The influences of diet culture, fatphobia, and weight discrimination are everywhere, from doctor's offices and homes to the workplace and professional settings. Work doesn't exist in a vacuum—it exists in a cultural context, mirroring and upholding our society's cis-hetero white supremacist patriarchal models. We spend much of our lives at work, and a supportive, inclusive, and eating disorder-informed workplace can make all the difference.
Weight stigma or discrimination begins well before setting foot into the workplace. It's extremely prevalent throughout the recruiting and hiring process, with research showing that people living in larger bodies are often expected to be less successful and have less leadership potential than those in smaller bodies.
Evidence also indicates hiring managers frequently hold stereotypes about people of higher weight and are less likely to invite these individuals for an interview. And even if they do interview fat applicants, they are more likely to view them as underqualified. And this is especially true for fat women, who are nearly three times more likely to experience weight discrimination than fat men.1
Weight bias isn't limited to the interview—it's about the history of fatphobia, diet culture, intersections of marginalized identities, and a person's lived experience. For instance, if a person was bullied due to their weight, this could affect their confidence and ability to interview well. In this way, weight discrimination and fatphobia perpetuate, leading to a cycle of bias and stigma.
If people in larger bodies obtain jobs, they are likelier to receive a lower starting salary than a thin peer with equivalent experience. They also tend to work more hours than their average-weight peers.1
Between men and women, fat people experience the most hiring and workplace discrimination. Research shows that women in larger bodies make up to $19,000 less yearly than their average-weight counterparts. This so-called" obesity penalty may subtract three years' worth of occupational experience.2
Studies have also found that paradoxically, although a stereotype of people in higher-weight bodies is that they are lazy, fat women are more likely to work in physically demanding, lower-paying jobs. They're more likely to be on their feet all day doing laborious work, while thin women tend to work in higher-paying desk jobs. Moreover, fat women are less likely to get hired for public-facing jobs than thin women and all men.2
Ultimately, it can be challenging to get hired as a person living in a larger body, especially a woman, which is why many people become solopreneurs and start their own businesses—they are often forced into this circumstance in which they assume a large amount of risk.
When treatment providers ask their eating disorder patients, many of whom live in larger bodies, where they experience the most triggers and bias, they frequently name the workplace as the most common setting.
And many fat people feel powerless to speak up or challenge harmful food and exercise-related comments because they fear social isolation, getting fired, or being considered hostile. While in their personal lives, they may be able to set boundaries and avoid toxic people, work doesn't allow for these boundaries. An inherent power imbalance encourages people living in larger bodies to stay quiet.
Here are six simple, powerful steps you can take as an employer to create an eating disorder-informed and fat-inclusive workplace.
Contrary to a popular eating disorder myth, eating disorders affect everyone—regardless of size, race, sexuality, gender, age, and class. That means that people in higher-weight bodies can and frequently do have eating disorders, and not just binge eating disorder, but bulimia and anorexia as well. Knowing this can help you to understand that you can't tell if someone has an eating disorder simply by looking at them. It's safe to assume that someone on your team, at any given time, likely struggles with body image issues.
Although weight-loss challenges are often a common part of workplace culture, they can be harmful and stigmatizing. There are plenty of other ways to motivate your employees without alienating people in larger weight bodies or people with disordered eating. A safer alternative might be doing a monthly challenge related to engaging in joyful or mindful movement, as defined by each individual. Similarly, do your research before planning team-building activities—some things are weight-restricted and can exclude people living in larger bodies.
When it comes to diet culture and value-based comments related to food and weight, give yourself permission to opt out of the chatter. Even better, you can redirect or correct people who make these types of comments. Over time, you might find the culture of the office changing.
Although lunchtime or food-related meetings can be an important part of socialization and workplace culture for some, these times can be very stressful, distracting, and triggering for others. To be mindful of everyone's needs, consider forbidding food at meetings and eliminating buffet-style lines for work lunches. Buffet-style lines can be stressful and overwhelming, making people vulnerable to the value-based and diet-related conversation.
When choosing which insurance plans and offerings will be available to your employees, keep eating disorder treatment in mind. While many providers and plans include medical and mental health care, they may offer limited treatment or levels for eating disorders. They may also rely on outdated, weight-based diagnostic criteria for eating disorders like anorexia, which can exclude countless people from accessing much-needed care. Also, when ensuring that your insurance policies cover treatment, you will also want to educate yourself on eating disorder recovery, understanding that it can take a considerable amount of time. You need to be patient with employees in recovery—they didn't choose to have this condition.
While educating yourself on eating disorders, you will learn that they are not just about food or body image—they're more about control, an attempt for an individual to regain control. And they are complex, multifaceted psychiatric and medical conditions influenced by many interacting biological and environmental risk factors, including trauma. Know that there is a connection between a history of trauma and eating disorders, with many people struggling with PTSD and a co-occurring eating disorder.
Make your workplace a safe and eating disorder-informed setting by making resources readily available for people who may be struggling. If your employees see you are supportive and proactive, they may be far more likely to admit they have a problem and seek help. And the resources shouldn't be solely for those with eating disorders—they should also be for those around them who may need more information about being a fat ally.