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Looking for work can be a grueling, demoralizing job all in itself. What should be a simple examination of aptitude is actually a minefield of entrenched conscious and unconscious biases and personal favor, often hidden away under innocuous-sounding buzzphrases like “cultural fit” and “public image.”

For those of us struggling with our weight and body image, discrimination based on appearance is an all-too-real factor, and it can have devastating effects on self-esteem and both physical and mental health. It’s a discussion that needs to be had, and we’ll look into the statistics of weight discrimination in the workplace, why it happens, and how you can try to confront it.

How Prevalent Is It?

Weight discrimination is a problem that simply won’t go away. Recent data from the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) indicates1 that, in 2014, some 37.7% of American adults were considered clinically obese, a 10% increase from two years prior. Of course, this data tracks only obesity (generally those with a BMI greater than 30), and the number of Americans deemed merely overweight is far higher than this amount.

Although it may seem that being overweight is almost the norm, overweight Individuals are still considered “different” to average people when it comes to hiring practices.  In fact, a comprehensive survey carried out by jobs website Fairygodboss2 indicated that when presented with a picture of an overweight person, a mere 15.6% of those in charge would consider hiring them.

The Gender Difference

It will come as no surprise that the experience for women in the workplace is markedly different than that for men. The same goes for overweight women as opposed to overweight men—it seems that women are still rated largely on their appearance than their ability to do the job.

Disturbingly, this trend continues even for women who fall within a weight range that would be considered “average.” One study, in particular, performed by the University of Strathclyde,3 tested hirers with alternate pictures of several male and female “candidates”—  one with their normal face, and one which had been altered to make their face appear heavier.

The results were damning: There was no difference in response when comparing “normal” and “heavy” photos of the men, but the “heavy” photos of the women were consistently rated more negatively than the normal photos of them.

Ignored by the States

Making this problem worse is that a vast majority of the states in the U.S. refuse to recognize that appearance-based discrimination is a factor in job seeking. A scattering of local laws exists to try to prevent it, but only a single state—Michigan—has an outright ban on weight discrimination.

Other states which have attempted similar laws—and even these are the exception and not the norm—have found a lack of support and momentum to get those bills passed.

Why does this matter? Well, having no legal option when it comes to discrimination only makes a job search even more isolating and tiring. You’re not only fighting against individual biases but against the government as a whole, too.

Unfair Stereotypes

The report compiled by Fairygodboss can give us some clue as to the unconscious process that leads to this discrimination. In that report, a staggering 41% of hiring professionals labeled overweight candidates as either “lazy” or “unprofessional” despite having never met with the candidate and despite being told they were as qualified as all the other candidates.

These kinds of false stereotypes stem from a widely held perception that overweight Individuals are only in the condition that they are in because they aren’t trying hard enough, and that losing weight is just a matter of determination and hard work.

This is clearly untrue. Weight gain is a combination of many factors often out of our control. If we could just wish ourselves into the weight we wanted to be, don’t you think we would have done it already?

overweight woman outside on her laptop

What Does Bias Look Like?

Bias and discrimination can take on many forms in the workplace beyond a yes/no in the hiring process. As any minority would know, exclusion takes on many subtle forms. Even when overweight Individuals are hired, they might find themselves excluded from social activities or not even considered for events in the first place.

Thoughtless comments and behavior by peers can also make overweight people feel isolated in the workplace and less worthy than others. They may be subjected to extra scrutiny when it comes to sick leave or passed over for projects because of false stereotypes like those mentioned above.

Types of Jobs

In addition to this, a workplace that rates a female’s appearance above everything else means that overweight people can find themselves ineligible for jobs they’re perfectly capable of doing. Public-facing jobs are especially at fault in this regard since there is a still an old-fashioned idea that these jobs require someone traditionally “attractive” to perform them properly.

These job sectors include:

  • Hospitality
  • Beauty and cosmetics
  • Medical
  • Recruitment
  • Education
  • Civil service

Wages

Another part of the workplace where bias rears its ugly head is in wages. Again, since overweight Individuals are considered “not hard working ” or “unprofessional,” their work is often ignored during routine evaluations and wage reviews. Simply put, they are considered to be doing less work than others and, therefore, should be paid less.

Compounded with the wage gap already present between males and females, this becomes a significant disadvantage. A paper published in 2010 in the Journal of Applied Psychology4 discovered an astonishing difference in earnings for “very heavy” and “very thin” women, compared to their “average” counterparts: “very heavy” women earned on average $19,000 less, while “very thin” women earned “$22,000” more!

How This Discrimination Damages You

Working and looking for work are difficult enough to begin with. Add discrimination to that, and you’ve got a potent mix of negative emotions and stress to cope with on a daily basis. It’s no secret that long-term stress leads to deterioration of mental and physical health, and, with a paper published in 2016 in the journal Obesity studying this exact phenomenon,5 that link has never been clearer.

Even more alarming is a separate study made by the same authors6 which found that weight discrimination significantly increased the risk of mortality for those at the receiving end. This was because these negative emotions and stress led to high-risk behaviors, including:

  • Driving under the influence
  • Smoking
  • High-risk sexual activity and drug use
  • Not wearing a seatbelt
  • Disorderly eating patterns

Changing the Culture

At first glance, obesity discrimination might look like a problem that can never be solved. How could you change the minds of so many, especially when they might not even grasp what they’re doing themselves?

Although vitally needed, there’s no denying that shifting workplace culture entirely is an incredibly difficult task. It takes time, and it takes resolve, and it takes endless reserves of patience. It can’t be done alone, so be sure to develop a strong network of friends and allies both in and out of the workplace to help you. Anti-discrimination organizations such as NAAFA can be extremely helpful for this.

Nothing will change right away, but, eventually, piece by piece, these kinds of biases will fade. You may feel like you’re not helping yourself by confronting the problems and staying strong, but you are helping generation upon generation of future employees and job seekers.

overweight woman phoning in the office

Don’t Give Up

On your weight loss journey, every unkind remark and work setback can seem like a failure. It may seem at times that it’s not worth all the pain and stress to continue—but you are unbelievably strong, and you do have the power to weather the storm.

Does being overweight make it harder to get a job? Unfortunately, yes. However, don’t lose heart and don’t give up if you’re going to job interview after job interview without success. This discrimination is real, and it’s the fault of closed-minded individuals and groups, not yours. Keep trying, and you will find a great company which accepts you for your skills.

Disclaimer: This is only for general information. All patients should consult their doctors prior to following any of the recommendations in any articles, posts, or videos. All patients have individual needs and limitations that only their treating physicians can be aware of.

Sources:

  1. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db219.pdf
  2. https://fairygodboss.com/research/job-seeker-appearance
  3. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/09/160908084149.htm
  4. http://www.timothy-judge.com/Judge%20and%20Cable%20%28JAP%202010%29.pdf
  5. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/oby.21598
  6. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/oby.21845