September 21, 2021
Eleni Marino, PhD (Can), MA, MA, B.S. (She/Her)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.