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Weight at work: Exploring anti-fat bias in the workplace

DePaul University researchers take a deeper look at the origins of anti-fat bias at work and how to build more inclusive workplaces

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From side comments to outright aggressiveness, anti-fat bias at work can be pervasive. In addition to being normalized in our culture, anti-fat bias is on the rise, say business researchers at DePaul University.

“Silent alarm bells ring to us, as researchers, when stereotypes like these go unacknowledged and unreckoned with, let alone grow,” says Grace Lemmon, an associate professor of management in the Driehaus College of Business. “We felt a pull to outline the expanse of damage caused by these stereotypes to raise awareness of the issue.”

Lemmon and co-authors, Jaclyn Jensen, an associate professor of management, and Goran Kuljanin, an assistant professor of management and entrepreneurship, recently published a research primer on weight at work in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology .

Why did you and your colleagues focus on weight in the workplace?

Kuljanin: When an organization lets bias into its culture, individuals cannot get the most out of their work experiences and the organization, as a collective of individuals, cannot perform at its best.

Anti-fat bias is particularly troubling because it is so common and acceptable, from little jokes to aggressive derision. Investigating a subtle yet pervasive form of bias felt like an opportunity to make a big difference out of a shadow issue.

Jensen: This area is important from the perspective of understanding incivility at work. Talking about fatness and weight in the workplace, though, is an uncomfortable issue. Many people have very strong feelings about larger bodied employees and the expectation that they should just become thin to avoid hostility.

These views are wholly inaccurate and not at all aligned with the science on weight and weight loss. This is a conversation organizations need to be having if they want to be seen as places that are supportive and inclusive of all employees.

In your paper, you explore previous research into anti-fat bias and weight-based stigma at work. How well do we understand it now?

Lemmon: Weight-based bias in the workplace is incredibly common. It shows up in economic differences between those in larger and small bodies, such as with pay, promotions, selection and performance evaluation.

We use a well-documented theory called "Objectification Theory" to frame the ease with which anti-fat bias seeps into our daily lives. Culture tells us what size and shape is acceptable. We internalize that it’s best to be that size and shape because we’re interested in the rewards it offers, that is social acceptance, and the punishments it avoids, that is stigma. Then we put ourselves down when we don’t align, work hard to conform even if that conformity to a particular body size isn’t realistic, and don’t condemn others when they deride us for not conforming. This theory shows us how defeating it can be to be a larger-bodied person: you’re "othered" by society, and often think you deserve this treatment.

Jensen: One blind spot is to think of weight stigma as a form of social dominance. A theme of social dominance emerges when you look at other areas of discrimination and stigmatization in the workplace, whether related to race, sex or gender identity. The majority group takes a superior stance, and along with it, attitudes and choices that diminish or denigrate the “inferior” group. When you objectify someone because of their body size and assume a host of negative attributes about them (purely because you have ascribed yourself to the more dominant group), it is a huge power play that we have seen time and time again.

You argue for moving towards inclusive workplaces and advocacy on behalf of larger-bodied people. What could that look like?

Jensen: There are a host of things workplaces can do – starting with human resources and building a culture within an organization that embraces differences amongst its employees. This could take the form of including weight as part of any DEI training, as well as hiring and promotion practices to ensure talent, not body size, is the primary driver of decision making.

Lemmon: Organizations must also reckon the extent to which their workplace cultures include elements of “healthism.” A culture follows the doctrine of healthism when it associates virtue with health. In other words, when you are “healthy” you are morally right. And, if you are not healthy, you have a moral imperative to become so or you face shunning. To assume someone is not healthy simply by viewing their size is unjust, and not only that, when we project healthism onto others, we force our personal paradigm for virtuousness on another person. That’s certainly not going to contribute to respect for others as they are.


Jaclyn Jensen 

Goran Kuljanin 

Grace Lemmon 

Media Contact: 
Mary Hansen 
312-362-8592 (Desk)