Your Weight 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.

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, like this absolutely amazing article
  • I would offer to help in any way that I could including creating a committee to create an optional employee movement plan with weight-neutral shame free messaging that works for people of varying fitness levels and dis/abilities
  • 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 companies choose to charge their fat employees more for the same benefits.  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 best interest.  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, or at all.  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.

Book Me!  I give talks all across the country and I’d love to give one to your organization. (I’ll be in Northern New York and Central Pennsylvania in the next couple of months if you are in those areas and would like to add an event to those trips.) You can get more information on topics, previous engagements and even testimonials here or just e-mail me at ragen at danceswithfat dot org!

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If you are uncomfortable with my selling things on this site, you are invited to check out this post.

Published in: on July 28, 2014 at 12:45 pm  Comments (27)  

27 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. This is fantastic. Ragen, would you suggest any changes to this approach for allies? It would be great if pushback to this workplace bull-oney came from employees of all sizes/shapes.

  2. I think this sort of workplace weight loss promotion should be illegal on the basis of discrimination. Your employer should not get to make health suggestions to you, period. If you do your job well, that should be that. Your weight and health is your business only.

    • Yeah, I’m wondering about that seriously. Now that the powers that be have officially called “Obesity” [sic] a “disease” doesn’t that make this kind of workplace weight loss campaign fall under discrimination based on health status or disability?

      • any lawyers here?

        • I’m not at all, but I do a bit more reading in that area than does the average layperson, I think.

          To the best of my knowledge, the only US state in which weight/body size is a legal category for discrimination is Michigan. In other states, this is not a protected category.

          Also to the best of my knowledge, in order to get any kind of ruling that this is discrimination based on disability, an individual or group would actually need to file suit against a company for not accommodating according to the Americans with Disabilities Act. Which is certainly theoretically possible but would require real people to make the commitment to doing so publicly. Given that:
          There’s some disagreement among folks in various fat activism/size acceptance circles on whether it would be okay to approach weight/fat/”obesity” in this manner.
          Public shaming and/or ridicule are very probable consequences of undertaking such a suit.
          The acceptability of fat shaming and body size conformity are so ingrained in our culture.
          I can see where a lot of folks would be hesitant to pursue this course of action in their real worlds.

  3. I have been thinking about this for some time. I work for a large government agency that has a large office dedicated to occupational health, a healthy workplace environmental and safety. They have a small medical staff among other things. A lot of their focus was originally on providing a work environment that all can navigate… Making areas handicapped accessible (which can be fun in old buildings) ergonomically sound, no dangerous obstacles/air/sound…

    They have branched out to include a broad spectrum of services: financial management classes, tobacco sessasion, nursing mothers assistance, support groups… They do a lot of good.

    But I get irked with their “health” notices that mention weight. They promote a Weight Watchers meetings. And there’s a freaking BMI calculator on our HR portal.

    I’ve been thinking of putting together a packet of data gleaned here and elsewhere (like that awesome link on FB last night about health care) and giving it to a person I know who works in that office for the office’s consideration. I really do think that if more people in health services-type positions treated weight in a more neutral fashion they would have more success in helping people.

    I really feel the need to put that packet together…

    • That’s really interesting how a lot of this spread from movements for making workplaces more accessible. I know several places that do these employee wellness programs that include weight loss, but still have buildings that are not particularly accessible. Obviously asking employees to lose weight is a lot cheaper than updating an old building or getting a new building that is accessible, but it also seems like an interesting statement of priorities.

    • I cannot tell you how pissed off I am, especially about the BMI on the HR portal. Truly disgusting!

  4. Thank you, Ragen, for the mention of the Tylka et al. article. I have been watching the progress that a friend has made in challenging one of the these workplace wellness programs that has been getting increasingly draconian. With the help of a sympathetic MD, he was able to challenge participating in a letter that documented his MD saying it would not be healthy for him, and then the company came back and said, “You still have to give us your information” (!!!!) and he said nope, and they backed down and gave him the extra money toward premiums after all. So he made money for his efforts and it was the right thing to do anyway. But note that the company wanted his biometric info above all else. The insurers are using this to predict future costs and selling it as well, I would guess. I wish an investigate journalist would look into this.

  5. For an employer to be pushing employees to donate to a particular charity is intrusive to start with-people may have other causes that are more important to them, less money available than the boss assumes, et c. To link giving to charity to changing ones body is ridiculous and abusive. That goes for weight loss, piercing, cutting hair, anything. People can have health, religious, cultural, just don’t want to and so on reasons not to mess with their bodies and no boss has any business overruling their decision.

  6. I had a boss once who decided that our annual review should include questions like what we were doing to stay physical healthy and what we were doing for spiritual nourishment (it’s an organization where that is less crossing the line than usual, but I still thought a line was crossed). I started to answer before I gained my composure and began answering that I wasn’t comfortable talking about such things.

    I went over his head and made my complaints known, and it never came up again. But the more I thought about it, my biggest problem with it was this: if this is suddenly my employer’s business, then you need to give me paid time off to go get the exercise you want me to have. Otherwise, it’s on my own time, completely personal, and a flaming pile of none of your business.

    • What kind of work were you doing? I ask because I’m in the field of social work and talking about self-care and what we do to take care of ourselves is sometimes a pretty frequent topic of conversation.
      Though it also makes me wonder what is meant by staying physically healthy- would saying you are working to get more sleep at night be an acceptable answer? Or was it explicitly regarding physical activity?
      Regardless I would think if the concern was self-care and avoiding burnout a better question would be an open ended “how are you doing with self-care?”, “what struggles have you had since the last review with managing self-care?” (I also like the last one because in an ideal, open work environment this could also open up space for a person to talk about ways they may be lacking organization support for self-care. I remember I had a really great job, I liked, with coworkers and a supervisor I liked, but I hit some major burn out there. Their was no self-care going on on my end because we were so short staffed they had me working too often to take care of myself. I remember when I had a few days off and I needed that break sooo bad, and then I got a call on what was supposed to my first day off that someone else was sick and they needed me to cover and I just collapsed on my floor and started sobbing. My boss was great, but unfortunately the staffing issues lead to burn out for me. So if such questions were to be included I would think something that allows for pointing out ways that organization support for taking care of oneself is lacking would be great. In that vein, if it were me I would also include an explicit question about what could be improved in the organization to facilitate employees taking care of themselves. Would folks benefits from subsidized gym membership? Do people not have enough sick leave? et cetera.)

      • A good question here. I am going into the social work field and I am surrounded by a whole bunch of folks who are into “curbing childhood obesity” and all that crap. They see themselves as crusaders the same way I do, and it’s led to some friction at times.

        • It’s a religious organization, and the question was definitely meant to be about food intake and exercise. (He was the sort of person who’d ask if you knew how many calories there were in what you were drinking, etc.) He had spearheaded an effort across the larger organization to make clergy report on their health habits because the organization paid for their health insurance.

          They do not pay for mine, so there wasn’t even that excuse. Unless I was taking too much sick time or needed ADA accommodations, I didn’t figure it was anyone’s business.

          • I totally feel you on this. This has happened to me at a previous job as well – my boss asking during a review what I was doing to stay active and manage stress. And because it was during a formal review, it felt less like “hey I care about you as a person” and more about policing my mental/physical health so that she could be sure I wouldn’t negatively impact the company. Lots of little comments like that from her, she was kind of a mental health concern troll. Very pushy about needing to know how people felt and policing their attitude and constantly accusing them of being unhappy, stressed out, or disengaged. Constantly asking us about our personal lives then using that information against us. Much happier with my current employer, who understands that sometimes people have bad days and it’s okay.

        • ugh, that’s sad :(

  7. Way before I got my LSW, I was doing some work in the corporate field and firmly remember being told by a coworker that someone carrying too much weight (in their eyes, of course) obviously has an eating disorder. Um, HUH? I have to wonder how much of this point of view is endemic to the workplace environment…

  8. I find the US health insurance thing very scary. What’s worse is that Ireland appears to be heading down the same route. At the minute, my weight isn’t an issue in work, isn’t even something to talk about. Over lunch we’ll occasionally have a conversation about eating/food/losing weight etc, but it’s a very non-weight-centric environment. And our private health insurance is covered by the company – we filled out a form with name, address, next of kin etc and we’re covered for a fairly wide range of private care. I dread the steps the govt is taking to copy the US system though – it seems like hell on earth.

    And I think if ANY employer was to be so intrusive as to be asking these kinds of questions – I’d leave. But I’m grateful I’m able to think like that – I have transferable, in-demand skills. If I was trapped in a workplace like that with no escape – I don’t know how I’d cope!

    My respect to those of you who have to deal with this all. the. time.

  9. I’d like to think anyone, regardless of their size, would be offended by an email suggesting the office lose weight to support a charity. I know my first reaction would be ‘WTF.’

  10. I work for one of those delightful companies where we have to have health screenings or be punished with having to pay higher health insurance costs. They aren’t happy even if the employee DOES meet all their criteria for health—i.e. the employee is thin and has a socially acceptable BMI. Or at least Web MD, where we were required to fill out a very invasive questionnaire after our screenings were done was not happy.

    Last year was the first year we had to do the screening. I weighed 119 at 5’1″ with 4-5 pounds of clothes on. All my blood numbers were beyond excellent. The health care professional who actually did the screening was quite pleased. But, , even with all that I still got all kinds of Concern Trolling out of Web MD about my screening results and my questionnaire.

    This year is the second year we had to do the screening routine. THIS time around I was 112 with 3-4 pounds of clothes on and the blood work numbers improved slightly and were now at the levels that allegedly give doctors orgasms. The different health care professional who did the screening was again happy and not concerned.

    While the questionnaire this year was far less invasive after many complaints last year Web MD STILL was displeased with me. No, and not because I’d lost 7 or so pounds I hadn’t exactly planned on losing, it just sort of happened. Perhaps I would be acceptable to them if I am at the lowest possible weight that is still in the Normal range , but I rather doubt it. Anyway, they’ll just have to deal, because weighing 90 something pounds isn’t possible for me with my naturally solid muscular build anyway so that’s not gonna happen. They also decided, based on ZERO evidence given them in the questionnaire that I was dangerously stressed out and needed interventions for that! Rigggggggght. They only thing that was stressful was their draconian apparently impossible to achieve measure of acceptable health. Since I am smaller and thinner than at least 95% of the post puberty US population I can’t imagine what kind of harassment every one else who has to do these sorts of screens has had to put up with.

    • Wow. That’s just … well, that’s … I can’t even think of a word to describe that! I hate this kind of invasion.

      • Ludicrous works pretty well for a word.

        I know that people with BMI’s considered too high got told they were OMGDEATHFATZ! but don’t know the specifics of what they got told by WebMD’s software. Given the finger wagging I got for being at a “normal” (yet somehow still bad or wrong) weight for my height it probably was quite spectacular. The one person I know of who actually IS underweight, due to a myriad of chronic long term health issues, well, that was scold worthy too, because of course ANOREXIA!EEK!

        Last year’s questionnaire was beyond belief, it really was.Questions about our sex lives or lack thereof among other questions of similar None Your Business areas. With moralistic judgments made by Web MD about our answers to these invasive questions. People HAD to have made serious complaints over the legality of all that because this year’s questionnaire was much less intrusive without the moralizing about our answers.

        These hand-wringing Health Bullies are only paying lip service to their claims that But We’re Just Sooooooo Worried About Your Health! at best. At worst they are flat out lying about their real intentions.

        • Well, that would just have freaked me out. I would have complained absolutely!! EW.

    • Yikes.

  11. As a small skinny person I certainly enjoy a disgusting amount of Thin Privilege that is quite disturbing because I know that others don’t have the same advantage, and that this is just plain flat out wrong. But when even someone like me isn’t enough to be proper and acceptable to the worst of the health inquisitors it only proves how pointless their standards are.

  12. I’d love to see the HR directive that encourages employees to increase their IQ points or obtain competency in a foreign language as a way to “raise money for charities”.


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