At HerMoney, we’ve often written about the gender pay gap of $0.17 per dollar (on average). You probably also know that this gap is even greater for women of color. But did you know that weight discrimination can also affect your salary?
In fact, for every 10% increase in a woman’s body mass, her income dropped by 6% on average, according to an analysis of data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, done by economist David Lempert. Additionally, a Harvard University study found that weight bias increased by an incredible 40% from 2007 to 2016 — during the same period when biases against race and sexual orientation decreased. In fact, a study from Jennifer Shinall, professor at Vanderbilt University Law School, found that even a weight gain of just 13 pounds can cost a woman $9,000 in annual salary.
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In other words, it’s clear that on top of all the other beauty standards women face, the pressure to stay thin is still all too real — and there are financial consequences for not doing so. We break down the truth about weight discrimination in 2024, and what we can do to fight it.
Weight Discrimination Isn’t A Myth
According to career coach Elizabeth Pearson, weight discrimination can impact women in many of the same ways that race and gender discrimination do, like being passed over for hiring or promotion. But it can also show up in places we might never think to look.
“Chairs with arms don’t necessarily fit every body type,” she says. “And that is just a small example of something that people aren’t taking into consideration when they’re creating what they want to be a comfortable [work] environment.”
While conference room furniture may seem unimportant on its own, when a woman quite literally sees that she doesn’t fit in at work, it’s a reflection of the broader financial and social pressures women face to stay thin. From workplace “weight loss competitions” that are branded as team-building, to being left out of client-facing meetings, larger-bodied women can face a hostile work environment at every turn.
“There’s this idea that you’re putting work into yourself if you have a smaller body, and that sort of diligence might cross over into your professional life,” says Marisa Meltzer, journalist and author of “This Is Big: How the Founder of Weight Watchers Changed the World — and Me.”
That idea — that if you’re thin, you’re automatically a harder worker — can lead many bosses to pass over larger-bodied employees for promotions. But using weight as an indicator of dedication or capability isn’t just flawed — it’s exclusionary.
“I am somebody of what you would call a ‘normal’ BMI, but even when I had minor weight fluctuations of maybe 15 or 20 pounds, I saw myself being passed over for higher visibility projects and client interactions,” Pearson says. “Then once I had lost that 20 or 25 pounds, all of a sudden I’m being promoted.”
Her story isn’t unique. A 2021 study from the International Journal of Obesity showed that 43% of Weight Watchers participants experienced weight discrimination at work — and even professionals at the top of their game aren’t immune. For example, Mireille Guiliano, bestselling author of “French Women Don’t Get Fat,” has often discussed the judgment and discomfort she felt when she was heavier, as has actor Queen Latifa, who said she was “publicly scrutinized” for her weight her whole career. And the way weight impacts our salaries and career opportunities isn’t limited to just women — actor Chris Pratt, who lost weight for his role in Guardians of the Galaxy, said that his career radically shifted “based on the way that I look.”
The truth is that weight fluctuations are a normal part of life, and they can happen for a variety of reasons, including medical conditions, stress, pregnancy, and so many more.
“It’s already hard enough being a woman,” Meltzer says. “So women are kind of getting hit on both ends. They’re already in a workforce where they have to prove themselves, and where they’re probably going to get paid less, and they’re living in a body that is more harshly judged and on display.”
How Can We Fight Weight Discrimination In The Workplace?
The time to fight back against weight discrimination is now. “We’re telling people that their body shape and size is not okay, and this is only being exacerbated with more people being pulled back into working from an office instead of their home office,” Pearson says.
Our body size — unlike other physical characteristics that we may have, including disability, race, and gender — is not a protected class under federal law. This means that employees who experience weight discrimination at work often have fewer options for handling it, and may be more likely to leave the company than to try and educate their boss on size inclusivity. (Which, when you’re facing discrimination, is a completely valid decision to make.)
That said, there are still steps you can take to advocate for yourself and your coworkers.
If You’re Advocating For Yourself…
“It’s much easier to change what your body looks like than to change the world,” Meltzer says. “But the only thing that’s really going to help is having more diverse bodies and people of all backgrounds in positions of leadership, who can be in charge of how much money people make and [who gets] promotions.”
Of course, you can’t educate a whole company by yourself, so start small. Pearson suggests joining any DEI initiatives that already exist at your workplace, or starting an employee resource group to promote inclusivity.
“Even if people are sort of starting to become educated and know better, there’s still this idea that talking about weight is extremely fraught,” Meltzer says. But not talking about it doesn’t fix the problem — it just puts the onus on larger-bodied people who don’t have the option to ignore it.
“What we don’t want to do is put it on people who are feeling like they’re discriminated against to educate HR,” Pearson says. “We talk about allyship with gender and race, but there needs to be allyship here too.”
If You’re Advocating For Others…
Our colleagues with larger body types need allies who are willing to speak up for them when issues arise, who can help facilitate change.
For example, the Obesity Action Coalition recommends addressing weight bias in workplace harassment training that your employer may offer. If your employer doesn’t address this, you can speak to HR about including it. Likewise, obesity should be an official category added to your company’s official anti-harassment policy.
Should you see a colleague getting unfairly passed over for projects and promotions by a manager, speak up. Talk to your immediate supervisor, HR, or another supervisor about what you’ve seen, and let them know you suspect that weight bias may be a factor. The same goes for witnessing or overhearing weight-based teasing. True advocates speak up whenever they overhear weight discrimination, even in the form of a “joke,” and try to shut down that behavior whenever it arises.
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