Does your diversity exclude fat people?

5 simple ways organizations can begin to cultivate a size-inclusive culture

One thing we ask of participants in our DEI Foundations course, is to reflect on the aspects of their identity that they think about the most. It’s an important question, because the identities that we are most aware of, those that are always on our mind, are the areas where we have the least privilege in our lives. For me, my size is always on my mind. It’s the aspect of myself I think of most – personally, socially and professionally.

In a fat-phobic, fat-shaming culture, there are real consequences for people of size, especially in the workplace. Overweight people are more than 50% likely to be given a negative performance review compared to their non-overweight colleagues, even when their outcomes and achievements are the same. Research shows that overweight employees, regardless of their performance, face negative workplace stereotypes that characterize them as lazy, less intelligent, sloppy and lacking in self-discipline. In a study on fat pedagogy and microaggressions, fat professors in higher education settings feel compelled to overperform, using overperformance as a strategy for combating assumptions that their research is less credible than that of thin professors. As an overweight professional with an academic background myself, these realities hit home.

Weight bias is ubiquitous in our society

Size bias exists in every facet of our society, across all industries. Healthcare, for example, is an industry that blames, shames, abuses and discriminates against fat people. When I was pregnant with my first child, the OB told me that I wouldn’t feel her kick because there was too much fat cushioning my womb. The humiliation of her comment (which, by the way, was false – I felt every single kick, punch and movement my daughters made from the first trimester) still shames me, a decade later.

Weight bias in our culture starts young 

Research has shown that weight bias begins to develop in children as early as preschool age, with thin preference being entrenched between the ages of 9-11. Both of my girls went through a period when they were 3-4 years old when they would tell me they wished I was like the other moms. When I asked what that meant, they said “skinny.” Today, my youngest daughter, who is almost six, has changed her tune, telling me she’s glad I ate too much when I was young because now I’m squishy and perfect for cuddling. My husband and I have created a home where there are no Barbies, but plenty of diverse dolls; where there is no cable TV, but shelves of children’s literature featuring diverse characters; and, where we make it a priority to never comment negatively on our own bodies, or theirs. Still, the desirability of thinness is a message that creeps in from school, friends, movies, neighbours and extended family. 

Microaggressions against fat people are rife 

So much so, that #FatMicroaggressions has become a trending hashtag. All fat people are subjected to incessant, unsolicited comments and microaggressions about their weight, from “but you have such a pretty/handsome face” to “but you carry your weight so well.” 

Fat people suffer indignities in the workplace every single day 

My first real job as a teenager was as a cashier at Safeway. In those days, the uniform for women was a knee-length white polyester dress with crimson red piping. It was 1990, and the women’s size range stopped at a size 10. As a petite-height size 14, I had to have a dress custom-made by Safeway headquarters, which required three off-site fittings and took two months to arrive. For the first two months, I wore black pants and a white shirt (purchased at my own cost), while colleagues and customers unkindly peppered me with questions about why I didn’t have to wear a uniform like everyone else. 

Later on in my career, I remember a colleague who was a subordinate and my direct report. Unprompted one day, he asked me, in front of three of my other direct reports, why I “hadn’t considered exercising?” At the time, I was the smallest I had ever been as an adult and, at 157 lbs, was running 5km, 5 times a week.

While working In Afghanistan, to reach universities outside of Kabul I flew in a tiny UN airplane. There was a battered old bathroom scale on the tarmac, where both luggage and passengers had to be weighed. Standing on that scale while the porter shouted out my weight for what felt like the whole universe to hear, was mortifying. If the plane was over the weight limit, would they just open up the door and throw me out?

Once on a work trip, I was 3 months pregnant and taking a flight from Kenya to Zimbabwe. I was assigned a seat in the very first row of economy class on an old airplane. The first row of those old planes always has armrests that don’t move up and down, and don’t have an open space between the bottom of the rest and the seat cushion. It’s like being in a vice-grip. I twisted and contorted. Tried lying on my side. Held my breath. Not possible: I literally did not fit into the seat. I discreetly explained my situation to the flight attendant and asked if I could be moved; she looked me up and down with disgust and told me the plane was full and there was nothing that could be done. I was too embarrassed to ask any other passengers. After take-off, during which I suffered horrific shoulder cramps from pinning myself into the seat, I spent the remainder of the 3 hour flight standing up in the galley by the washrooms.

During a period at work when I was the heaviest I have ever been, I regularly walked long-ish distances to meetings across campus. My supervisor at the time was thin and very athletic. She would often stop by my office and we would walk to meetings together, chatting along the way. Her pace was fast. Like, really fast. I was speed walking, sweating, barely able to keep up and desperately trying to hide that I was out of breath. I would actually hold my breath while jaunting up stairs, hoping she wouldn’t hear me panting and wheezing. She didn’t slow down or adjust her pace to accommodate me. I felt as though she didn’t notice I was struggling or that it never occurred to her that as a short, fat person I might not be able to walk that fast. It was the first time in my life that I experienced ableism. Disability is an outcome created by the barriers that society and the able-bodied erect against those with physical or mental impairments. My supervisor’s inability, or unwillingness, to accommodate me during those walks, made my size a disability.

How can an overweight employee be at their best and do their best work when the workplace steadily chips away at their confidence?

Here are five simple ways your organization can begin cultivating a size-inclusive culture today:

  1. Review your onboarding process. For example, start asking employees about any equipment accommodations they may need (i.e. office chairs, etc.) before the person comes in for onboarding. Instead of making an employee sit or squeeze uncomfortably into their chair or workspace for weeks or months until newly ordered equipment arrives, make sure this is set up for them from day one. Annually, send out a survey and/or invite all employees to inform HR if adjustments are needed to any equipment. These actions benefit not just overweight employees, but tall people, people with back problems, people with disabilities, people with mobility challenges or anyone who needs some accommodations in these areas.
  1. Review your policies. For example, does your travel policy include the purchase of a business class seat, or an adjacent seat, in cases where a person may require it? Is the booking and/or reimbursement process simple, and shame-free? Does your organization – or your industry – require frequent travel? If so, what kind of advocacy and/or education can you and partner organizations undertake to encourage airlines to address size discrimination in their own policies?
  1. Safety. If you are situated within, say, the construction industry, is your PPE available  and easily accessible in an extended range of sizes? 
  1. Uniforms. If your organization has a uniform dress-code, are uniforms available and easily accessible in an extended range of sizes, for both men and women? If an employee needs a uniform custom-made, is the fitting and ordering process simple, fast and shame-free? Can the start-date of the employee be delayed until the uniform is ready, thereby reducing the chance of the employee being singled out or stigmatized in front of colleagues by not wearing the required uniform for the first days or weeks on the job? Periodic and even seasonal shifts in weight and size are normal for human bodies. Does your organization have a simple, cost-free, and shame-free process for employees who need to request and/or order a uniform in a different size?
  1. Swag. If you are giving branded clothing to your employees (or clients), make sure you offer an extended range of sizing, for all genders. Don’t humiliate women and trans women by forcing them to order from the men’s size sheet. Better yet, why not remove clothing entirely from your swag list and focus on things like bags and backpacks, bottles, journals, etc that don’t have the potential for humiliation?

We would love to know in the comments below how your organization is making size-acceptance a part of its culture of inclusion. If you need some more strategies specific to the needs of your organization, MT Consulting Group can help.

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