The Workplace Problem That No One Is Talking About

Illustrated by Marina Esmeraldo.
In our Take Back The Beach survey, 70% of respondents said they wouldn't gain 10 pounds in order to get a promotion. But in reality, there are very few scenarios where a woman would have to put on the pounds in order to get ahead. Unfortunately, it's more likely that you would have to lose weight. Ahead, Maggie Mertens takes a deeper look at the problem of weight discrimination in the workplace. When Sarah Bramblette, then 33, applied for an open manager position in 2011 at her job with a physician staffing group in Sunrise, Florida, she was told she didn't have enough experience. Bramblette had two bachelor's degrees — a B.A. in English and a B.S. in Health Services Administration — plus five years of management experience working in higher education. Not one to be put off, she asked her director what she could do to better her chances at getting past the screening process the next time a management position became available. Bramblette, who weighed around 360 pounds at the time, says she was told: "Dress for the part you want, not the part you have." "So despite two degrees, I was being told my advancement in the company was based on how I looked, not skills or experience," Bramblette says. She had been wearing office attire such as black dress pants to work. While she didn’t fully agree with what her director said, she changed her wardrobe anyway and began to wear more dresses to the office. Even so, the next open manager position went to a co-worker who had less relevant experience than Bramblette and no college degree. Bramblette has lipedema and lymphedema, medical conditions that cause excess tissue and fluid to accumulate in the arms and legs, weight that can’t be lost through diet or exercise. Living with these diseases is not easy. "Physically, it's painful. My arms and legs are heavy and sensitive to touch. Even sitting and lying down are uncomfortable due to the size of my arms and legs, [and my] hips do not align properly." What's been more difficult, though, says Bramblette, is having to work twice as hard as her colleagues to overcome the stigma of being large in the workplace. "Workers who weigh more are perceived to be lazy and unhealthy, and it's assumed they are less intelligent because any smart person would know how to lose weight and be healthy. I have always been the opposite...I would work extra-hard to disprove that, often working rings around my co-workers and yet still getting overlooked,” she says.

"Workers who weigh more are perceived to be lazy and unhealthy, and it's assumed they are less intelligent because any smart person would know how to lose weight and be healthy."

Sarah Bramblette
Workplace discrimination can be hard to prove, and when it comes to weight, certain industries — hospitality, entertainment — might seem to be more prone to prejudice. In 2013, 22 cocktail waitresses who worked for Atlantic City’s Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa sued their employer for having to endure frequent weigh-ins, and being subject to suspension if they gained a certain amount of weight. In the weight-obsessed modeling industry, Chrissy Teigen says she was fired early in her career from a shoot at Forever 21 for being "fat." In the corporate world, weight bias might be more ambiguous, but it is no less prevalent. “Weight discrimination in employment has been documented as one of the most common forms of employment discrimination that people experience,” says Rebecca Puhl, a professor at the University of Connecticut and the Deputy Director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. “Some research in the U.S. has found that among women, weight discrimination is comparable to rates of racial discrimination.” Unlike racial bias, though, there is little legal protection against it in this country. Those Borgata cocktail waitresses lost their lawsuit, because New Jersey, like 48 other states, doesn’t have a law on the books prohibiting discrimination based on weight. Michigan is the only state where such a law exists, so most people who suffer this unfairness have no legal recourse. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission discrimination laws may cover workers who are morbidly obese, because the disease falls within the scope of the Americans with Disabilities Act, but not just any size-related case of bias. However, according to EEOC spokesperson Christine Saah Nazer, "the entire thrust of EEOC's mission is to have people considered for employment based on their qualifications and experience — not on irrelevant factors.” Without protection laws in place, unfairness exists at every step of the employment process, and as with many issues in the workplace, it can be worse for women. According to Puhl, “some national studies show that women...experience more weight discrimination at lower levels of being overweight than men, who tend to report this form of discrimination at higher levels of obesity.”

“Some research in the U.S. has found that among women, weight discrimination is comparable to rates of racial discrimination.”

Rebecca Puhl, Deputy Director of the Rudd Center
Take hiring, for example. Back in college, Valerie Mills knew she would be facing an uphill battle entering into a male-dominated field like IT, so she made sure to be as prepared as possible. She earned her master's degree before she even attempted to get into the job market. But she didn't expect to face two kinds of bigotry — for being not just a woman, but a woman who weighed 340 pounds.
"When I first got out of grad school, I sent out over 750 resumes all over the country. On the phone, they would all sound like they really wanted me. Then I'd go in and the majority, the moment I walked in, you could tell they were not going to hire me, just by the way they looked at me." Mills, now 47, says her career has taken many unusual turns because of her weight, though she's never filed a formal complaint. "This type of discrimination is too hard to prove," she says. Puhl says what Mills experienced wasn’t rare. “While it is very difficult to prove in the ‘real world’ that a person was denied a job because of their weight, experimental research shows that in mock hiring scenarios, weight discrimination is certainly present.” Then there are earnings. According to a 2014 study by Jennifer Shinall, an assistant professor of law at Vanderbilt Law School, overweight women likely earn less than average-size women and less than all men, regardless of weight.

"It's sad that I have to hide behind a computer to be taken seriously."

Valerie Mills
The lack of legal protection for this kind of documented inequality might seem surprising, but Puhl says it stems from society’s acceptance of stereotypes about overweight and obese people. “There is little public understanding about obesity as a complex, chronic disease that has multiple determinants, only one of which is personal behavior,” she says. “We also live in a society where weight bias and stereotypes are common in the mass media, and where such instances go unchallenged.” Today, Mills works from home as an online tutor while finishing a PhD in Information Assurance and Security. She's been surprised by how differently she's been treated in that job, where no one can see what she looks like. "When I get on the phone with my learners, they tell me, ‘You're amazing.’ And I just think, you would not have those same words for me if you saw a picture of me first. It's sad that I have to hide behind a computer to be taken seriously," she says. It's your body. It's your summer. Enjoy them both. Read more Take Back The Beach stories here.

More from Work & Money

R29 Original Series