There is one dimension of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) efforts that is often overlooked…body size. In organizations this is mostly true, though not ill-intended or a conscious practice. Body size might not be top of mind, but many employees have experienced this stigma. An article written by the American Psychological Association says, “More than 40% of U.S. adults, across a range of body sizes—and even greater numbers abroad—report experiencing weight stigma at some point in their life.”
Sizeism refers to the discrimination or prejudice directed against people because of their size, especially because of their weight, and in the past decade, the prevalence of weight discrimination has increased by 66 percent. Although the frequency of this discrimination has increased, resources and research to support individuals with bigger bodies, especially in the workplace, is lagging behind.
Anti-fatness (fat-phobia) was present during the transatlantic slave trade, when people used body size and shape to distinguish those who were enslaved from those who were free. Colonists asserted that Black people were prone to gluttony and sexual excess and that their love of food caused them to be fat. Using body size and shape to distinguish individuals continued to be common practice from the sixteenth century through the nineteenth century with the development of the Body Mass Index (BMI). Simply a weight-to-height ratio, BMI was designed as a tool to measure the ideal White man in the nineteenth century.
With BMI’s initial purpose, it fails in its current application to bodies that are not those of White men. For example, research shows that Black women are often healthier at heavier weights. These issues co-exist in both health care and in the workplace, with many organizations’ benefits packages tying initiatives to BMI. Acknowledging the history and context of anti-fatness, especially BMI, allows organizations to begin their journey of being size-inclusive.
Here are three things organizations can do to be more size-inclusive:
Acknowledging anti-fatness is a starting point, and your organization can take a step further by providing training on weight stigma and anti-fat bias for professional development. This can include sessions on awareness and language. Train your managers to beware of the “Fat Tax” and limited options when it comes to meeting dress codes. Inform managers to share dress code requirements for particular events well in advance, to allow employees with bigger bodies ample time to acquire clothing that not only fits them but makes them feel confident!
Design spaces, policies, and merchandise that are accessible and comfortable for people in fat bodies. This means considering which furniture you purchase for employees, as well as the overall design of the space. Thinking about purchasing chairs for your office? Consider chairs with adjustable arms or no arms to accommodate all body shapes and sizes. Do you have roles in your organization that require travel? Consider keeping seat belt extenders in your office so employees do not have to purchase their own. Also, allow employees to purchase two seats when traveling so they can be comfortable. Passing out clothing at an event? Consider a broader size run (4XL–XS), and be sure to order enough for all employees!
Organizations need to be aware that size inclusivity is not a single action but takes time, and organizational leadership must be active participants. Indicate that your organization will not discriminate against job applicants and employees based on body size or weight. While the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has federal laws that protect employees from being discriminated against because of their race, religion, sex, color, or gender identity at work, weight is not included. Your organization can actively fight against anti-fatness by indicating that on job descriptions and postings. Taking this step can help to attract talent to your organization.
Attracting talent with bigger bodies is a great step but supporting and retaining those employees is another. Once hired, make sure all employees refrain from complimenting weight loss or commenting on people’s bodies. Encourage employees to remove the words obese and overweight from their vocabulary, as these terms have been medicalized and may perpetuate anti-fatness. Promotion and support can look different for individuals and organizations, so take time and make room for dialogue around the issue of size inclusivity.
With the body positivity movement, which has been co-opted by White women and has left women of color out of the conversation, gaining momentum, now is the time for your organization to take steps to be size-inclusive for EVERY BODY. Work with your Employee Resource Groups to address anti-fatness from an intersectional lens. Consider making opportunities for employees with bigger bodies to provide feedback on new policies or office design. Supporting bigger bodies does not have to mean making big changes, it can start today with brainstorming training, design, and ways to promote and support.
If your organization is ready to take a step toward size inclusivity, contact us at [email protected] to schedule a call with our Diversity Best Practices advisors, who can help integrate size inclusivity into your Talent Strategy, Employee Resource Groups, or overall DEI Strategy.