The Low Carb Luxury Online Magazine      October 24, 2003    PAGE TEN      
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 Are the Obese Cheated in the Workplace? by Terri Lynch

Terri Lynch 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

If you missed Part One of this article, you can read it here.

In the last issue we explored workplace discrimination against the obese, which turned out to be very real. But that's not quite the same thing as saying that the obese 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 if it is, requires shifting our attention from the viewpoint and experience of the employee to that of the employer. The last issue focused on the viewpoint of the employee. Now it's the employers' turn.

The Flip Side

Employers (and others) have their reasons for discriminating against fat people. Harry Gossett, author of Fat Chance, says "Today, fat people are assumed to be inherently ugly, unsanitary, stupid, lazy and enslaved by creature comforts." The question is whether these assumptions are justified. And — if they are — whether they in turn justify discrimination in the workplace.

To some extent, at least, the answer may be "yes." This is the hard truth. For example, employers report that if there is a thinner clerk on the floor working alongside an obese one, the customers would first ask the thinner clerk for help. This demonstrates that it's not just employers, but also customers, who prefer dealing with thin people. Businesses often operate in a highly competitive environment. If customers prefer thin clerks, retail employers may be quite right in thinking that fat clerks would hurt business — and that's something few businesses can afford.

This a matter of personal aesthetics - on the part of both the employee (how they look) and the customer (how they see). If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then so is ugliness, and — if it's there in the customer's eye — the employer cannot take it out. One interviewee went as far as saying, "We wouldn't put an overgrown tree in the foyer, and we wouldn't let an overgrown person deal with our clients."

Another business owner put it even more bluntly, saying, "If I have a choice of hiring a weight appropriate person or an obese person I'll reject the obese every time. Why? Because the weight appropriate person is less likely to repulse the customers. And that's who we're here to please." Is this hard-hearted, misinformed prejudice... or clear-eyed business realism?

Some of the greatest discriminators against the obese have traditionally been the catering industry, supermarkets and airlines, who argue that space is an issue in the workplace and are therefore reluctant to employ large workers. One commentator, protesting this line of reasoning, says, "If you are worrying about profit margins and space, you only have to look at your customer profile to see that they are not a bunch of skinnies. So if you have to make room for them in restaurants and planes then why can't you have the same sized people working for you?"

However, the validity of this argument can be questioned. There is often much less room in a restaurant kitchen or behind an airline counter than in the customer areas. Furthermore, restaurants, whose profits depend on the size of their patrons' meals, may not want to want to parade in front of those patrons walking reminders of what their overindulgence can lead to.

When it comes to the psychological impact of the obese on employers themselves (and on other employees), rather than on their customers, the issue becomes more iffy. One individual was fired from a shoe store because her weight intimidated her male boss. Was he wrong to feel intimidated? It's difficult to say that someone's feelings are "wrong" — we feel what we feel.

But then, was it wrong for the company to fire her because of this? On the one hand, it's not good for the boss to feel intimidated — he is the boss, after all. But on the other hand, it has been recognized since the 1960s that there are limits to the extent to which an employer's psychological comfort should stand in the way of someone's right to employment.

The psychological impact of a fat person may sometimes be as unavoidable as it is (in our view) inexcusable. We are, after all, biological beings. Sharon Jacobson remembers one interview very vividly. One of the interviewers commented, "Oh if you came to work here I guess we'll have to get you a new chair." And the male department head would not stop staring at her breasts because they were so large. Rude? Absolutely! But if her breasts were so dramatic, his astonishment could have made it very difficult for him to look away.

When the issue is not a heavy impact so much as mere good looks, we can ask why employers consider physical attractiveness to be so important in their work force. Well, why is physical appearance so important in our society generally? That's the real issue. Why not ask the fashion industry, the cosmetic industry, the fitness center industry, and the plastic surgery industry. It's a fact of life (and therefore, of business) — looks count.

It's not just about appearance, though. ScienceDaily Magazine reports that a 1998 study by Ohio University psychologists suggests it's often the activity of the job and the obese person's perceived inability to perform it that deters employment, not physical appearance. Employers mention concerns that the obese may not be able to perform certain tasks. One woman who used to work at a day care facility was asked how she could take care of infants when she couldn't get off the floor.

Such beliefs can be operative even when the obese are hired. In an Ohio University study, obese persons were more likely to be hired for sedentary jobs such as computer programmer, film editor or cheese blender than those at the other end of the activity scale, such as health club manager, industrial manager and landscape gardener.

One thing is certain: whether legal or not, justified or not, and based on true assumptions or not, discrimination against the obese is real, and its impact on the heavy is severe. It's costly not only in terms of happiness and self-esteem, but also in days, hours, dollars and cents. It's a burden — in addition to the weight itself — which no one can easily afford.

Copyright © October 2003  Terri Lynch and Low Carb Luxury


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