How Workplaces are Exclusionary to Fat Team Members (and How We Can Do Better)

September 21, 2021

Eleni Marino, PhD (Can), MA, MA, B.S. (She/Her)

Think About Fat Bodies

While virtual workspaces continue to be the ‘new norm’ for many businesses, in-person office work will remain a constant for others. The design of workspaces is one of the many crucial components of a robust approach to Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion (DEI). However, countless body shapes and sizes are rarely considered when designing such spaces, particularly fat bodies.

Note: The way we use the word “fat” is significant because the word is often used in a derogatory manner. Many in the fat community have reclaimed the word to signal pride and power or a matter-of-fact description. Some reject the medicalized  terminology of “obese” and “overweight” because medical professionals often use these terms to deny care and further people’s marginalization. The fat community uses many terms to represent who they are, such as “small fat” and “super fat,” to name a few. It is important to engage with individuals and the fat community to determine the most inclusive language possible that fosters dignity and respect in different relationships and contexts.

At Your Desk

An important place to create an inclusive design for fat bodies is at a team member’s desk. Desk chair size is a persistent issue for fat team members. When they do not fit in their assigned desk chair, they can feel physically uncomfortable, experience bruising on their body, and be left with short or long-term physical pain. Improper chairs can also be dangerous if they are not made for certain weights. They may tip, buckle, or collapse, causing physical harm to the person sitting in the chair. Certain chairs and desks can be unusable for fat people. More specifically, seats with arms can be a problem as they can pinch or constrain fat bodies and some desks can pose issues because they may not allow sufficient space for someone to fit their legs under them.

To-Do:

  • On day one, ask each team member if their desk space accommodates their needs. 
  • Back up your commitment to inclusive spaces by providing seats without arms to accommodate fat bodies and desks that allow fat team members to rest their legs comfortably.

Around the Office

As with individual desks, comfortable and accessible furniture around the office is also essential. This means that communal spaces like dining areas, conference rooms, and relaxation rooms should have furniture like chairs, desks, sofas, and tables that are inclusive of fat people. It’s best to avoid stools, tiny benches, or chairs with rigid armrests. Creating a fat-inclusive office also means re-thinking every inch of the space. Avoid tight corners, a buildup of office paper or material blocking pathways, and tiny bathrooms or bathroom stalls. Conference rooms should have enough space for everyone to sit comfortably without touching others or “squeezing” into the room.

To-Do:

  • Invest in size-inclusive furniture around the office. 
  • Decorate and organize the office so that pathways are accessible. 
  • If you are not a key decision-maker in the design of your office’s facilities or the owner of a building, advocate and petition for larger bathrooms. Otherwise, prioritize size-inclusive restroom architecture in your workspace.

Beyond the Physical Space

How we design the physical space is essential. However, what is equally important is how we design our culture and our organizational policies and programs. There are many places where fat-exclusivity can pop up in your office, but let’s explore a few.

Company Swag

Clothing can be exclusionary when organizations make minimal sizes available to team members. Not only will fat team members not be able to participate in company bonding experiences, but they may also feel that the company does not care about them. Swag meant to be worn on the body, like lanyards, fanny packs, hats/caps, and bags, may also not fit fat bodies.

To-Do:

  • Include a wide range of sizes for all company swag items and ask people what items they’d like. Take size-appropriate orders from team members whenever possible to promote equity.
  • Purchase swag from brands with size-inclusive clothing and product lines.

Health, Wellness, and Fitness Programs

People of all sizes enjoy activity and exercise. However, certain “wellness” and “health” community’s ideas are fatphobic and create a stigma against fat bodies. Companies need to set up wellness programs that do not perpetuate these harmful narratives.

To-Do:

  • Move away from incentives that focus on losing weight or diets and make programs weight-neutral. 
  • Debunk the myth that being fat is the equivalent of being unhealthy and challenge team members that self-appoint themselves as health professionals on other people’s bodies.
  • Rethink the concept of the Body Mass Index (BMI) which doesn’t account for muscle mass, bone structure, and differences across race and gender.
  • Challenge workplace conversations about COVID-19 weight gain, as it may be triggering to people with eating disorders or offensive because it reinforces stigma against fatness and fat people.
  • If there is an onsite health care office, make sure it has size-inclusive blood pressure cuffs and scales. 

Travel 

If your company requires team members to travel, it is essential to consider how travel options can be exclusionary to fat bodies. Airplanes, cars, buses, and other forms of transportation might not hold fat bodies comfortably and may not even be safe if things like seat belts don’t fit. This issue also extends to lodging and restaurants as their physical designs might not accommodate fat bodies. Something even more subtle to consider is that fat team members might not feel comfortable travelling and doing business in cities or countries known to be far more fatphobic.

To-Do: 

  • Consult your fat team members about what accommodations they might need when travelling. 
  • Choose airline companies that are inclusive of fat people. Do this for all team members so that no person feels singled out.
  • When assessing risk for different travel, relocation, and international assignments consider fatphobia and sizeism in addition to other salient potential concerns.

Biases 

Fat team members often encounter negative cultural stereotypes and biases. Fat people are often viewed as lazy, less competent, “unprofessional,” attention-seeking, and/or unattractive. This leads to barriers in hiring, compensation, and promotions because fat people are not deemed to have the desirable skills to succeed at the company. Many people accept the harmful and incorrect assumption that everyone wants to lose weight or to be thin, reinforcing these ideas through casual questions, comments, jokes, and personal sharings.

To-Do: 

  • Make sure you educate everyone at the company—especially leadership and those with power—on fatphobic biases. 
  • Create safeguards and protocols within your policies that will protect against these biases from occurring in real-time and provide recourse if incidents do occur.
  • Avoid and challenge microaggressions against fat people such as complaining about your own weight, fixating on someone’s weight loss, or judging what someone else is eating.
  • Include size, weight, diet, and appearance explicitly in company anti-harassment and anti-discrimination statements.

Intersectional Significance

Fat stigma and fatphobia are deeply connected to anti-Blackness and racism. The ideal, normative, dominant body is white, thin, cisgender, younger, and non-Disabled among other characteristics. This becomes even more significant when talking about fat women or fat Black women who experience compounding stigma concerning their fatness due to different intersections of their identity.

When we make space for fat bodies, we also make space for Blackness, racialized bodies, disabled bodies, and different cultural identities. We cannot consider one issue without stumbling upon another. Learn about how we can trace the roots of fatphobia back to the legacies of slavery, colonialism, and patriarchy.

Actively Listen

It is important to remember that the information presented here is not exhaustive. There are many obvious and subtle ways that we exclude fat bodies from workplaces. Furthermore, no one fat person has the same experience. Executive leadership, managers, supervisors, and team members need to engage in dialogue with their fat team members to learn exactly what each person might need. Inclusion requires that we listen.

 

Resources:

Fat is Not a Bad Word

I Don’t Fit in at Work, Literally

The Treacherous Experience of Being Fat at Work

The Racial Origins of Fat Stigma

Weight-Focused ‘Workplace Wellness’ Programs Drive Stigma and Inequality

ALLGO: Inclusive Design Consulting Services

Take Personal Action Against Fatphobia