FED UP WITH FAT BIAS by Sharon Haywood
It’s bad enough that women have to contend with a glass ceiling that limits their advancement at work, not to mention a wage gap that translates into 73 cents being paid to women for every dollar paid to men—and less for women of colour.
But for women who don’t fit in to society’s confines of acceptable body size, weight stigma is another bias that makes it more challenging to be treated equitably, let alone get ahead.
In Edmonton recently, sociology student Connie Levitsky came face-to-face with weight stigma when the plus-sized clothing retailer Addition Elle fired her.
The reason? Levitsky had described her sales position with the clothing chain on her personal Facebook page as “Conquering the world, one well-dressed fat lady at a time.” Addition Elle told Levitsky that the company objected to the word “fat,” which in today’s thin-obsessed society carries negative and shameful connotations.
However, fat is a label that Levitsky and others in the body-positivity movement have embraced as a way to deconstruct the stigma and to challenge the stereotypes attached to the word. She has no issue with the more technical terms “overweight” and “obese.” But she acknowledges that some people in the fat-acceptance movement are opposed to medical-sounding labels, as they can carry moral undertones add to fat stigma. While problematic, overweight and obese are the only categorical measures used in fat-related research today.
Regardless of the term used—curvy, plus, overweight, obese or fat—size discrimination is a regular occurrence for many people in Canada and throughout much of the world. And women tend to pay the highest price of all.
Back in 2003, Newfoundland and Labrador native and hair stylist Vanessa Nash-Gale moved to Barrie, Ontario, where she sought a position at a trendy hair salon. As part of the interview, Nash-Gale was required to demonstrate her styling skills on four clients. The salon’s manager approved her work, as did the owner. However, the owner told Nash-Gale that he wasn’t going to hire her because she didn’t fi t the “aesthetic” of the salon—which he indicated by giving her body a slow once-over. “He made it clear that I didn’t get the position because of my body size,” she said.
Five years later, at a salon in Toronto, Nash-Gale asked her employer if she could work at a higher-generating workstation near the front of the salon. The owner told her, “That station is only for skinny people.” Last year, Nash-Gale, who has worked as a hair stylist in Toronto for the past eight years, was crowned Miss Fuller Woman Canada, a body-positivity contest intended to affirm beauty in all body sizes.
Studies reveal that women are more likely to experience employment-related weight discrimination than men. Researchers from Michigan State University and Hope College analyzed the photos of chief executive officers (CEOs) from U.S. Fortune 100 and Fortune 1000 companies in 2009 to determine the representation of overweight and obese executives.
They found that between five and 22 percent of top female CEOs were overweight, while five percent were classified as obese. Among top male CEOs, between 45 and 61 percent were overweight, while five percent were classified as obese. The findings, the researchers concluded, “suggest the existence of an invisible barrier that prevents significant numbers of overweight and particularly obese women, and obese men from reaching high levels of success in business, similar to the glass ceiling encountered by women and people of colour.”
Employers rarely inform a person that they don’t want to hire them because of their body size, although there are cues when discrimination occurs. Levitsky recalls what happened when she applied for a hostess position at a pub close to her university campus. She spoke to the pub’s management on the phone and was told she had a great resume and that her serving experience was advantageous. They told her they were excited to meet her.
After the in-person interview, however, Levitsky was told she didn’t get the job because she didn’t have enough serving experience, something that wasn’t part of the job description.
Weight bias also impacts wages and, unfortunately, more so if you’re female. Researchers at Western University conducted an analysis of Canada’s National Population Health Survey data from 2000–2001 to 2010–2011. Researchers found that obese women were paid 4.5 percent less than their thinner female counterparts, while obese men were paid two percent less than their thinner male counterparts.
Similarly, a U.S. 2004 longitudinal study conducted by the Economics and Finance Department at Middle Tennessee State University concluded that, “after controlling for a standard set of individual characteristics, we find that an obesity wage penalty persists for both males and females, though this penalty is larger for females.” In some cases, researchers found that obese women earned up to 6.1 percent less than those not categorized as obese, while there was a 3.4 percent pay penalty for obese men.
And, according to a 2010 study by Timothy A. Judge and Daniel M. Cable using longitudinal data from the U.S. and Germany, weight gain in women coincided with reduced income, regardless of their weight when they were first hired. But men’s income actually increased upon gaining weight—until they reached a weight that could be categorized as obese—at which point men were also penalized.
In the U.S., a handful of jurisdictions, including the state of Michigan and six major cities, have enacted legislation against size discrimination. And now, a growing movement of body positivity activists in Canada want federal, provincial and territorial laws to provide protection against size discrimination for Canadian workers.
Jill Andrew, a Toronto body image activist and co-founder of the Body Confidence Canada Awards, launched a petition on Change.org several months ago that calls for body size to be added to the Ontario Human Rights Code. It’s aimed at prohibiting weight discrimination in the workplace, as well as in other areas of daily living such as housing and contracts. Currently, in order for cases of weight discrimination to be considered in Canada, they must be interpreted under the umbrella of disability, a category that greatly limits the types of cases that can potentially be considered.
“While disability may be applied in cases where one is physically unable to do their work tasks based on their body mobility,” Andrew says. “What about the situations where someone isn’t hired, isn’t promoted or is spatially placed at the back of the office so as not to ‘disrupt’ the company’s image? These are all examples some fat employees have stated having experienced, and ‘disability’ doesn’t cut it in these cases.”
Negative stereotypes associated with fat bodies play a substantial role in size discrimination. A 2015 comprehensive literature review led by occupational therapy researcher Behdin Nowrouzi at Laurentian University, in conjunction with other Canadian researchers, revealed that overweight and obese people are commonly believed to lack self-control, to have poorer interpersonal skills and to be lazy and unhealthy. The study confirmed that “individuals who are overweight face weight bias and discrimination at every stage of the employment procedure and across evaluative outcomes including hiring, promotions and compensation.”
The stereotype that links fat bodies with sickness, weakness and incapability is very much tied up in another erroneous idea—one that asserts that, in order to be healthy, one must be thin. A substantial body of research supports the
Health at Every Size movement, which maintains that physical wellbeing is possible independent of body size. Linda Bacon, author of Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth about your Weight, writes, “‘Overweight’ and ‘obesity’ are misnomers: Many individuals with those labels are neither over an appropriate and healthy weight nor medically at risk.” Furthermore, harmful stereotypes linked to fat bodies are intimately connected with the incorrect belief that one’s weight can be changed—and maintained—at will.
Although the multi-billion-dollar diet industry tells us that permanent weight loss is simply a matter of willpower, science tells a different story. Traci Mann and her colleagues at UCLA conducted a 2007 analysis of 31 long-term diet studies and concluded that “sustained weight loss was found only in a small minority of participants, while complete weight regain was found in the majority. Diets do not lead to sustained weight loss or health benefits for the majority of people.”
In other words, weight or body size is largely immutable, much like the protected grounds outlined in Canadian human rights legislation, suchas race, gender identity and sexual orientation.
Bill Bogart, a law professor at the University of Windsor and the author of Regulating Obesity?:Government, Society and Questions of Health, concurs. “We have human rights protection for discrimination against something that you can’t change, or youcould only change with enormous difficulty,” he says. “The problem is that we keep telling people they can lose weight and keep it off, but we know that statistically that is simply not the case.”
Fat people are not the only marginalized group subjected to damaging stereotypes. People of colour, immigrants, Indigenous people, people with disabilities and members of the LGBT community are also often unfairly judged.
Unfortunately, a person belonging to more than one marginalized group is likely to face more than one type of discrimination.
“Women are already navigating workplaces where sexism and racism are often deeply rooted, if not in overt policies and practices, but in more subversive ‘respectability politics’ around appearance and dress codes,” says Andrew. “Adding sizeism—and particularly fat discrimination—to this creates an uncomfortable environment for intersecting anti-fat violence that can have grave economic let alone mental health effects.”
Size discrimination on the job relates not only to wages, hiring and promotions. Colleagues and clients often express fat bias in ways that are inappropriate or unprofessional, according to Kalamity Hildebrandt, the founder of Fat Panic!, a Vancouver-based alliance committed to “ending the oppression of fat people and working towards a society in which no one is taught to hate their own or anyone else’s body, for any reason.”
When Hildebrandt was employed as an LSAT (Law School Admission Test) instructor at a Vancouver-area college, her employer solicited student reviews as part of her job evaluation. Although her instructor skills were deemed excellent, student feedback was filled with comments such as, “Kalamity should lose some weight” and “Kalamity would be so much prettier if she were thinner.”
Says Hildebrandt, “I’ve heard from at least five different professors that a lot of feedback they get from students via the college is actually a critique of their bodies.” She has even received negative remarks about her size in reviews following workshops she’s delivered about anti-violence, peer support and intersectional anti-oppression.
The key to promoting change lies in shifting public opinions and instituting legal protections. A 2013 study found that two thirds of Canadians support incorporating protection against weight discrimination into existing human rights laws. Bogart recommended developing laws against sizeism at the 2015 Canadian Obesity Summit, an annual interdisciplinary conference for professionals working in the realm of obesity.
“We need the law, but the law is not enough,” Bogart says. “We need to have people examine their attitudes to people who are obese and examine the possibility that, consciously or unconsciously, they hold attitudes that say you’re not judging that person on their merits, you’re judging them on their measurements, and that’s wrong.”
Back in Edmonton, Levitsky is now employed part-time at the Canadian Obesity Network, where she co-created the Facebook project The Weight of Living along with Ravina Anand, a research intern. The project features stories and photos from overweight and obese Canadians in an effort to reduce the social stigma attached to being fat.
“There is a dehumanizing of the way fat bodies are talked about,” Levitsky says. “We are putting an actual face to the people being made fun of and discriminated against. Mostly, it’s to shed light on these issues and show there are actual people behind these bodies.”
By the fall, Andrew’s petition had garnered over 8,000 signatures. Similar petitions have now been launched in Manitoba, Alberta and B.C. Victoria artist Cheryl-Ann Webster, creator of a project which features 120 clay sculptures of women’s torsos in all shapes and sizes, is behind B.C.’s effort. Constance Levitsky is driving Alberta’s change.org petition and Manitoba’s effort is led by dietitian Lindsey Mazur.
Andrews and other body positivity activists vow to make sizeism a recognized form of discrimination, a move that can’t come a moment too soon.
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