I don’t know if you’ll find it good news or bad that weight discrimination is not all in your head. To be sure, many overweight people are needlessly self-conscious about their size, and many thin or normal weight folks fear facing prejudice if they grow fat. Whatever people imagine, the truth is that experts tell us that weight discrimination is alive and well and living—no, make that thriving—in our culture.
An article entitled “Battle Workplace Weight Bias” (Sarasota Herald-Tribune, 6/13/10) reports on research from Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity that says “Weight discrimination increased 66% from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s” and is “now more prevalent than bias based on ethnicity, sexual orientation and physical disability.” The article goes on to say that, “In an era when nearly every imaginable form of prejudice is no longer socially tolerated, the rise of anti-fat sentiment is a curious—and, confounding—phenomenon,” with causes “as complex as they are challenging.”
My interest in the subject is the way that weight discrimination at work affects your attitudes and behaviors around food and about your body. How can you acknowledge the reality of workplace prejudice, but not internalize it so that it undermines your self-esteem, derails your attempts at “normal” eating, makes you want to use food to rebel, or causes you to give up on being healthy and caring for yourself? How can you concede the existence of fat prejudice without buying into it and turning it against yourself? There’s a fine line between recognizing that it exists in employment, yet not perceiving it in a way that makes you feel badly about yourself.
Many overweight people seem to fall on either side of a divide. Some pretend that weight discrimination doesn’t exist in the workplace and are surprised when it affects promotions, job assignments, reviews, or even relationships. Others are always looking for that slight, that rejection, or an indication that they’re being discriminated against because of their weight. Finding a balance between the two is difficult and takes a good deal of mental and emotional work. I can’t give you a prescription to follow to keep your head on straight about it. I can suggest that you neither allow yourself to fall into denial and ignore what is fact—on-the-job fat phobia—nor become paranoid that every negative action or interaction at work is due to your size. Here’s what you can do: Use friends or colleagues to reality check, know yourself inside out, cut some folks slack and hold others accountable, educate people about eating problems and weight bias, and insist on staying proud of who you are no matter what you weigh.