Can Your Weight Hurt Your Career?

Yes. And we are not just talking about obesity. Women as little as 15 pounds overweight earn $9,000 less per year than their thinner counterparts. And there’s something you can do about it.

Research confirms what overweight people have always known: Overweight people are discriminated against at work, in ways that not only hurt them personally, but professionally and financially as well.

Moderately overweight (only 15 pounds overweight) women earn on the average $9,000 less per year than their thinner sisters, and very overweight women earn $19,000 less per year. A mere 25 pounds overweight for a woman results in a $14,000 differential in annual earnings!

They are also less likely to be hired and promoted than their thinner counterparts, by a significant factor. These findings are the result of peer-reviewed research. Like the women, overweight men earn less, but women are especially hurt by this bias.

What you can do about it.

Weight discrimination occurs in employment settings as often as racial discrimination. It is one of the top charges filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), and is reported by women about twice as often as men. However, unlike racial discrimination, there are no federal civil rights laws prohibiting weight discrimination. Only one state, Michigan, prohibits it. Unless the overweight person is disabled by their weight, there is no ADA prohibition against discrimination because of a person’s weight or size.

Hopefully, any company you might want to work for would have an enlightened culture that prohibits any sort of abusive behavior, but even then, the unspoken discrimination affecting hiring, promotion and fair compensation occurs everywhere. It is not only the person who openly expresses their bias who discriminates against overweight people. It is often done unconsciously, a product of biases the discriminators are not even aware of. They simply have a preference, or a feeling of like or dislike that they trust. Then they base their decisions on their instinct. They have a gut feeling or intuition and they are not sure why, not fully aware of the reason for it. They don’t think they are biased, but they trust their gut feeling.

If you sense you are being treated unfairly because of your weight, the only way to obtain fair treatment is to confront the unfair discrimination and seek fair treatment. I am not suggesting a belligerent confrontation, but a communication that points out the discrimination and calls for fair treatment. It might work to correct the situation, and more importantly, it mitigates the harm that it does to you. When we are treated badly, and we just accept it, as if we deserve it, we are condoning the abuse and participating in it. We hurt ourselves. So, if you are a victim of bad treatment, don’t remain a victim. Demand something better.

Of course, objecting to the offense and demanding correction may not result in improvement. And there is no legal recourse. If your leadership wants an ethical and positive culture, by all means, help it along, tell your leadership what needs correction. But what if they are not concerned with the company’s culture? Going to HR is no guarantee that the situation will improve. It may cause other problems. So, what do you do?

Weight and size bias in business has its basis in the social and personal bias that people have developed. It is learned from their culture of origin. It is similar to racial bias, where erroneous and derogatory conclusions about people are formed from prejudice. Lazy, stupid, irresponsible, and slovenly are characteristics that are often assigned to people of size or color. That’s because the prejudiced person grew up being taught those beliefs at home and in their community. It doesn’t even occur to them to doubt those beliefs.

If you grew up in a community that taught that the sun revolves around the earth, you don’t question it. It doesn’t even occur to you to question it. It’s simply a known fact. You can see it. Everybody knows it. If someone challenges it, telling you it’s wrong, that the earth actually revolves around the sun, you’d argue with the fool. The fact is self-evident. Even when given proof, shown evidence that their belief is wrong, a person believing the fallacy typically feels like the evidence must be wrong. They usually reject the new information. Facts, logic and reason are often not enough to overcome the gut feeling. What feels like the truth must be the truth.

What your culture teaches has great power in shaping belief and biases, and people are often not aware of their bias or that their beliefs are false.

Writer Eve Tahmincioglu tells the story of a woman who spent more than a decade with her company, being passed over for promotions constantly. Seeking answers, she was led to realize her weight might not be the only issue. “My real problem was not accepting myself. Maybe that’s what they saw … a very insecure person.” She didn’t like herself.

People who are overweight often share the bias against overweight people, a bias against themselves, says author Martha Beck. We often believe the same negative things about ourselves that the bigots do. Just as they found us unacceptable, we did too. Just as they need to correct those beliefs, we do too. Before we can expect to be accepted by others, we need to accept ourselves. Before we can expect others to honor us, we need to honor ourselves. That means deciding to reject the negative prejudices and decide that you’re OK and deserve to be treated well right now and in the future, whether you lose the weight or not.

While my own victory over obesity, losing 140 pounds and keeping it off, is the ideal solution for whole health, the truth is that it didn’t happen until after I started honoring myself. I needed to be kind to myself, I needed to demand good treatment from others, and I needed to refuse to accept poor treatment. You do too.

We don’t need to lose weight to be honored and successful, to be promoted, to be paid well. We need to honor ourselves as we are and cause others to do the same. Look at Oprah Winfrey and Melissa McCarthy. No one treats them badly without learning it was a mistake. Look around, there are countless other big people who are honored and paid the respect that decent people deserve. We need to be one of them, and then success in many arenas becomes possible.

Rather than believe that people should be judged unworthy and abused because of their shortcomings, we need to believe they should be treated fairly and helped instead of punished. We need to believe this about ourselves as well. We need to believe that all people deserve respect, all people deserve to be treated fairly, and all people can transcend their shortcomings. We need to adopt these beliefs and choose them over their opposites, if we are to grow beyond the limits we’ve believed in. We need to choose these beliefs because belief is the precursor to creation. Our belief projects our experience, whether it limits or expands our horizons.

Take care of yourself. Be the best model of yourself that you can be. Be proud of your good soul and all the good it generates. Buy great clothes. Don’t try to hide your size. Dress it well. Don’t think that you have to lose weight before you take your place of honor and give yourself great treatment, great style, great rewards. Give yourself great fashion, great presence. Present a self that demands respect. Never think or act as if being overweight is something to apologize for, something that makes a person worth less.

Practice and role-play how you’ll speak of yourself with pride, how you’ll tell your story of your strengths, your skills, your productivity and your work ethic. Describe yourself as a valuable worker, a talented contributor and a skilled professional, no matter what the profession is, whether it is waiting tables or directing a staff of professionals, hundreds of them, even thousands. Don’t take abuse. Practice and role-play how you’ll respond to poor treatment. Be ready for a diplomatic discussion as well as a tongue-lashing, for whichever is appropriate.

The day is coming when weight and size discrimination in the workplace will be socially unacceptable and prohibited by law. But you can’t wait for that to claim your due. You are entitled to fairness now, and the time to claim it is now.

William Anderson is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor who specializes in helping people achieve permanent weight loss. He was obese until his early thirties when he found the way to truly solve the problem. As a behavioral therapist, he developed a method for permanent weight loss, lost 140 pounds in 1985, and has taught thousands to successfully manage their weight for over 30 years. He is the author of The Anderson Method of Permanent Weight Loss.

I am thankful to these sources of the facts in this article, and some valuable ideas. They are well worth reading: