Weight Bias in Professional Settings is Often Overlooked – And In Most Cases Outright Ignored

A few days ago, several of my friends and colleagues began sharing a piece from the Harvard Business Review titled, “Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome.” It’s about the burden this concept has placed specifically on women, women of color, and other marginalized groups. The article states:

“The concept [imposter syndrome], whose development in the ‘70s excluded the effects of systemic racism, classism, xenophobia, and other biases, took a fairly universal feeling of discomfort, second-guessing, and mild anxiety in the workplace and pathologized it, especially for women.”

It goes on to say that that the environment in which we work is more to blame than some sort of individual flaw or “syndrome” that women need to fix.

It was brilliant, and a long-overdue naming of the bullshit women have dealt with since they entered the workplace. I have dealt with imposter syndrome and unsubstantiated feelings of inadequacy for the majority of my professional life. I read the article three times, and each time I read it, I gained a new insight. But days later, something was bothering me about it. There was this overarching sadness I felt when thinking about the message. And then it hit me that the authors had failed to include one of the most underreported yet massively affected subsets of women.

The omission? Fat women.

The article talks about the concept of who is deemed ‘professional’:

“Who is deemed ‘professional’ is an assessment process that’s culturally biased and skewed,” said Tina Opie, an associate professor at Babson College, in an interview last year. When employees from marginalized backgrounds try to hold themselves up to a standard that no one like them has met (and that they’re often not expected to be able to meet), the pressure to excel can become too much to bear. “

Examples of exclusionary behavior and feelings of self-doubt are called out, such as suddenly becoming quiet in meetings, getting vague feedback about lacking leadership presence, not speaking up at meetings anymore because a manager makes insensitive remarks, and a helpful contributor for the organization doesn’t feel safe contributing feedback after being told she’s not a team player.

All of these examples show how women are treated due to systems of oppression, racism, and bias, but also show how these women don’t fit a current model of “professional,” which the author Tina Opie describes as “Eurocentric, masculine, and heteronormative.” I would posit that Opie’s model of “professional” is missing two additional descriptors: (1) upper-class or wealthy and (2) the one I want to talk about: body-normatives.

The problem here is that body normatives, when it comes to professionalism, are defined by a history of hatred of fat and black and brown bodies.

The brilliant work of authors and researchers Dr. Sabrina Strings and Sonya Renee Taylor (to name a few) show us the direct ties between weight bias and systemic racism and discrimination, particularly in women. Strings’ book, Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia” makes a clear case for this. Sabrina writes:

Rationales for anti-fat bias had been circulating relatively independently in parts of western Europe for more than two centuries. Not until the early nineteenth century in the United States, in the context of slavery, religious revivals, and the massive immigration of persons deemed “part-Africanoid,” did these notions come together under a coherent ideology. In the United States, fatness became stigmatized as both black and sinful. And by the early twentieth century, slenderness was increasingly promoted in the popular media as the correct embodiment for white Anglo-Saxon Protestant women.

These findings further reveal…the fear of the imagined “fat black woman” was created by racial and religious ideologies that have been used to both degrade black women and discipline white women.

I could literally quote this entire book. It is a masterpiece and I highly encourage you to pick it up and read it STAT.

Despite study after study and a building mound of evidence, the prevalence of weight bias keeps getting ignored and underplayed, especially by thought leaders that study workplace dynamics, organizational psychology, and leadership development. When the bias against fat women is not called out or named by leadership authors and researchers, like in this article on Imposter Syndrome, it continues to ignore and undermine a large subsection of women’s experiences and misses an opportunity to unearth a deeper understanding – that women, especially those faced with multiple biases against them, are being blamed for inadequacies that are actually rooted in prejudices and the very workplaces themselves, and NOT a syndrome or flaw that they need to fix.

If you don’t believe me, believe the research:

In a recent study, we examined the prevalence of multiple forms of discrimination in a nationally representative sample of 2,290 American adults and found that weight discrimination is common among Americans, with rates relatively close to the prevalence of race and age discrimination. Among women, weight discrimination was even more common than racial discrimination. Among all adults in the study, weight discrimination was more prevalent than discrimination due to ethnicity, sexual orientation and physical disability. Almost 60 percent of participants in our study who reported weight discrimination experienced at least one occurrence of employment-based discrimination, such as not being hired for a job. On average, a person’s chances of being discriminated against because of weight become higher as their body weight increases.

Weight Discrimination: A Socially Acceptable Injustice by Rebecca Puhl, PhD

I’m not sure if I have a point here other than to vent. A lifetime of being overlooked, not taken seriously, passed over, undervalued, and punished for my appearance has certainly ingrained a sense of resilience in me that’s propelled me to keep working toward my dreams, and be in the place in my career and life that I am today. But I ask myself all the time about where I might be right now if the weight bias and discrimination hadn’t taken such a toll on me. It has definitely done a number on my confidence, and yes, has plagued me with imposter syndrome (or whatever we want to call it now). I am 46 years old with 20 years of deep work experience in the social sector. I’m educated, have gone through tons of formal training programs, and have received several specialized certifications. I’ve served on boards, volunteered my time to the community, and I’m an accomplished musician, writer, presenter, and trainer.

And yet, I am still standing here with my nose smashed against the window of the c-suite. Why?

I’m not suggesting that my weight is the only thing that has prevented me from advancing into executive leadership roles, but I do believe that a lifetime of needing to prove myself over and over and over, and always starting from the bottom at each new job to prove my worth, then working my way up but not quiiiiiite getting there, has emotionally and mentally exhausted me to the point of believing that I will never be good enough. As a result, I hold myself back from taking the necessary risks that would put me in a position to advance.

Ok, I know what you’re thinking. I am an organizational leadership specialist. I know that leadership has nothing to do with a ‘chief’ title – and I have told myself this for years and 100% believe it to be true. You should own the definition of success for yourself. That said, I do think that a title or promotion is how most companies signal to employees that they are trusted, talented, and valued. The problem is that there seems to be a wall that most women, fat women, women of color, lgbtq+, and others hit where they are only promoted juuuuuusssst enough to get them to stay, but rarely allowed to cross the threshold. Is it because we don’t fit the current model of “professionalism” that Opie describes (with my additions, of course)?: Eurocentric, masculine, heteronormative, upper class, body-normative – better translated: white, male, straight, wealthy, and thin.

I don’t know. I don’t have all the answers. But one thing is certain – women, in all their colors, sizes, and orientations, have been overlooked for a long, long time. I am glad that articles like this exist and that companies are finally paying attention to these inequities. I just wish the prevalent struggle of weight bias and discrimination in the workplace was acknowledged and brought into the conversation.

That will continue to be my wish and something for which I will continue to fight.


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