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.
Copyright © October 2003 Terri Lynch and Low Carb Luxury
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
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
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
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.
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