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How To Deal with Fatphobia in the Workplace

Written by Helen Harris at LinkedIn and supported by Serena Nangja, Aubrei Hayes MPA, and Miriam Lara-Mejia the La Gorda Feminista

Weight discrimination dates back to anti-Black racism in eighteenth-century Europe, which was then exacerbated by the eighteenth and nineteenth-century slavery of Africans and the subsequent integration of diet culture. How do we fight this long-established monster, which leads to pay gaps, unethical hiring practices and bias within the workplace? Experts are calling for workplaces to become educated on sizeism and understand how leadership’s decisions impact employees of all sizes.

What if you found out your employer could discriminate against you because you appear heavier than average?

What if you found out you didn’t get that job on the retail floor, or in sales, because they thought you were lazy — just based on your appearance?

These are just a couple of the innumerable examples of what fatphobia in the workplace can look like, and it happens all the time. In fact, a U.S. study published in Science Direct found that 45% of the time, employers were less inclined to recruit a candidate they considered obese.

It also found those of larger size are less likely to be regarded as able leaders and had lower starting salaries. While this data is upsetting and you may want to dig into the “why,” and cause of this injustice immediately, it’s important to first understand the background and meaning of the term “fatphobia.”

Understand What Fatphobia Is

Before you can understand the problems people are facing in today’s workplaces due to weight discrimination, it is best to first take a step back and explore the term fatphobia, the history of the term and the current legalities in place.

Boston Medical Center defines fatphobia (also known as anti-fat) as the implicit and explicit bias of overweight individuals that is rooted in a sense of blame and presumed moral failing.

Anti-fatness even contributes to individuals not receiving adequate health care because the assumption is if someone is overweight they cannot be healthy. Boston Medical Center (BMC) reports that clinical care teams typically lack experience in treating diverse body sizes and that weight-related structural barriers (i.e., size of exam tables, gowns, blood pressure cuffs and scale limits) often restrict their abilities to treat diverse patients. BMC goes a step further and explains that being overweight and/or fat is highly stigmatized in Western Culture and that anti-fatness is intrinsically linked to anti-blackness, racism, classism, misogyny and many other systems of oppression. There are a few more terms surrounding fatphobia that are important to fully understanding how to work toward better workplaces.

These terms are the following:

  • Sizeism: The discrimination or prejudice directed against people because of their size and especially because of their weight.

  • Implicit bias: The bias or prejudice that is present but not consciously held or recognized.

  • Explicit bias: The attitudes and beliefs (positive or negative) that you consciously or deliberately hold and express about a person or group.

  • Fatmisia: Prejudice plus power; anyone of any weight or body type can have/exhibit size-based prejudice, but in North America and across the globe, thin people have the institutional power, therefore fatmisia is a systematized discrimination or antagonism directed against fat bodies/people based on the belief that thinness is superior.

  • Fat Liberation: A social movement seeking to change anti-fat bias in social attitudes by raising awareness among the general public about the obstacles faced by fat people experiencing the stigma of obesity.

Looking at the above terms, you might assume that most people would desire fat liberation. And you would be right. The work environment should be a place where you can succeed professionally, feel accepted and comfortable — and never have to explain or justify your body.

So what’s getting in the way? Well, in particular, workplaces with rising implicit biases against those with larger body sizes and no outright laws that keep workplaces from discriminating against weight.

The Legality of Weight Discrimination

“In [49] states in this country, it's legally allowed for employers to discriminate based on weight,” said Miriam Lara-Mejia, body positivity educator and content creator. Currently, Michigan is the only state that protects people who are overweight in the workplace. However, Massachusetts and some other cities in the U.S. are actively working to ensure that weight is added as a civil protection.

And while federal law prohibits discrimination based on race, color, age (40 or older), gender, religion, natural origin, disability or genetic information — weight discrimination seems to be sorely missing from the list.

Why are these laws so desperately needed in all of our states?

HPA Live Well reports that research has proven that negative attitudes are having an impact on how overweight people are treated in the workplace. Weight discrimination in the workplace is one of the most under-identified but most common forms of discrimination.

A Harvard study identifies that public unconscious bias against race and sexual orientation has decreased over time, but implicit bias against overweight people has increased.

“The implicit weight bias (pro-thin/anti-fat) increased by 40% in the early years of the decade, approximately between 2004 and 2010,” reported HBR. “These increases stand in stark contrast to the decreases observed in explicit weight bias as well as to all other implicit biases we studied, which, at worst, have remained stable.”

Some contributors to the increase in this stigma could be that people blame those of larger body size for their own health problems or that they can always control their body size. Additionally, diet culture and the “super thin” body size being seen as healthy has been glorified for decades, also adding as a strike against those with larger bodies.

“Business leaders seeking to widen participation rates and gather the best talent in their organizations must not forget the subtle forms of bias and discrimination that exist today, especially given the stability and even the deepening of some implicit attitudes over time,” reported HBR. “Nevertheless, the fact that some biases ebbed over a 10-year period is cause for hope: It shows that even seemingly automatic biases can and do change.”

Problems Professionals Are Facing Today Related to Sizeism

If you think about the benefits a workplace provides you, in exchange for your work, what do you think of?

You might think of an office that is conducive to work. Or a health insurance policy that reasonably covers most of your needs. Most importantly, you’d likely think of an environment where you feel comfortable showing up as who you are each day. But sadly, the above are some of the top issues in regard to fatphobia in workplaces today, as mentioned by Lara-Mejia.

Even something as simple as a chair can make a huge difference. For example, she states that she was recently purchasing office equipment for her nonprofit, and one of the top things she and her team considered were chairs.

To be inclusive to all body types, she made sure the chairs didn’t have arms and that she was looking at the weight limits on the chairs. Lara-Mejia also elaborated on health insurance, stating that it might not be common knowledge for employers to even consider if the policies they’re choosing charge people in larger body categories more.

Health and Wellness Programs

On the topic of health and wellness, there are wellness programs that have taken up a huge space in the workplace culture.

“We cannot escape the conversation around workplace wellness programs,” said Lara-Mejia. “There’s very strong evidence that these programs promote stigma, promote discrimination and don't actually promote people having [better] health in general.”

But are wellness and health initiatives altogether bad? Which aspects are being mishandled, right now?

Lara-Mejia states that if the focus is on behavior and movement of the body — and not making any program a mandate — it can be a great option to have for employees. She brings up the point that when you get into “blanket mandates” or “diet competitions,” employers may be overlooking or ignoring people's disabilities or mobility issues.

Aubrei Hayes, The Diversity Diva, TEI Manager at Digitas North America and a vibrant activist passionate about body positivity, says these programs can be fine, as long as the focus stays away from diet culture and how your body looks. Instead, the focus should be on a person’s overall picture of well-being. This can include mental health, emotional well-being, spiritual health, etc.

“Weight loss isn’t terrible, but when [the workplace] is forcing that narrative down someone’s throat who has a larger body — it’s just someone else telling them they need to change,” said Hayes. “And the workplace is somewhere where they are trying to seek professional growth and solitude.”

Pay Discrimination

One more outstanding issue that can’t be ignored is the substantial pay gaps found among those with larger bodies — specifically among women.

Lara-Mejia states that this data goes deeper, and gets a bit more troubling: “We see this significant pay gap around people with larger bodies, especially women in larger bodies, and especially black women and Latino women with larger bodies. So that's a huge concern, and a huge workplace issue.”

Consider this data from The National Center for Biotechnology Information in a paper that compared the relationship between obesity and the job market by focusing on young adults early on in their careers:

  • Obese and overweight men were 1.46 times more likely to be placed in professional jobs and had 13.9% higher monthly wages than their normal-weight counterparts.

  • Obese and overweight women were 0.33 times less likely to have service jobs, earned 9.0% lower monthly wages and were half as likely to have jobs with bonuses than that of their normal-weight counterparts.

“Fatphobia has existed in the workplace as long as workplaces have existed,” said Serena Nangia, body activist, community leader and owner/founder of The Body Activists. “As employees begin returning to work in-person, fatphobic work environments are flaring up again. Fatphobia shows up in both interpersonal and systemic forms in the workplace, among others. Despite the interpersonal reprieve some larger-bodied employees may have experienced during virtual work, the sad fact is that people in larger bodies are still paid significantly less on average than their thinner counterparts with the same job. In addition, people in larger bodies are consistently granted fewer promotions and raises than their thinner counterparts, fired and hired at disproportionate rates and even incited to leave their jobs.”

She states that the reasons for our troubles with fatphobia today dates back to anti-Black racism in Eighteenth Century Europe, which was then exacerbated by Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century slavery of Africans and the integration of diet culture in the United States.

How To Build Better Workplaces and Bring Awareness To Fatphobia

How can workplaces and professionals put in the work to build an environment that bans fatphobia?

It’s a treacherous path — and one rooted in years of bias, racism and diet culture as mentioned above.

But it can be done.

Nangia states that even currently there are people and organizations such as her on (The Body Activists), Kara Richardson Whitley’s The Gorgeous Agency, and Chevese Turner’s Body Equity Alliance that are already making an impact.

“[These organizations] are doing work with companies to improve their systems and policies to be more size inclusive,” said Nangia. “There are also many BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and people of color] people of size who are creating theory and developing research to support the day-to-day strategy and direction of fat studies and their own industries, like Mimi Cole, Gloria Lucas, Da’Shaun Harrison, and Sabrina Strings, Ph.D. Activists and advocates are doing the work to make sure that workplace discrimination is not tolerated or legal anywhere, but in the meantime, individuals and leaders of organizations can do their part to make work a safer place for everyone.”

When it comes to finding a person or resource who understands what you’re going through as someone of a larger size, or if you’re unsure where to turn because you are dealing with fatphobia in the workplace, start with a trusted source you can confide in. It may be a group, a family member or a close friend. The idea is to build your community and get your support system behind you.

“It's about what you need to create that community, and that might not always be going to HR or relying on your manager,” said Hayes. “But when you're able to find someone to confide in and tell that story, you’re building that community.”

And if you are a job seeker looking for an employer who does not discriminate against body type (either implicitly or explicitly), Nangia suggests asking targeted questions during your interviews and researching existing policies or statements from the employer.

She mentions that there are some industries that are more “harsh” when it comes to body shaming and/or exercising fatphobia. For instance, if you work in the healthcare profession as opposed to working remotely as a graphic designer, your outlook on fatphobia in the workplace might be very different.

“There are a few industries which are more egregious than others when it comes to body-size discrimination, including the eating disorder industry (within which I work) and the fitness industry,” said Nangia. “If you’re searching for a job and are in a larger body or looking to be a part of an environment which is inclusive and discourages fatphobia and body-bashing, [it’s important to] take it on a case-by-case basis.”

Top Takeaways

How To Deal with Fatphobia in the Workplace

  • Fatphobia (also known as anti-fat) is the implicit and explicit bias of overweight individuals that is rooted in a sense of blame and presumed moral failing.

  • 45% percent of employers were less inclined to recruit a candidate they considered obese.

  • Employers should not make wellness programs a mandate, as they may be overlooking or ignoring people's disabilities or mobility issues.

  • Employers are legally allowed to discriminate based on weight in 49 states.

  • There are substantial pay gaps among women with larger bodies vs. their counterparts.

  • “People in larger bodies are consistently granted fewer promotions and raises than their thinner counterparts, fired and hired at disproportionate rates, and even incited to leave their jobs.”

  • If you need help or are seeking to confide in someone about an issue, it is important to find someone you trust. From there, you can work to help form more educated workplaces.



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