Fat at Work

Being fat at work can be really difficult to navigate.  There is already evidence that fat people get hired less often and paid less money than our thin counterparts.  Once you do have a job it can be really scary to make waves – even when you are faced with things like getting worse benefits than your thin counterparts, being charged more for insurance, forced to attend company Weight Watchers meetings and more. We’ll look at some of these scenarios but first let’s start with some options on being proactive.

Obviously you shouldn’t have to deal with this.  You should be hired based on your ability to do the job with whatever reasonable accommodations you need for whatever reason, and you should not have to deal with fat shaming and stigma where you work.  You obviously aren’t obligated to do any of these things, and this isn’t an exhaustive list -  these are just suggestions and if you don’t feel that they fit for you then skip them. It’s also completely valid to choose not to do activism at work.

I recently heard a talk by Lisa Tealer who is an amazing woman and speaker who does fantastic work around corporate diversity.  One of the things that she talked about was being visible as a fat person in your company’s health initiatives.  In her case she joined a walking program and then demanded that they get shirts up to 5x which meant changing t-shirt providers.  I think that it absolutely makes sense to get involved in work health initiatives if they seem cool for you and fit within your health priorities, goals and boundaries (for example – I wouldn’t participate in any event that had a weight loss component).

I got this question from reader Mary on Facebook:  “I received an e-mail from my employer today encouraging all staff members to lose weight in an effort to raise money for charities. What would you say to that if you received it?

I’ll answer this in a more general way but outlining what you can do when your employer suggests weight loss.  I would probably send a message to the person in charge of this (HR/My Boss/Whoever) making the following points and asking for a meeting:

  • As someone who practices Health at Every Size I am uncomfortable with my boss suggesting something that goes against the health plan that I’ve created with my health professionals since I don’t want to be torn between my health practice and looking like I’m not a team player at work
  • This could be triggering and dangerous for people suffering from, recovering from, or who have a propensity for developing, eating disorders (for me I could talk about this in the first person but even if I hadn’t recovered from an ED I would want to point this out.)
  • As a fat employee I’m very uncomfortable that my employer has a point of view at all about body size and weight loss rather than being focused on work performance
  • It is my understanding that studies show that the vast majority of people who attempt weight loss gain their weight back and many gain back more, so could they please provide an evidence basis for the efficacy of their weight loss recommendation?
  • All of the pitfalls could be avoided if the employer focused on health rather than weight.
  • I would provide lots of evidence for a HAES intervention
  • I would offer to help including starting an employee walking plan with weight-neutral shame free messaging
  • I would ask for a meeting to talk about this further

Some employers choose to give better benefits to thin employees.  We talked here about that here.

Some employees charge their fat employees more.  We talked about that here.

Finally there are the employers who insist that in order to keep your health insurance costs the same as your thin co-workers, fat people must join weight loss programs.   For this situation I would first and foremost ask for proof of  long-term efficacy and safety.  If it’s one of the programs like Weight Watchers or Jenny Craig, you could bring up the fact that they have been successfully sued by the Federal Trade Commission for deceptive trade practices and ask your employer’s thoughts about that and the “results not typical” .  You could attempt to get notes from your healthcare providers indicating their support for your Health at Every Size practice and saying that dieting is not something that they believe is in your bestinterest.  Be aware that this situation is likely due to the “employee wellness” company with which your employer contracted (often owned by companies that sell the weight loss that they recommend but that’s a different blog) and so your employer may not be able to do anything with it.  I still think it’s worth it to let your employer know the issues with this.

Being fat at work can be tricky and being a fat activist at work can be a risk. How much you want to risk is a very personal decision- risk is the currency of revolution but you don’t necessarily have to pay that at work.  I think in general it’s good to try to make it you and the person you are working with against a problem rather than you against someone at work.  Again, it’s also totally valid to not deal with it at all and just get through your workday or do to activism around some things and not others.  If you have a story of how you dealt with a fat at work situation, I hope you’ll leave it in the comments below!

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So if you find value in my work, want to support it, and you can afford it, I would ask that you consider  becoming a member or supporting my work with a  one-time contribution.

The regular e-mail blog subscription (available at the top right hand side of this page) is always completely free. If you’re curious or uncomfortable about any of this, you might want to check out this post.  Thanks for reading! ~Ragen

Published in: on September 25, 2012 at 1:16 pm  Comments (12)  

12 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Thank you SO much for this Blog. I am earmarking it for future discussions with work, friends and my healthcare provider(s). Thank you for including links to research… It is so helpful to have both talking points and research.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  2. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on workplace wellness programs and the sometimes punitive costs associated with them (e.g., charging employees who do not participate)

  3. My company instituted a wellness program this year. So far, it’s voluntary and is an online place for people to post about what they’re doing to be healthy. So far, the program emphasizes exercise and nutrition–there is very little weight loss talk except from the employees themselves. You can select goals every week–fitness, nutrition, sleep, stress-reduction, etc. And there are silly games. So far, so good. At least it’s voluntary and healthy-habits centered.

    • Would that there were more workplace wellness programs of that ilk, Cathy S!

      I hope it stays that way.

  4. And workplace wellness programs are one of the reasons I love being able to work from home in my own little corner in my own little chair. Nobody I work with even knows what I look like. Nobody I work with gives a rodent’s posterior how big my waistline is so long as I do my job.

    Yep, I’ve got a privilege that I’m glomming onto with both hands.

    • I’m in the same boat – I work for myself now, so I am thankfully very far away from this type of situation. And if a client or contractor doesn’t want to hire me because of the way I look, I’ve still got all my other amazing clients and colleagues to focus on!

      Of course, this doesn’t leave much room for activism or affecting change. But right now I’m comfortable with just focusing on myself and my own wellness – and maybe someday I’ll be strong enough to fight!

    • Duuude! I seriously thought I was the only one who said “rodent’s posterior”.

      Rodent posterior high five!

  5. This hasn’t happened to me yet, but I’m always afraid it will. I’ll be keeping this email/post to refer to later. Thanks!

  6. Sometimes I have issues with working for a small company, but in this regard, it is great. There’s no HR department coming up with wellness programs. When I needed a new chair, I shopped for a chair that would be comfortable and hold my weight; my boss OK’d the purchase. When we were looking to switch life insurance companies and the new company wouldn’t cover me due to height-weight ratio, we stuck with the old company. I’m keeping this job as long as they’ll have me.

  7. Mostly I try to act in advance to avoid having to fight about something as stupid as company-sponsored weight loss programs. I have offered to do trainings at my work around HAES and size acceptance. I have also suggested possible guest speakers for trainings. I have pointed out when a coworker has said or written something that is sizeist/ableist. When I saw on the upcoming events calendar that we were doing a “Focus on Health” month, I talked with my HR staff and provided information and references about HAES and encouraged them to truly focus on health rather than size. It is notable that my employer has never taken up my offers to provide trainings, has never brought in a guest speaker, and the health month fell totally flat and silent. However, when I pointed out the offensive thing written by a coworker, it was effectively addressed.

  8. So far so good but I can see it getting close. Health screenings and exercise programs so far but mandatory counseling for identified health risks is on the horizon. A few groups do it this year but not my org – YET!

  9. The actual PEOPLE I work with are good about having a “people are people” attitude. However, the damn insurance company insists that H.R. post all these stupid newsletters every month, which often have the same old shit about how being large is the biggest threat to your health, like, ever. We also had to take this stupid health assessment crap or pay $20 a month more on our health insurance. You’d think that I was huffing carbon monoxide on a daily basis while snorting cocaine, mainlining heroin, and chasing it all with a fifth of Night Train. It put me in the “very high health risk” category, and I know this was primarily based on my BMI. In reality, I don’t smoke, drink alcohol, or do drugs. I take thyroid medication, lithium, and amlodipine besylate, which is an antihypertensive, because I do have high blood pressure, and I’m proactive about it. My family history raises my risk for heart disease, but so far so good. By the way, none of the people in my family who died from heart disease were “obese.” So there–nyah! Stupid health risk assessment.

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