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    October 7, 2003    PAGE TEN      
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 Are the Obese Cheated in the Workplace? by Terri Lynch

Help us welcome new columnist, Terri Lynch.

Terri knows the workplace from all perspectives: employer, employee, vendor and customer. Issues of obesity and "fat acceptance" play out in the workplace with a cost in cold hard cash. Terri is ideally qualified to probe all angles of size issues in the workplace.


                                               "When all think alike, then no one is thinking."
                                                                                               Walter Lippman

The obese are becoming more vocal about size discrimination in the workplace. From the application process where candidates are told that "the job has been filled" to the withholding of opportunities for career advancement, the obese are feeling the pinch of the fat stigma.

Members of the National Association to Aid Fat Americans say most workers who are overweight have been, or will be, refused jobs, promotions or health insurance benefits because of their size. Member Rosezella Canty-Letsome says, "Obese workers frequently are hidden in back offices and given work that keeps them away from the public, and many are told they cannot be hired because fat people take too much sick leave and drive up insurance rates."

In a Boston Globe article (9/21/03) the President of ProGroup, a Minneapolis consulting group, is quoted as saying, "Size generates subtle biases as well as blatant ones. Overweight workers are often overlooked for promotions and uninvited to client presentations even when they've done all of the work."

Online support groups and professional and personal websites confirm this, reporting many instances of weight-focused job interviews, denials of promotions and insurance coverage, exclusion from office social functions, forced resignations, unequal treatment, favoritism towards slim co-workers, and fat insults posing as critiques.

This is by no means just an American phenomenon. At iVillage UK, a British website devoted to woman's issues, we learn, "studies reveal that most employers were [sic] likely to discriminate against fat people."

Why is this discrimination against the obese so widespread? In part, it's a matter of direct psychological impact. A Boston Globe article (9/21/03) quotes Deidra Everett, secretary of the New England chapter of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, who at 36 weighs 460 pounds and is 5 feet 10 inches. She said prospective employers have pursued her aggressively over the phone, and then suddenly changed their minds after meeting her. Stunned by her appearance, the recruiter will scan her body, pausing at the fattest part, and then look away. "They become flustered and there is not a lot of eye contact…It makes you feel terrible."

Beyond direct psychological impact, discrimination is often based on the way that people interpret the "message" which a fat body sends. The overall feeling revealed by online support groups and professional and personal websites is that employers and co-workers see obese people as being lazy, undisciplined, slothful, slow, hedonistic, self-indulgent, and unable to keep up the pace in a "rapid-fire" environment. In short, they are too fat to be of much benefit to the company.

These attitudes on the part of employers merely reflect the larger culture. According to Crandall, author of "Prejudice against Fat People: Ideology and Self-Interest," (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1994), Americans also associate fat people with a wide variety of negative characteristics. Studies published over a 20-year period demonstrate that Americans see fat people as "unattractive . . . aesthetically displeasing . . . and morally and emotionally impaired."

Because workplace discrimination against the obese reflects attitudes in the culture at large, employers are not the only ones who practice it. Vendors, customers and fellow employees may discriminate as well.

One woman was made to lift all of the heavy boxes off of the delivery trucks at the retail story she worked in, while the delivery men carried in the boxes for the thinner women. This is discrimination by a vendor. Was it deliberate? Or even conscious? No doubt these men had their eye on impressing the pretty ladies. Whether they even gave a thought to the unfairness of their actions, let alone the feelings of the obese woman, is an open question. But the answer hardly matters. The effect on her is the same. In fact, not being noticed in some contexts can be as bad as being noticed the wrong way in others.

A hairdresser told of working in a beauty salon where walk-ins were given to the hairdressers on an 'who's up' basis. Occasionally a walk-in would ask for someone else when it was the obese woman's 'up'. She felt it was because of her size. This is discrimination by customers - and because hairdressers receive much of their income in tips, it had a direct economic impact. Employers are not always the only workplace inhabitants who pay the workers.

Co-workers often join in with similar forms of discrimination where they exclude the obese from after-work social events: the fat woman goes home on Friday evening while her slim co-workers go out for dinner and drinks at a popular singles bar. Of course, in the United States freedom of assembly is a constitutional right, but the exclusion hurts.

These examples demonstrate that workplace discrimination against the obese is not really different from such discrimination everywhere. It is merely a part of it. In fact, research presented on Lectric Law's website (www.lectlaw.com) shows negativity against the obese having a controlling influence on modern American society, with discrimination against fat people being a major result. Studies showing how acceptable it is to deride fat people publicly have led University of Kansas psychologist Christian Crandall to call the anti-fat attitude "symbolic antifatism".

It takes a heavy toll. Esther Rothblum in her 1989 article "Results of the NAAFA Survey on Employment Discrimination. points out that "this stigma has made it hard for fat people to succeed on the job especially in such jobs as flight attendant, fire fighter, clerk-typist, nurse's aide, physician, and educator. In many cases, it has lowered their self-confidence, forced them to conceal their weight, and channeled them into low-paying jobs (such as telephone sales) in which weight isn't a factor."

There's no question, then, that workplace discrimination against the obese is real. But that's not quite the same thing as saying that they are cheated, which is the question asked in the title of this article. For the discrimination to be cheating the obese it must be unjustified. Determining whether this is the case will require shifting our attention from the viewpoint and experience of the employee to that of the employer. That's what we will do in the next issue. Meanwhile, it would be an interesting exercise for you, the reader, to imagine yourself alternately in both positions (employee and employer) - especially the one which isn't yours in real life - and attempt to answer the question for yourself.

Copyright © October 2003  Terri Lynch and Low Carb Luxury

                                                          




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