Schedule a Call

Unraveling the Impact of Fatphobia and What Organizations Can Do About It - Part 1

Dec 25, 2023
A stethoscope on top of a small chalkboard with the word


Imagine the following scenario:

Denice is a talented marketing professional with several years of experience in her field. She is creative, diligent, and has consistently contributed to the success of her team. Sadly, Denice has been facing the impact of fatphobia in her workplace, which is affecting her professional life. 

Despite her impressive track record, Denice has noticed subtle biases in her interactions with colleagues and supervisors. During team meetings, for example, she has noticed that her ideas are often dismissed or overshadowed, while those from her thinner colleagues receive more attention. In casual conversations, she often overhears comments about diets and weight loss, which creates an uncomfortable atmosphere and makes her feel out of place.

During a recent performance review, Denice was surprised to hear her supervisor, who has always praised her work, make comments about her appearance rather than focusing solely on her accomplishments. The supervisor delicately implies that Denice's professional advancement could be associated with her physical appearance and advises her to consider adopting a more "polished" image.

 As a result of these experiences, Denice begins to question her self-worth and whether she truly belongs in her workplace. She becomes more self-conscious about her appearance and starts to avoid social interactions with colleagues. The impact on her mental health is noticeable, and she begins to dread going to work.

What should organizations do to prevent this type of situation?


Understanding Fatphobia

Fatphobia encompasses societal biases and discrimination directed at individuals perceived as overweight or obese. This pervasive issue is a form of body shaming, and it involves the propagation of negative attitudes, harmful stereotypes, and systemic biases against people simply based on their body size.

Appearance discrimination is pervasive in our society, particularly toward individuals who are overweight. Research shows that once someone surpasses their perceived "ideal" weight by around 20 or 30 pounds, they will likely encounter heightened career challenges and even a reduction in income. Fatphobia disproportionately affects women, likely due to its connection to the societal expectations dictated by the "beauty myth."

Fatphobia can be observed in social interactions, media representation, workplace policies, and even in healthcare practices. For example, when interviewing nurses, Puhl (2009) found that they viewed obese patients as non-compliant, overindulgent, lazy, and unsuccessful. Thirty-one percent would prefer not to care for obese patients, 24% agreed that obese patients repulsed them, and 12% would prefer not to touch obese patients.

It is time to acknowledge that fatphobia is a widespread, cultural problem—one that perpetuates unjust standards of beauty and contributes to the marginalization of those who do not conform to narrow ideals of body weight and appearance.


How Fatphobia Impacts the Individual

Fatphobia can have a profound and negative impact on individuals since it can affect different aspects of their lives including their mental health, physical well-being, social relationships, and even access to opportunities.

Below are just a few ways in which fatphobia can impact individuals:


Diminished Employment Opportunities and Wage Disparities

Research has consistently highlighted the adverse effects of weight-based discrimination on various aspects of professional life. In the hiring process, individuals facing fatphobia may encounter biased assessments, leading to overlooked qualifications and reduced chances of securing employment. Another concerning dimension of fatphobia relates to wage disparities. Individuals subjected to weight-based discrimination are more likely to experience disparities in wages when compared to their thinner counterparts. This wage gap not only reflects the inherent injustice within the workplace but also underscores the need for a concerted effort to dismantle fatphobia in professional spheres.


Limited Career Advancement Opportunities

Discrimination based on body size not only hampers career advancement opportunities for individuals but also significantly impedes their overall professional growth. When biases related to body size come into play, individuals may find themselves contending with unfair obstacles in their career trajectory. This can become evident through biased hiring practices, restricted opportunities for promotions, and a lack of avenues for skill development. Consequently, affected individuals may face challenges in showcasing their talents, which will hinder their ability to climb the professional ladder and contribute meaningfully to their respective fields.


Mental Health Challenges

The repercussions of fatphobia on mental health are substantial. The constant exposure to discriminatory attitudes and the internalization of negative self-perceptions creates fertile ground for the development of mental health challenges. Individuals grappling with weight-based discrimination are at an increased risk of experiencing conditions such as depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders. The cumulative effect of these mental health challenges not only exacerbates the personal toll on the individuals but also underscores the urgent need for societal change.


Negative Assumptions About Their Professional Capabilities

Fatphobia perpetuates a cycle of unfair stereotyping, subjecting individuals with larger bodies to negative assumptions regarding their work ethic and discipline. This bias can significantly influence the perceptions of colleagues and superiors, potentially hindering the recognition of their professional capabilities. The erroneous association of body size with traits such as laziness or lack of discipline contributes to a workplace culture where individuals may find themselves unfairly judged based on appearance rather than their actual skills and contributions.


Addressing fatphobia is not just about fostering inclusivity--it is a crucial step toward safeguarding the mental, emotional, and professional well-being of those affected. It is also about promoting a culture that values diversity and embraces positive body image.

In the next issue, we will look at the impact of fatphobia on career progression and how it is particularly detrimental to women.


Subscribe to The DEI+ Newsletter!

Sign up to get weekly tips and strategies about diversity, equity, and inclusion to help you increase your DEI IQ. Emails are guaranteed short and to the point!