Strategies for dealing with size prejudice in the workplace
By Kerri S. Smith
First day on the new job, right out of college. I'm dressed '80s-style professional, from my discreet pearls to my taupe pumps. As I'm filling out paperwork, Miranda, the human resources manager, casually drops a bomb: "You know, when I hired you, I had to consider the possibility of a death claim, because of your weight."
Miranda was a fatphobe, a hater of plus-size bodies, and just the first of several I have encountered in the workplace since then. Some fatphobes hide behind a saccharin-sweet concern for your health. A few are blatant harassers, the type who oinks loudly when you pass through the cafeteria line. Fatphobes exist at the decision-making level, too, keeping the plus-size employees in the back office, or managing promotions so that the entire female sales staff is Ally McBeal-thin.
Low self-esteem may be behind the fatphobe's unprofessional behavior, says Debra Fine, a motivational coach who specializes in workplace communications. "When somebody does that to you, they don't have a life. And it's so much easier to criticize you than look at their own problems; it makes them feel better," she explains. Realize that you probably can't change a fatphobe by explaining about genetics, lifestyle influences, set points, yo-yo dieting or size acceptance, Fine advises. It's a waste of time, because ignorance - lack of knowledge - is not the dynamic in play here.
Denver psychotherapist Susan Latta tells clients about a network news show that sent the same woman to a company for two job interviews, a week apart. The applicant wore a padded "fat suit" to the first interview, and took along an excellent resume. She didn't get the job. A week later, the same woman returned, using a different name, minus the fat suit and carrying a less stellar resume. She was offered a job on the spot.
Bottom line: fatphobes can not only make you unhappy, and they can hurt your career.
"There is massive discrimination against large people, especially women," Latta confirms. "It's a discrimination that we as a society keep our eyes closed to. But people are going to have to address the subtle and not-so-subtle workplace discrimination, because an increasing number of people are big."
What's the best way to handle a fatphobe? Confrontation is essential, Latta says. "You don't have to do it in a negative way, necessarily, but most of the time you should confront them or the remarks will continue," Latta explains. Her suggestions:
- What you're saying is offensive to me. You may not intend it that way, but what I'm hearing is offensive.
- I'd like you to quit talking about dieting or how fat you are when you're around me.
- Fat jokes are not OK. That feels abusive and is hurtful to me.
Interestingly, Fine suggests a different response than Latta. "Don't lower yourself to respond. Instead, take a deep breath, and try to find the grace and serenity within your own self. Now focus on putting the negative energy away from you - and walk away."
Why take the high road? She says, "When someone attacks you - and this is an attack - you know this is a discriminatory, offensive individual. You can't change them. They want to see your anger. It's better to maintain your dignity and well being, while refusing to let the negative energy penetrate your spirit."
If it is impossible to ignore the fatphobe, Fine suggests BBW readers borrow the tactics of "bully proofing" currently being taught in her child's school. The idea is to teach a child to stand up for himself/herself, and not allow verbal manipulation.
"You do not show fear or do what the bully dictates, because that rewards the bully, she says. Instead, stand up, look them in the eye and say, 'I don't need your fashion opinions.' Or 'Your comment doesn't interest me' and "I would prefer that you didn't bring up this topic with me.'" Do not engage in debate or argument. Use body language to indicate the topic is closed: turn away physically or leave the room.
Another option is to take the person aside when you're alone and say, "I don't appreciate your remarks." Don't fall for the "I'm-worried-about-your-health" routine, Fine says, because a real friend would never subject you to rude workplace questions or public humiliation.
Simply speaking up in an assertive, specific manner will wilt about 80 percent of fatphobes. But these tactics won't work with people who are hostile or jockeying for the same position you want. Telling a competitor "that hurts me" is useless, and actually makes you seem more vulnerable. In this case, Latta counsels, just walk away or stay silent.
There is another way to handle things, of course: lodging an internal complaint against the fatphobe. Type up your complaint in memo form, including names, dates, details and witnesses, if any, to the most egregious incidents. The document should be directed to your supervisor, and copied to human resources. In the complaint memo, ask for a meeting to discuss the situation. Obviously this scenario is more difficult if it's your supervisor who's the perpetrator. In that case, bypass your boss and send the memo directly to human resources.
Because plus-size workers generally aren't protected by anti-discrimination legislation - except in Michigan - your best legal option is most likely found in your employer's policies and procedures. Get a copy of the policies and procedures manual. Is there an anti-harassment policy, or a sentence saying that employees will be treated with respect and in a professional manner? That's leverage, says Gilbert Roman, a Denver civil rights attorney and author of How to Protect and Enforce Your Employment Rights.
"You need to tell a supervisor, 'I think I am being harassed in violation of the company's anti-harassment policy.' Most employers will take some type of prompt, remedial action when they hear this," because they fear a lawsuit, Roman says.
Both scientific and anecdotal evidence suggest that plus-size women as a group are treated poorly by some employers, compared to the employer's thin female workers. Can this constitute sexual discrimination, which is banned by federal and state laws? Maybe, Roman says. The most fertile area for a legal resolution is based on what is called "sex-plus" discrimination.
"The legal theory is that this isn't straight discrimination, but is based on gender plus something else, another factor. For instance, before the pregnancy discrimination law was passed, an employer discriminated against pregnant workers. Not all the women suffered, but the pregnant women did, and the court agreed it was clearly sex-plus," he explains. "This is an area where I anticipate the law will eventually go, but it's not there yet."