This is why we need to talk about the weight gap.
As a student, Laura* dreamed of holding down a part-time job at a boutique. She loved fashion and getting dressed, and knew she had an eye for merchandising after years of arranging and re-arranging her and her mother’s closets.
But no matter how many applications she left at shop counters or how many managers she chatted to in-store, she never got so much as an interview. After a few months of fruitless searching she decided to give up the hope entirely and seek out a different part-time gig to pay the bills.
Laura is a plus-size woman, and she believes that her weight played a deciding factor in her inability to get a job in a fashion boutique. “Those shop assistants took one look at me and decided I wasn’t going to fit in,” she recalls to Stylist.co.uk. “Just because of my size or whatever… They probably threw my resumes straight in the bin.”
Have you ever felt immediately judged because of your size? Have you ever turned up to a job interview and had the recruiter look you up and down, immediately making a snap decision about who you are and your personality because of the way you look? Have you ever felt that your career is being hindered by the way people perceive you because of your weight? It’s called size discrimination, and it’s a very real, though rarely acknowledged, crisis in the workplace.
According to recent research from LinkedIn, almost a quarter of all plus-size employees believe that they have been passed over for a job or a promotion because of their weight. More than half of all overweight workers added that they feel excluded from their team and office culture because of their size.
The statistics become even more sobering on the subject of the weight gap. According to LinkedIn’s research, British employees classes as obese earn, on average, £1,940 less than their non-obese counterparts. There’s still a gender pay gap among overweight men and women, too, with plus-size women earning on average £8,919 less each year than plus-size men. Women are also more likely to suffer psychologically in the office because of their weight: 39% said that they felt uncomfortable at work because of their weight and 38% said that their weight impacted their confidence and performance on the job.
It is well-trodden, fertile scientific ground that there is a link between our size and weight and the way people perceive us.
According to a study published in Psychological Science this month, first impressions are formed based not only on people’s faces and features but on their body shape, too. A survey of 140 different realistic body models found that those with plus-size bodies inferred the greater number of negative first impressions from participants. When looking at the overweight body models, people inferred personality traits like laziness and carelessness, while slimmer bodies were noted as enthusiastic and self-confident.
It stands to reason, then, that in the place where we are judged more stringently than anywhere else – a job interview – our size and weight might come into it.
But that doesn’t make it right.
Being plus-size does not make you bad at your job. It does not make you a lazy or careless person. There is no reason why a plus-size woman should not be in customer or client-facing roles. There is no reason why Laura couldn’t work in a fashion boutique as a plus-size woman, or why a plus-size woman shouldn’t be able to represent a business successfully. There is no reason why a plus-size woman can’t be a manager or a team leader. There is no reason why a plus-size woman can’t make a presentation or pitch for new business. There is no reason why a plus-size woman shouldn’t be promoted or given a pay-rise. There is no reason why a plus-size woman can’t be a CEO.
And yet, they overwhelmingly are not.
In America, only 15% of recruiters said that they would hire an overweight woman. (A full fifth of those surveyed noted that they thought the overweight woman looked “lazy”.) Only between five and 22% of American female CEOs could be considered plus-size. Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook isn’t. Carolyn McCall of Easyjet isn’t. Sara Blakely of Spanx isn’t. Emily Weiss of Glossier isn’t. It’s lonely at the top for women who aren’t sample size: Oprah is probably the highest-profile plus-size woman who runs her own company. But she’s only one person.
The deck is stacked against plus-size women. There’s a lack of retailers offering corporate attire in their size. They don’t appear in marketing materials for companies, so they are unlikely to see themselves represented in those companies’ ranks. Even finding stock images of plus-size women in the office for this story was an almost impossible task. It’s hard to have a dream if everyone in that dream doesn’t look like you.
What makes it all the more worse is that weight-based discrimination is a murky legal area in the UK and Europe. In 2014 the European court of justice ruled that if a person’s size hindered their performance on the job then their weight could be considered a disability and, thus, the same disability discrimination protection would apply. In 2015 in Northern Ireland the rule was applied to the case of a man subjected to intense bullying at work because of his weight.
But these cases have been few and far between. For the majority of women, size discrimination is an insidious, silent epidemic that is almost impossible to isolate. For many, it happens even before they sign a contract. It happens the second they walk into an interview.
“Dealing with people who make snap judgements about me because of my appearance is something I’ve faced my whole life,” plus-size blogger Stephanie Yeboah said in a statement for LinkedIn. “It’s great that discrimination in all its forms is getting more attention nowadays and it’s important that we keep momentum going. I want everybody to feel confident in their bodies and believe that nothing can hold them back if they want that job, promotion or pay rise. If you’re putting in the hard work, you should be rewarded regardless of how you look”.
So what can you do about it? If you’re a hiring manager or a team leader, question your preconceived notions about size. Interrogate yourself about why you think certain things about people or why you might be overlooking someone in your team for a promotion or a pay rise. Be an advocate for body diversity in your organisation.
If you are the colleague of someone who is plus-sized don’t let them suffer through harassment or ignorance on their own. Speak up for them and with them. Include them. Open up a dialogue. Question your own rhetoric around size and weight. Don’t make disparaging comments about your own size or about taking a slice of birthday cake or a Friday afternoon Twix bar. Unlearn that behaviour to constantly self-criticise, because all you are doing is reinforcing damaging messaging about bodies right into the ears of the most vulnerable audiences.
And if you think you have been a victim of size discrimination: we hear you, we see you, we believe you. Let’s join the fight to make sure that no-one is ever discriminated against because of their weight at work in the future.
*Name has been changed.