BUT YOU HAVE SUCH A PRETTY FACE - BODY-SHAMING AND WEIGHT-BASED DISCRIMINATIONDec 16, 2019
I have struggled with my weight since I was in college. I am and will always be a tall, big-boned German-Polish plus-sized woman with plenty of curves, and frankly, I like that. I look like my Grandmother did when she was my age, but unlike her, I won’t wear a girdle every day of my life. Sure, I squeeze into the Spanx when the dress calls for it, but that’s the exception, not the rule. I don’t bring this up because I’m ashamed of how I look (because I’m not). I’ve found that as far as attraction goes, we all enjoy different things on different people, even if those are the very things we criticize when we’re alone with the mirror. I’ve often been surprised by someone appreciating (or even fantasizing about) a part of me that’s definitely not on my A-List. It’s delightful and a wake-up call that reminds me we each have different perspectives based on who we are, where we grew up, etc. And no matter how you look, you are still someone in the world’s ideal type.
But this piece isn’t about dating or that attraction. I described myself because beyond physical attraction, humans definitely judge people based on looks and weight, impacting us, our careers, and our ability to be our authentic selves effectively in the workplace. Decades of research shows weight-based discrimination is both toxic and pervasive, especially during the hiring process but also throughout career progress.
I recently spent an entire week on camera, on the big screen, on video and live onstage. Most people cringe when they see themselves or hear recordings of their voices. I don’t cringe when I see myself. I know what I look like and have always enjoyed being onstage I was an orator in high school and a theatre major in college.
Would I like to be about 40 pounds/a couple of dress sizes lighter? Yes, I would, and it’s something I’m working on to keep myself healthy. But I also know I am a whole package - with curves, a personality, confidence, and smarts that round out (excuse the pun) who I am, what I bring to the table, and how I present myself in the world.
Of course, I know excessive weight creates both unconscious and sometimes very conscious biases that have at times prevented me from:
Being taken seriously
Being seen as someone with self-control
Being thought of as someone who has good habits
Being chosen to be someone’s spokesperson, to represent a company or a brand
Getting a promotion/job/project because it went to someone who fits “the mold” better
My father and I talk about this because he too has struggled with his weight for much of his life. It’s not about gender. Dad and Mom worked in retail their entire careers (I did too in high school) and you had to follow very strict guidelines on dress if you wanted to be remotely considered for a job, a promotion, etc.
Many industries have had dress codes, weigh-ins, and “molds:” flight attendants for one and secretaries in past generations until fairly recently. Today Japanese women are fighting to be able to wear glasses to work (?!), and many unwritten rules still exist for certain jobs, countries, and social constructs. Oddly, not that long ago being too thin - especially for women – made people easy targets for ridicule.
Image-shaming and body-shaming (criticizing yourself or others based on an aspect of physical appearance), diet culture, and thin privilege are the terms people now use for this kind of thing, but this language is fairly new.
Clinician Erika Vargas talks about the three ways body-shaming manifests:
Criticizing your own appearance through a judgment or comparison to another person. (i.e., “I’m so ugly compared to that magazine ad,” or “My shoulders are so big I should play for the Packers.”)
Criticizing another’s appearance in front of them, (i.e., “With those thighs, it’s no wonder you’re not dating.”)
Criticizing another’s appearance without their knowledge. (i.e., “Did you see what she’s wearing today? Not flattering,” or “At least you don’t look like that!”).
She says, “No matter how these thoughts manifest, they often lead to comparison and shame, perpetuating the idea that people should be judged mainly for their physical features.”
Appearances have always mattered, but technology, fashion magazines, celebrity, social media (especially dating apps) have made the focus of evaluating, judging, categorizing, and commenting on people’s physical appearance easy, and a new sort of past time. Thank you, Mark Zuckerberg. This “benign” behavior can easily turn into harassment or cyberbullying, harming people both psychologically and physically, especially with our children. I see it every day on social media comments.
When I see comedy, the easiest jokes - and the ones that bore me the most - come from using the F-word: Fat, Fatso, Fatty, fat, fat. Self-deprecating humor has always been good for a cheap laugh. I was once told, “you have such a pretty face, but you look like you are going to explode” by someone who thought they were funny. I’ve never forgotten it and it’s still not funny.
And don’t let anyone claim cruel fat- or body-shaming remarks are just their way of showing concern about obesity or instilling positive healthy choices. We’re overweight, not stupid – it’s easy to tell the difference.
We now see #bodypositive #selflove #mindyourownshape #wellness movements and posts gaining traction. Many wellness coaches, medical advocates, and celebrities like the singer Lizzo, actress Melissa McCarthy, yoga teacher and body-positive advocate Jessamyn Stanley, and so many others lead that charge. This is a step in the right direction, but with any change in behavior or thought pattern, it starts with each of us as individual humans, changing how we perceive and perpetuate patterns of thinking.
People who are overweight are not unaware of their size. They get on a scale and see the number, they have trouble fitting into restaurant booths, they need seat belt extenders on certain airplanes. Shirt buttons pull. Some look closely at chairs before sitting, fearing they might collapse. I have seen the horror on people’s faces when this has happened, and years ago, at one of my heaviest weights, I had to ask for an extender buckle on a small commuter plane. I wanted to crawl under the seat.
I’ve written about being “curvy” before, because many women often ask me where I shop, especially for work clothes. They also want to know how I feel about words like curvy, plus-sized, thick, and the like: These hips don’t lie: I am a curvy woman, I like fun, cute clothing and here is where I shop.
Body-shaming suggests people are overweight simply because they “have no will power,” but weight often fluctuates due to medical conditions like pregnancy and constant stress. Many people seek comfort and relaxation from food in response to anxiety and depression. A lot of people gain weight from working long hours at sedentary jobs.
I want to be healthy, fit, and just to feel good. I think most of us want that. But while we are bombarded by images of thin happy people, the truth is our food is heavily sugared and processed, while good, organic food is twice as expensive than those easier, unhealthy choices. And depending on where you live and your economic status, access to good choices may be difficult or near impossible.
To make matters worse, statistics favor the bullies. Having 35 percent of the American population overweight means plenty of workplace implications, according to J.Michael Gonzales-Campoy MD, Ph.D., FACE. “In the workplace, decreased productivity and increased absenteeism due to overweight and obesity is a huge economic burden on our society. Absenteeism related to obesity costs an estimated $4.3 billion per year, and lower productivity on the job costs $506 per employee with obesity each year. The greater an individual’s BMI, the higher the number of sick days and medical claims—and a worker’s medical costs also increase with obesity. In addition, employees with obesity have higher workers’ compensation claims.”
Businesses are negatively impacted by employee obesity, meaning they have reasons to discriminate. But they should still not be able to.
WHAT’S THE SOLUTION?
We do need to keep pushing back against workplace discrimination. And as individuals, we all have our crosses to bear with weight and appearance, and yes these are personal decisions, but I do think we can and must make healthy choices for ourselves first, surrounding ourselves with others who set good examples and letting them inspire and help us make those choices.
My thyroid condition isn’t an excuse, but it does impact my life. Like others with medical conditions, I have to work a little harder, especially on my weight.
At the core of it, though, I think we all need to start with that thing called self-love. When we don’t love ourselves and instead surround ourselves with others who influence us negatively, we make bad choices. It’s as simple as that, and not just about food or exercise, but about everything. Think about this: We are the average of the five people we surround ourselves with, plus all the other noise and negative perceptions that come into our senses daily.
We can change the way we perceive and talk about our bodies, weight, and appearance. Keep your mean, negative comments to yourself, or just stop with them altogether and don’t judge anyone for being overweight or different from you. You never know what someone is dealing with, but it’s a pretty sure bet they could use your support rather than your judgment. And FYI, no one is ever “just kidding.” This is one of my major pet peeves.
From my years of experience, from what I’ve read and the myriad things I’ve tried, I’ve found effective weight loss and feeling good is more about what, when, and how much you eat, although exercise is definitely a factor. That takes me back to learning about ourselves as individuals. Everyone is so very different, so taking time to become the expert of yourself is the key to good health. Some things are obvious: get enough sleep, hydrate, move your body at least three times a week, and stay away from excess sugar. But the rest depends on you, your body type, allergies, and what makes you feel sluggish or good.
I’m not a doctor by any means, but I do know what makes me feel good and what I’m doing to cause that. Sadly, society (advertising, entertainment, social media) is of no help, and there is no quick fix. We need to choose and commit to health every day, then take action so we can be our authentic healthy selves.
A friend and client of mine Marlene Veltre has a great book that I have looked to for help with my own health and wellness, it is called The Simple Seven, Body Basics for Vibrant Health. I like her stripped-down look at body basics from the perspective of a breast cancer survivor.
Fat- and body-shaming will never solve or cure obesity, and hateful speech about it only leads people to depression and feeling terrible about themselves. So, when you observe people, be kind, be helpful, and be a positive influence without judgment or snarky remarks. Every word we say is powerful and goes out into the universe. Let’s build each other up, perpetuating positive workplaces and environments based on trust and goodness that inspire all of us to be happy and healthy together.
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