Women Can Suffer Workplace Fat Phobia Even If They're Not Actually Overweight

Research shows that women working in the service industry are more likely to experience weight-based prejudice than their male colleagues—even when they have a healthy BMI.

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Sep 9 2016, 1:20pm

Photo by Mem Studio via Stocksy

Working in the service industry is a tough gig: Any job that requires you to wear polyester pants and deal with the general public on the regular is not for the faint of heart. But—grey slacks and regulation orthopedic shoes aside—female service sector employees still get the rough end of the deal.

Research led by Professor Dennis Nickson at the University of Strathclyde finds that women in the service industry are more likely to encounter weight-based prejudice than their male peers—even when they're not actually overweight and their male peers are.

The study asked 120 participants to rate eight candidates of both genders for their suitability for a client-facing service role (such as a sales floor assistant) or non-client-facing job (such as stock counter). Participants were told that the applicants were equally qualified, and shown faces that had been digitally manipulated to look heavier or thinner.

Women with a heavier appearance were overwhelmingly more likely to experience weight-based prejudice than men, and less likely to be hired for customer-facing service roles. Shockingly, these women were still in a normal body mass index range—meaning they were not overweight. Yet they still experienced more discrimination than obese men.

We already know that overweight or obese people are systematically discriminated against in almost all areas of public life. They are believed to be less competent at their jobs and are less likely to get hired—even overweight or obese doctors are seen as less trustworthy. The phenomenon is often termed "fat phobia", meaning a fear of and hatred of heavier body sizes.

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And while both men and women can experience weight-based prejudice, women are far more likely to be negatively impacted by fat phobia. The gendered dimension of "weight stigma" is well-established, with multiple academic studies highlighting the difficulties faced by overweight women in the workplace. Which—given all we already know about how women are treated in the labor market—places overweight women at the intersection of two competing sites of discrimination.

"Being obese has a major impact on your life chances generally, and specifically when it comes to employment," Professor Nickson explains. "And it's important to recognize that we exist in a weight-conscious labour market which affects both men and women. Nonetheless, it's clear women are much more affected."

Original (left) and "heavy" (right) versions of test faces.

Nickson declined to quantify the exact extent to which women who appeared heavier were more likely to be turned down for jobs than men, but described the difference as "sizeable."

"What's really interesting is that one or two of our male faces who were officially overweight from a medical point of view still weren't judged as harshly as women who were in a healthy weight range," Nickson argues. Carrying a little extra weight around your midsection? If you're a man, it's cool: but for women it's another story.

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Given that the service industry often involves interacting with customers directly, is it more likely to reinforce fat phobia? "I do think there is something in the nature of the service industry that makes women more likely to suffer this type of discrimination." Body-based discrimination can be much subtler than an Abercrombie & Fitch casting call. "Abercrombie & Fitch is the most widely cited, extreme example of this, but many organizations recruit a particular look. It's a general workplace phenomenon but it's arguably more resonant in the service sector where there's an interaction between frontline staff and customers."

The hope is that, by acknowledging and confronting our unconscious biases, we can prevent further weight and gender-based discrimination. "I'd like to see more positive images presented of men and women who are heavier, as well as thinking about more training for service industry managers," Nickson says.

"Let's think about how we can counter some of this discrimination and help people to recognise that heavier employees—both men and women—can still be just as capable and confident."