The unspoken weight-discrimination problem at work
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Discrimination linked to weight can affect hiring, promotions and employees’ mental wellbeing. Why aren’t legal protections in place?

After a year working at a Canadian fashion company, Courtney noticed she was being excluded from meetings with vendors. “It was portrayed to me that being out of the office for a whole afternoon [meeting vendors] wasn’t a good use of my time,” she recalls. 

In August 2018, 18 months after starting the job, Courtney (whose surname name is being withheld for privacy reasons) sat with her manager for a performance evaluation. He spent the first 10 minutes praising her job performance, but the following 20 minutes took Courtney by surprise. 

“He told me that my looks were affecting my job. He point-blank told me that he thought I was too fat to be in the position I was in. He told me he was embarrassed having me around our vendors in meetings, and that it ruined his reputation.” 

Courtney’s boss also told her that she needed to start going to the gym and to stop wearing any fitted clothing. He told her to buy a new wardrobe and to wear makeup every day. “I was so shell shocked,” she says. “I kind of just sat there, to be perfectly honest. I felt like I was going to cry.” After the meeting, Courtney says her anxieties over her appearance significantly affected her work; she felt paranoid about what her colleagues thought. “My work 100% suffered. I was so distracted.” 

Weight-based discrimination in the workplace is still legal in nearly all parts of the world, except for the US state of Michigan and a handful of US cities including San Francisco and Madison, Wisconsin. In many nations, characteristics including gender, race, religion and sexual orientation are officially protected under law, meaning employers can’t use them to discriminate. But with a few tiny exceptions, that's not yet the case for weight. 

Of course, many people know that including weight as a factor in whether to hire or advance candidates or employees isn’t right. But this kind of discrimination still happens, whether openly or behind the scenes, based on people’s conscious and unconscious biases. It can take a significant toll, both economically and mentally, on those who experience it. Measures to tackle it legislatively are making glacial progress; meanwhile, this insidious form of discrimination remains hard to stamp out. 

Overlooked, judged 

“Weight discrimination can be experienced in lots of different ways, some subtle and some more overt,” explains Rebecca Puhl, a professor at the department of human development and family sciences at the University of Connecticut, US. “We see people being discriminated against because of their weight when they’re applying for jobs. They’re less likely to be hired than thinner individuals with the same qualifications.” 

He point-blank told me that he thought I was too fat to be in the position I was in – Courtney

While there’s no evidence to support the idea that weight is linked to certain personality traits, stereotypes feed into these hiring decisions. Puhl points to a 2008 study which found that overweight job applicants are viewed as being “less conscientiousness, less agreeable, less emotionally stable and less extraverted than their ‘normal-weight’ counterparts”. 

Once hired into for a job, people can experience weight discrimination in a variety of ways. It can be explicit, like the exclusion and comments Courtney experienced at the fashion company. A 2021 study, co-authored by Puhl, surveyed 14,000 people across Australia, Canada, France, Germany, the UK and the US who were participating in a weight management programme. Fifty-eight percent of respondents said they had experienced weight stigma from their colleagues

Other discrimination can be subtle. “We also see people who have been overlooked for promotions, or are being wrongfully terminated from their job because of their weight,” explains Puhl. A 2012 study of HR professionals showed they were more likely to disqualify obese people from being hired and less likely to nominate them for supervisory positions. At the fashion company, Courtney saw other people with the same job get promoted, while she remained at the same rank. “Anybody with my position was moving up within one or two years,” she explains. 

Weight discrimination manifests in all kinds of workplaces, according to Brian J Farrar, an employment attorney at Sterling Employment Law, located in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. But he says it’s especially prevalent in environments with a focus on physical appearance. “You tend to see it more where employees are interacting with customers,” he explains. “In a restaurant or retail, you tend to have a higher potential incidence of weight discrimination.” 

There is a gendered element: Puhl says women are more vulnerable to weight discrimination in the workplace. “[They] experience it not only at higher levels, but also at lower levels of body weight,” she says. “For men, their BMI [body mass index] has to increase quite high before the same level of weight discrimination kicks in for women.” Puhl attributes this to different societal standards around weight and attractiveness between the genders.

Weight discrimination not only holds back people in their careers, but can also affect mental and physical health (Credit: Getty Images)

Weight discrimination not only holds back people in their careers, but can also affect mental and physical health (Credit: Getty Images)

Farrar concurs, noting expectations of physical appearance aren’t enforced universally among male and female employees. Income can also play a role in weight discrimination, he points out, disproportionately affecting low-wage workers. “They may be less likely to come forward and report discrimination,” he says. “That may cause their employers to take advantage of them more.” 

Weight discrimination can have multiple impacts, both in terms of a worker’s career progression – which links to their earning potential – and their mental health. On the economic side, one study from 2011 showed that a one-unit increase in a woman’s BMI correlates with a 1.83% decrease in hourly wages. And a 2018 study showed while being in a lower income bracket can increase the risks of obesity, the reverse is also true — being obese decreases one’s income, impacts more pronounced among women than men. 

Weight-based judgment and rude remarks can also lead to negative health behaviours, like higher sleep disturbance and alcohol use, lower physical activity and poor eating habits. For Courtney, being judged for her weight led to severe anxiety which, coupled with other life stresses, led her to take a two-year sick leave from work. 

Opening the door? 

Experts like Puhl and Farrar, who has represented employees in Michigan in workplace weight-discrimination cases, agree greater adoption of legislation could have an impact on this issue. In the US, bills are currently circulating in New York and Massachusetts; the new laws would be similar to the protections in Michigan, where weight is included as a protected characteristic in the state’s civil rights act. Some states in Brazil and the city of Reykjavik have also passed laws protecting people from weight discrimination. 

Puhl reminds us that change is slow – she has been testifying about the legislation in Massachusetts for more than a decade. She believes that these laws aren’t being prioritised because of persistent stigmas around weight. “If society continues to place personal blame on people for their weight, and if that blame is deemed socially acceptable, policy change is very challenging,” she says. But she believes Massachusetts “is pretty close” to passing a new law. “That’s monumental, because the Michigan law was passed in 1976. We have not had a state since then pass anything. If Massachusetts does this, that will open the door for other states to follow suit.” 

If society continues to place personal blame on people for their weight … policy change is very challenging – Rebecca Puhl

Legislation isn’t the only solution, of course, because it won’t eradicate pervasive negative attitudes around weight. But similar to previous advancements protecting gender, race and sexual orientation, legislation makes a difference. 

“Is it going to get rid of weight stigma? No, of course not,” says Puhl. “We still live in the same society and culture where we have messages that weight is about personal responsibility or laziness or discipline.” But legal protections are important and necessary for significant societal change to take place. 

Courtney believes having weight discrimination protections in Canada wouldn’t have prevented her negative workplace experience, but says the existence of laws would have been reassuring. “I think knowing there is legislation almost feels like a validation that it’s wrong to be discriminated against for one’s weight,” she says. After returning to work from sick leave, Courtney continued to experience weight-related bullying and negative comments from supervisors. She was eventually laid off – and feels relieved to be out of a “toxic situation”. 

“It has put a lot of self-doubt in my mind about my ability to do my job, about the career I want,” explains Courtney. “It’s made me rethink whether I feel like I can work within the fashion industry in general. I don’t think I could ultimately have a long-lasting career if I’m always thinking that people are judging me.”