they made it clear it would be bad for the company’s image to have an overweight person in reception.”

Only later, when she ended up in a wheelchair due to Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (a disorder of the connecting tissue that had nothing to do with her weight), did Karen come to understand her earlier treatment in the workplace.

“I was so used to people looking at my body and judging me that I never experienced this as discrimination. But sitting in a wheelchair, I noticed people stopped looking at my body and started looking at my wheels – and it made me realise just how much of what I encountered in my earlier life was due to body shaming. That’s when it dawned on me that what happened at that clothing company was totally wrong.”

Louise, a manager at a British telecom company,  believes her career opportunities were also severely restricted by her weight. “I joined a new company and was very overweight, wearing a size 24. I was very good at my job, but found it difficult just to get invites to meetings, let alone extra work opportunities on projects. I wasn’t meeting customers; I was very much hidden in the background. At the time, I didn’t realise why that was. I thought I just needed to build my network.”

Then Louise started losing weight and went down to a size 12. Suddenly, she found she got more opportunities at work: “Within 12 months of losing weight, I’d gone from managing six people to managing 100 people. I was in front of the more senior board members, whereas I didn’t have access to them before. It was a lift in my career.”

But she didn’t give any thought to the reason until a male colleague told her that, as a ‘fat bird’, she hadn’t been management material. “I wasn’t suitable for putting in front of customers. He confirmed that being fat was holding me back at work. That’s when I realised it is actually all about looks. I feel that’s really sad.”

In the UK, the percentage of obese adults increased from 15% in 1993 to 27% in 2015, by which time 58% of women and 68% of men were designated overweight. All over the world, countless studies reveal that overweight employees face widespread prejudice.

To begin with, they are less likely to be hired for a job. In a 2016 study led by the psychologist Stuart W Flint of Sheffield Hallam University, participants were asked to evaluate candidates for different types of jobs. Shown hypothetical CVs with photographs depicting fat and thin people, the participants clearly perceived men and women of average weight to be the most suitable for employment. Obese women were the least likely to be hired. The researchers concluded that stereotypes of obese people being “less physically capable and slothful” were likely to have played a role in this outcome.

Earlier this year, University of Pennsylvania researchers concluded that obese people are stereotyped as being “lazy, incompetent, unattractive, lacking willpower and to blame for their excess weight”.

The result of this prejudice is not only that overweight people stand less chance of getting a job; they are paid less, too. In 2016, researchers at the University of Exeter found that a woman who was a stone heavier would on average earn £1,500 less a year than a comparable woman of the same height. Overweight people also work longer hours, are considered less qualified for leadership positions and are expected to be less successful, according to studies.

In her recently published bestselling memoir, Hunger, the American author, Roxane Gay, describes the painful situations she encounters being obese. Time and again, she writes, organisers of literary events are embarrassed by her appearance. “People don’t expect the writer who will be speaking at their event to look like me. They don’t know how to hide their shock when they realise that a reasonably successful writer is this overweight. These reactions hurt, for so many reasons. They illustrate how little people think of fat people, how they assume we are neither smart nor capable if we have such unruly bodies.”

Studies routinely find it is overweight women, in particular, who bear the brunt of this disrespect and discrimination. In 2014, researchers at Nashville’s Vanderbilt University found that overweight women earn less money than slimmer women, whereas obese men seem to do just as well as slim men. This led researcher Jennifer Shinall to conclude: “It really seems to be more of a sex-discrimination issue.”

“Overweight women suffer far more than overweight men,” agrees Tam Fry of the National Obesity Forum, “because people think women should be slim and attractive. In contrast, people think men are slobs and therefore if they are overweight, so be it. I have interviewed many overweight people who have been victimised in one way or another – and the majority of them were women.”

Louise offers a different explanation for this gender imbalance. “Men who are overweight aren’t necessarily judged as incompetent because often they are in control – whereas, as women, we are still trying to get a seat at the table.”

“Historically, the notion of a big guy has always been perfectly acceptable,” says psychotherapist Susie Orbach, the author of Bodies and Fat is a Feminist Issue. “Men are meant to be big and strong, and women are meant to be tiny and not take up too much space. They can have everything in the world now, but they have to be slim. That’s the horror of the current aesthetics for women. Young girls are taught at an early age that their bodies are for display and not for anything else.”

Some overweight men do encounter discrimination at work, however. “I weigh 21 stone and I was the only member of the management team who wasn’t offered private health insurance as part of my package,” recalls Martin. “During an interview for a new member of the senior team, the CEO began discussing the candidate’s package – offering, among other things, private health insurance. In a joking fashion, he added: ‘We only offer free healthcare to the healthy ones.’ It was one of those jaw-dropping moments.”

Martin says the CEO admitted to one of the other directors that he was “well aware” Martin didn’t receive private healthcare. “I am a big man and I have a very big beer belly. It was clear the CEO expected me to be more likely to make a claim. I decided not to bother arguing about it, but I felt very demotivated.”

A saleswoman in a British clothes shop wrote that she had been forced to walk out in front of customers in a uniform that was too small while her managers looked her up and down. A male employee who gained weight was told by his manager to utilise the company gym because she was unhappy about him being “plus-sized”.

According to Orbach, “Large people are demonised because we have a widespread panic about bodies and food. Lots of people who are so-called normal weight struggle with eating problems … [but] the thing about larger people is that their problems show, and nobody wants to know. What we project on larger people are aspects of ourselves that we are trying to hide from.”

Prejudice against overweight people can easily lead to outright bullying at work. “For some people, it is horrific to go to work because of the bullying they can expect when they get there. This kind of bullying is particularly shameful because their weight may be beyond their control. There are many fat people who have a genetic or metabolic disposition to being fat.”

Jennifer has worked for many years as a teacher. She says colleagues sometimes refer to her as “the walrus”, and make comments such as “better bring two chairs” when she wants to sit down. “I’m not appreciated for my qualities as a teacher because they are only looking at my weight,” she says. “Another staff member is homosexual and he once told me how hard it had been for him to be accepted. I said: it’s been like that for me too, because I am fat.”

According to Jennifer, the bullying has now reached such a level that her job is at risk. “My boss recently threatened to dismiss me because I lost a test form – this simply cannot be a reason to dismiss a person. I think the real reason is that she feels my body is an embarrassment to the school. She doesn’t want parents to be confronted with an obese teacher.”

Asked if she has considered going to court, she replies: “I have often thought about things I could do to change the situation. I’ve considered confronting my colleagues, writing an article, even writing a poem. But going to court would lead too far. And anyway, how am I going to prove that I am discriminated against because of my weight?”

Legally speaking, it would not be easy for Jennifer to bring a claim. In UK law, there is no particular provision for discrimination on the grounds of weight. “You could say that there is a gap in the law,” says Nigel Mackay, an employment and discrimination lawyer. “Your right to bring a claim is quite limited.”

Mackay says when someone is mistreated in the workplace because of their weight, they generally need to link it to something else to bring a legal claim. “If their weight could be perceived as a disability, for example, they can make a case on the grounds of disability discrimination. I have also advised in a case where a woman was harassed in the workplace because of her appearance, including her weight. She brought a claim on the grounds of sexual harassment. The case was settled in the end.”

In 2014, the European court of justice ruled that obese workers are entitled to disability protection if it hinders full participation at work, after the landmark case of a Danish childminder who claimed he was dismissed because of his weight. This principle was applied the following year in the UK case of Neil Bickerstaff, who was harassed by a colleague because of his morbid obesity and brought a claim on the grounds of disability discrimination. His claim was upheld by a Northern Ireland industrial tribunal, and his colleague was dismissed.

But such cases are the exception, leaving many people to suffer in silence at work. “Fat-shaming is such a widespread problem,” says Karen, who worked for the clothing company. “Ever since we were young, we have all been told that fat people are unhealthy and have no self-control. It really is nobody’s choice to be overweight – but whatever we say, people will persist in believing it is our own fault.”

Telecom company manager Louise says it is the “unseen discrimination that is hardest to deal with, as it is always denied”. Then she amends that. “Unconscious bias is even harder, as those who are guilty of it don’t even know. This is where awareness needs to be built.”


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