Katie German: Fatphobia Is Rampant in the Workplace. Employers Need to Tackle It in Their DEI Strategy

In my experience, both as a fat person and a person in leadership, changes are relatively easy and straightforward to make
(Illustration: iStock)

As a fat person, working remotely means feeling a reprieve from the constant talk about diets that are all too common at work. The judgmental eyes that scan your lunch, comments about trying to lose weight before a vacation, unsolicited diet recommendations…it’s a relief not having to navigate these conversations with colleagues since working from home. 

But now that many of us are back to offices, either full- or part-time, fat workers are being subjected to these microaggressions and systemic forms of discrimination again. I started a new hybrid role during the pandemic as a project manager, and after four months of working remotely, I had my first in-person day at the office. I walked into the staff kitchen to see posters on the bulletin board with tips on how to lose weight. A colleague told me the posters had been there for years and that they made them feel bad about their body every time they saw them. It was a reminder of the fatphobia that exists in workplaces of all kinds, in all sectors. Stigma about weight is pervasive in our workplaces because it’s pervasive in our culture at large. More than 70 per cent of images and nearly 80 per cent of videos in the media stigmatize people with obesity, according to Obesity Canada. The weight-loss industry is valued at US$75 billion in the U.S. alone.

Weight stigma is a real form of discrimination that impacts fat folks in concrete ways. Research shows that fat people are less likely to be hired, less likely to be promoted to leadership positions and make less money than their straight-sized colleagues. About 54 per cent of larger-bodied Canadian workers say they have faced weight discrimination on the job. Legislative changes are happening to protect employees from weight-based discrimination at work. New York City recently amended its Human Rights Law to ban discrimination on the basis of weight and height and there is a movement to do the same here in Canada. 

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As workplaces continue to build out their DEI policies, it’s critical to include fatphobia and weight stigma in this work. Research shows that fatphobia is also linked to racism, as Black women in particular are more likely to experience discrimination based on their weight. Workplaces that have statements and policies on diversity, equity, and inclusion, yet do not take action when it comes to weight bias, are missing the mark.

There are many ways organizations can address fatphobia at work. On top of reviewing policies and practices through the lens of weight stigma and bias, workplaces can book bystander intervention training—something I did in my previous senior leadership role at FoodShare, a Toronto-based non-profit that delivers programs that address food insecurity. We worked with the facilitators to include a focus on disrupting fatphobic conversations at work, and staff had the chance to practice together how they would shut down diet talk at the lunch table—whether that be addressing it directly or redirecting the conversation. As a result, our shared meal times at the office felt like safer spaces for people to enjoy their lunch without fear of comment (or critique) from others. Workplaces can form their own committees and build out a similar action plan, treating this work the same way they would any other DEI commitment, like better gender representation in leadership roles

In my role at FoodShare, my colleagues and I had also introduced mandatory all-staff training about fatphobia at work. We established a staff committee to review our workplace policies and practices through the lens of disrupting weight stigma. We built out a leadership action plan that included embedding training about fatphobia into our onboarding package for all new hires, training the board of directors on weight stigma and auditing our communications materials to see when and how fat people were included in our fundraising and marketing materials.  

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I recently spoke with some of my former colleagues who are fat. They shared that seeing the work we did around weight stigma made them feel more welcome to apply for roles at the organization. Personally, having worked somewhere that took these issues seriously means I know how good it feels to be validated and have this form of bias in the workplace taken seriously. Organizations that don’t prioritize this work are missing out on some top talent when their employees who are fat move on for other opportunities in search of safer spaces to work.

What a workplace physically looks like is crucial. Offices or other work environments should have a variety of chairs to accommodate all staff: some without arms, some without wheels, some with wider seats. Many chairs have a max of 250 lbs. Some commercial office chairs support up to 500 lbs, which would support all workers and are therefore a worthwhile investment. Equally important, there needs to be an easy, non-stigmatizing way for people to choose a chair that suits them so that they don’t have to make a special request. This might look like having a variety of chairs available in a space so people can pick the one that works for them. Employers can include language in their staff onboarding package that lets employees know of this initiative, and how to go about accessing a chair that works for them. 

Organizations need to also consider making staff feel welcomed and included when it comes to ordering uniforms or branded T-shirts for a fundraising event, for example. Businesses should always pick a supplier that offers an inclusive size range of sizing—up to a 6X. And, importantly, they should not collect staff’s clothing sizes in a shared doc or public sign-up sheet. Employees of all sizes may feel uncomfortable sharing their size publicly with others, and this is especially harrowing for anyone living with an eating disorder—which in Canada is around one million people

In my experience, both as a fat person and a person in leadership, these changes are relatively easy and straightforward to make. The challenge is simply prioritizing the work: Taking it seriously, providing resources where needed, and holding your leadership team accountable for making the change. Because if a workplace doesn’t consider all aspects of diversity and inclusion in its DEI, it’s going to miss out on building a more equitable organization.