Combating Body Type Discrimination in the Workplace

It happens at corporate parties, in social circles, and in the family – skinny, large, short, tall, or somehow different from the ‘ideal’ others have in mind leads to body shaming.

It’s not just against others, however. Consider: what’s the thing you like least about yourself? Most likely it’s related to your appearance. We are unreasonably hard on ourselves and others in this way.

Knowing the stresses weighing on people today, why do we still have such high expectations? Perhaps two main reasons are that we lack awareness, and that we are ‘trained’ by the media and society from a young age to criticise ourselves and others.

Advertising and celebrity culture are much to blame. Idolised body forms are daunting, and they are highly exploited in the media. Society thus pressures us to ‘be’ this or ‘be’ that. We need to choose to defy these unrealistic notions and help others feel comfortable around us, no matter their physical characteristics. A world of diversity is much more interesting, valuable and productive than a world of carbon copies.

Let’s look at this problem from the inside out through an example of what is really happening for people who are body shamed.

Mandisa grew up in a home where there was little money, even for food. She begged on the streets for something to eat from a young age. Often, the only time there was happiness at home was when there was food on the table. Her parents could be abusive, but never when there was food. As a result, she developed a difficult relationship with food without realising it. Mandisa began to see food as a comfort, as a sign that all was well with the world, and that she could relax and not be afraid.

Mandisa developed a sugar addiction, and although she knows people judge her for her weight, she can’t help turning to food because she sees it as a source of security, sometimes her only friend. Like other people whose bodies don’t fit what people believe is ‘attractive’, she is painfully aware of it. Her husband tries to hide food away from her, but this only makes life more difficult, and she starts to eat in secret, further marring her relationship with food.

One day at work, in front of her, Mandisa’s boss tells someone to move some equipment around because she has some difficulty getting past it as she is ‘a heavy lady’. Mandisa is humiliated and rushes to the bathroom to hide her tears.

Mandisa’s boss didn’t mean to insult her, but at times people aren’t even aware that they are ‘fat shaming’. How might Mandisa’s boss have handled the situation with more tact? And, what could her husband do to help her?

People are highly critical about body types, likely because we are such visual creatures. We are swayed by what we see, and we often fail to find out more about a situation.

People may say that it’s good to be strict with others and that we have a duty to warn them about their being overweight for health reasons. Being extremely thin is also unhealthy, and can indicate an emotional problem. So aren’t people justified in pointing it out and telling the person to change their eating habits? When people do manage to do this, they are highly praised, even used in advertising to sell products. Those who don’t are often ostracised.

A critical question is: what do we do when we see someone isn’t responding to ‘advice’ to change their body? Do we nit-pick at the issue or treat the person badly? Some people may even punish the person for not complying. But does this really have any chance of helping them when they are already fighting a battle against an underlying health problem they may not even know about, battling stress and emotional scars, or their weight has changed because of medication, allergies, surgery or for many other reasons?

If you are struggling with these problems, and they are affecting employee satisfaction and performance in the workplace, it needs to be taken very seriously and addressed. Racism, Classism, Sexism, And The Other ISMs That Divide Us delves into these issues and offers practical solutions to problems surrounding body diversity, as well as other diversity issues which can hamper organisational progress and cause deep hurt to individuals if not handled with care.

The book looks at overcoming instant separation magnets (ISMs) in the South African context, and how to manage diversity so that everybody wins. The aspects of diversity are considered in detail with real examples and practical information on dealing with and preventing diversity-related problems.

Racism, Classism, Sexism, And The Other ISMs That Divide Us helps readers bring about transformation in their everyday dealings and in their organisations. It is useful for managers, HR departments, corporate trainers, strategists, students, and anyone facing situations of diversity which require strategic and prudent interventions. It helps in inspiring positive change, changing mindsets, and transforming the status quo for the better of all.

Racism, Classism, Sexism, And The Other ISMs That Divide Us (ISBN: 978-0-620-80807-1) by Devan Moonsamy is available from the ICHAF Training Institute.

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Kelly Burke