Fatphobia – or discrimination hiding in plain sight?

How to deal with fatphobia at work

“People told me that nobody would hire me because I’m fat. They told me, ‘You’d better lose weight before you try finding a job.’”

Statements such as these have been heard by every fat person. Being overweight has a stigma that permeates throughout many aspects of life – and work is no exception. It is often seen as a lack of control and inability to manage your health, and employers sometimes claim that those traits will affect a person’s work ethic. It starts on day one, when larger people worry that asking for simple measures to accommodate their size (such as a chair that fits them) will reinforce the stigmas around fatness. While obesity is largely considered to be a result of eating too much and not burning it off, some people can be genetically predisposed to gaining weight more easily. While conversations about equality have been a constant buzz over the past couple of years, few employers have brought body size into the discussion. Welcome to the Jungle caught up with two body-positive activists on how they are fighting the stigma and telling employers that the size of their body is none of their business.

Preamiitha Prakash

“Fat, loud and proud”

Preamiitha Prakash has come a long way since her first job. The senior marketing executive now heads her CV with the slogan “Fat, loud and proud”, next to a full-length photo of herself. But she’s been on a long journey of discrimination and workplace bullying to get to this point. It started before she even entered the job market in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. “I’ve been fat my whole life – even before I joined the workforce,” she says. “People told me that nobody would hire me because I’m fat. They told me, ‘You’d better lose weight before you try finding a job.’ I think every fat person has heard that.”’ But Preamiitha did find her first job – at an events company.

Things started off well enough, but at a certain point her boss overstepped the mark. “Two years into my career my general manager pulled me aside and said, ‘When you first joined, you were fat. But you were not that fat so everything was good. I feel like you’ve gained weight, and I’m worried that it’s going to affect the work you’re doing.’”

“I was really young when I joined the company so I took everything he said to heart. I thought he was really concerned about my health. He actually got me and a few of my other colleagues who are slightly overweight to join this diet plan.’”

Preamiitha says once she started the diet, her manager would watch what she was eating at lunchtime. “He was actually monitoring my food. If I brought pasta, he’d be, like, ‘Oh, you’re eating pasta today? What happened to your diet?’ And I would have to explain myself, which I don’t think is something you need to do in a work environment.’” Her boss was not worried about Preamiitha’s health, but the fact that she was too fat to be aesthetically pleasing. “He was just perpetuating the stereotype that when you reach a certain weight, you are no longer acceptable to look at.’”

Her claims are backed up by studies about weight-based stigma. The Institute for Employment Studies found that there is evidence of an “aesthetic labour market” – where employers will seek personal characteristics in candidates, such as whether they are “outgoing” or “attractive.” Preamiitha also notes that it is mostly fat people who are on the receiving end of health advice from their bosses – while the unhealthy habits of others are ignored. There is an insidious motive at play.

“Why don’t you go up to every person who smokes or go to the party girl who drinks every day? Why aren’t you saying anything to these people? I think it is because they still look at them as human because they’re skinny. They are socially acceptable. You can look at them and you don’t feel uncomfortable.”

For Preamiitha, however, there was light at the end of the tunnel. Since quitting her first job, she has been treated far better by employers, which has filled her with confidence. “When I started my new job I was traumatised – I was scared to walk into the office and even to talk to people. In my head, their first thought was going to be, ‘Oh my God, she’s so fat.’ That was the thing I carried with me from my previous job. But I had a manager who willingly booked two flight seats so I would be comfortable going for a work trip without me having to ask. I think the experience paved the way for how I am today. For the longest time I thought I didn’t deserve respect because it was drummed into my head that unless you lose weight, you don’t deserve a good job, you don’t deserve a good salary. Now I would demand it.”

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Far Mohammed

Scared of the stigma

Far Mohammed is a teacher in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Before she took up her current post, she was employed in a secondary school. While working there she suffered from chronic back pain that limited her movement. Although her condition had nothing to do with her weight, the stigma around fatness made her feel anxious about asking for the adjustments she needed in order to be comfortable. Too much movement and sitting in a small, hard chair exacerbated her condition.

“I have a medical condition – I’m getting treatment for it now but I used to be too afraid to talk to anyone about it. I had really bad back pain when I walked. Because people often think that my weight is the problem, I didn’t know how to have that conversation with my boss. But when I was working, my body was hurting a lot.”

She was too nervous to ask for breaks from physical work, and for a chair that accommodated a person of her size. She feared it would lead her employer to think that someone as fat as her could not do the job. “In my case, when I do experience discomfort, or when I do need some accommodation, it feels like that stigmatisation becomes real. This narrative that you’re a failure becomes true. When you’re fat you feel you have to prove yourself even more, and so voicing your needs is just out of the question. You’re not supposed to do that, you’re supposed to be even better than other people because you’re competing with people who are street-sized.”

Peggy Howell, from the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (Naafa), says that employers often see fatness as lack of control – over diet, exercise and self-care. These biases lead to a reluctance by employers to make the kind of changes they might for people with conditions seen as out of their control. “People blame us for our body size, they say we’re responsible for it, whereas if someone is born differently abled, or if you’re born with brown eyes, then you’re not blamed for that. But the fact that I can be fat is as inheritable as the DNA that controls the colour of my hair and my eyes.”

Eventually the pain that Far experienced at work was too much to put up with – but her next journey presented new issues. “At the end of my time in [that previous job], I was in a lot of pain. I decided to quit. I did not have any job prospects after that, so there was a period of seven months out of work for me. I was constantly anxious because I was in pain. I’d go into job interviews but they didn’t have chairs that could accommodate me. They would have chairs with armrests and I can’t fit into those. Already I have to have a conversation with a future boss to make sure I’m comfortable in my new work environment.”

Darliene Howell, the administrative director at Naafa, says fatphobia begins at the interview stage and continues to affect progress throughout a person’s career. “The ability to promote [someone] within a company is very often determined by how the person looks. [We have] preconceived notions that if somebody that is fat walks in the door, that’s how they will present to the public.”

Bringing up the topic of weight can be anxiety-inducing for some people – they fear that employers may respond with stigma and disgust. A study by the Institute for Employment Studies says that fat employees experience feelings of isolation and shame, and feel powerless to address them. The report suggests that making adjustments to workplace behaviour to reduce the risk of stigmatisation of employees can go a long way.

But as bosses, as co-workers and as friends, we can help make the workplace free of discrimination. Simply expressing to someone that you accept them and are willing to make any necessary adjustments for them can go a long way towards bringing the members of a whole team, no matter what their size, to their fullest potential.

Photo: Photo Unsplash

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