Women Share How Workplaces Are Still Failing to Promote Body Positivity

Woman Looking in Mirror

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AnnaMarie Houlis
AnnaMarie Houlis
April 22, 2024 at 10:0PM UTC
In 2016, UK-based legal academics Tamara Hervey and Phillip Rostant found that “people of non-ideal weight are subjected to discrimination, in the workplace and elsewhere, based on attitudinal assumptions and negative inferences… such as that they are insufficiently self-motivated to make good employees.” In fact, they found that overweight women earn an average of $9,000 less than those of an average weight, and obese women earn as high as $19,000 less.
Likewise, 78 percent of the 600 participants (87 percent of whom were women) part of a survey with the national nonprofit, Obesity Action Coalition, said they were treated unfairly because of their weight. Sixty-five percent of them went so far as to say that they were discriminated against because of weight.
None of the aforementioned research is exactly groundbreaking, however. And more than half of Americans have no qualms about making negative comments about a person’s weight, including in the workplace, according to Psychology Today.
Of course, body shaming extends beyond weight shaming, too. Body shaming takes many forms: It could be in regards to one's weight, to their overall image, to their hair or makeup or something else that has to do with their appearance.
Whether or not it's blatant, many workplaces still perpetuate body shaming, and female talent feels it. We spoke with 11 women who've shared their own unique experiences dealing with a complete disregard for body positivity.

1. Feeling Pressure About Eating Healthy Lunches 

"At work I developed a terrible body image and, although I am not fat, I felt constantly under pressure and fat- and body-shamed," says Jenny, 26, who works for an online sports nutrition company. "Working for a sports nutrition company, it was almost essential that you prepped your meals in Tupperware and ate six meals a day, which should basically consist of chicken and vegetables. Eating unhealthily would mean you would be called 'loose,' and you would almost feel guilty for eating anything that contained any sugar."
Jenny says she also felt guilty about eating fruits, let alone sweets — someone was always lingering around to make a comment about what she was eating, even though she was healthy and trained to an athletic standard. To add fuel to the fire, she says working in a male-dominated workplace made her even more uncomfortable. She eventually developed anoexia athletic, which means that, though she trained like an athlete, she associated fitness with body image and, therefore, restricted and overtained in order to try and change her body.
"There were very few females when I was in this position and so I worked very closely with males," she explains. "My colleagues would constantly have female ambassadors and fitness models up on their screens, commenting on their bodies and attractiveness and using sexist and derogatory terms. If a female appeared to have a small chest or more than 15 percent body fat, it would be commented on along with her appearance, and they were even rated out of 10 on some occasions. To make matters worse, when females would walk past within the company, there would be constant comments on their appearances and figures. Although I was 'one of the lads,' this made me feel inadequate and uncomfortable with my body in the workplace, causing me to train excessively and eat very little.
"I feel this male-dominated fitness environment did not embrace a positive body image and did not embrace the true value of fitness. Instead, they chose to focus on vanity for marketing purposes, which, in my opinion, will only continue to result in unrealistic social media standards and promote body image issues."

2. Having Limited Options for Work Clothing

"I'm interviewing currently, and the pressure to dress a certain way is intense," says Lindsay, 26. "The stores have slim sizes or stretch, and I was up like two sizes bigger in work pants than I am in other pants. I think, in general, there is a lack of options for people since most 'work outfits' are seen on small, skinny people in advertisements, and it made me feel really bad about myself and affected my self-confidence, which I think is already low as a female interviewing in big, primarily male-dominated companies."

3. Being Coerced to Cover up at Work

"I love my job and I actually work with only women — but, sometimes, the team can be a bit judgemental on what we all wear to work," says Melissa, 27. "If I wear a dress, for example, my colleagues will make jokes and say that, if it's short, I need to at least cover up on top. They're always saying to pick one: legs or boobs. I think it's ridiculous, especially because I wear bigger sizes (which vary depending on the brand), so dresses are usually shorter on me, and I have a big bust. The same goes for shirts and skirts. I just gave up on button-downs, because they'll always make jokes when the buttons are tight across my bust. And, as for skirts, unless it's a long, pencil skirt, I just don't wear them to avoid the comments. I understand that you have to dress professionally at work, but a coworker of mine could be wearing the same outfit but, because I wear plus sizes, it'll just look different."

4. Being Told That Good Looks Is What Earns Tips

"Sometimes when we're at work, everybody always picks at the french fries, the manager would tell me and the other girls that, if we keep doing that, we're not going to get enough or as good of tips," says Robin, 32. "As if we'd eat too many fries so people wouldn't tip us on our looks — instead of our service."

5. Being Spoken to Inappropriately for Appearance

"When I was subbing in an autistic class, I took one of the young boys to physical therapy, and during one of the exercises he kept saying, 'It hurts,'" says Sandy, 56. "When we asked why, we noticed he had an erection. One of the other teachers made jokes about him having a crush on me, and it made me feel really uncomfortable and insulted. I'm a mother. And this was just a natural thing to happen to a boy his age. It was totally inappropriate of her. They always said that, because of the way I looked, the male students were all attracted to me."

6. Being Shamed for Hairstyles and Clothing Choices

"My experience being body shamed as an employee in the past was regarding my personal choice of hairstyle and choice of clothing," says Toni of The Curvy Housewife. "I worked for a nursing home facility in Philadelphia as an executive assistant. This position meant that I was the first and last person to come into contact with residents living in the facility’s visitors (friends, relatives, nurses, doctors, etc). Apparently, my natural hair offended some of the residents, family members and management staff.
"My clothing choices were too form fitting and the overall look of my preferred style was a bit more sexy than expected. I was called in the office to discuss other hairstyle and attire options, which I made in order to keep my job. Unfortunately, my efforts to change the hairstyle in question weren't enough, and I was forced to resign and seek employment elsewhere after weeks of being harassed and insulted by staff and others. What started as a complaint about my hairstyle and outfits ended up actually being more important than my work ethic. I’m naturally fuller in areas that were not a choice but a given."
Toni says that, because she has wider hips and large breasts, even a classic pencil skirt and blouse would reveal parts of her body when she doesn't intend for them to. She says that, unfortunately, some employers don’t understand the "curvy plus size" body type, and so they take matters further than necessary. 
"Discrimination of any sort is an inappropriate act — especially, in the workplace," she says. "No one deserves to be treated unfavorably due to their personal characteristics, including unwelcome behaviors of a colleague, management or even the boss/owner. Your work environment should be professional, comfortable and peaceful for both employees and employers at all times. Body shaming, harassment and/or bullying are unwarranted stresses to the performance of employees."

7. Experiencing Mockery for Dieting

"Several years later, in a different office and post-baby, I was dieting to get back to pre-baby weight (and fit into my interview suit, since I wanted out of that office)," says a woman we'll call Catherine, who wishes to stay anonymous. "I politely declined cake one day, and one of the male attorneys mocked me saying something like, 'Oh, I have to get back to a size zero.' Body shaming isn't just something that happens to the overweight. It happens to those who are too thin as well."

8. Feeling Criticized for How Home-Cooked Meals Are Made

"I worked for an eye surgeon as a marketing assistant, and I was constantly shamed for what I ate and wore, and my makeup choices," says Katelynn. "The practice manager would come into the break room during my lunch daily and look through the food that I ate and make comments how unhealthy it was. I was eating homemade meals, but since I used to much olive oil, she would make a comment how my face will become an oil field by the end of the day... She would sit with you as you ate making comments about how bad it was for you. I know multiple coworkers from that job that would not eat at work in fear of being judged. I even had a coworker that developed an eating disorder because of how much we were shamed."
Katelynn adds that the same manager pulled her into a meeting because she wasn't wearing enough makeup or doing something with her "too-curly" hair. She remembers sitting in her car crying over the comments her manager would make, and she even recalls being asked if she worked out during her interview.
"They don't hire someone who will get fat while working there," she says. "The main doctor would have meetings and go over why fat patients and employees are not allowed because they are 'lazy.'"

9. Being Discriminated Against for One's Pregnant Body

"While I was seven months pregnant I was walking down the hallway and a male director from another department said, 'Woah, soon you won't be able to fit down here at all,'" says a woman we'll call Melanie. "I was the director of marketing for five companies. I was subsequently let go from that same position while on maternity leave because they had to outsource my work. I only took 10 of the 12 weeks the state law allows. In my exit interview they told me I was great at my job, had turned the department completely around and that they were thrilled with where marketing had gone. Unfortunately, they had outsourced and wanted to keep outsourcing. That wouldn't have happened if I didn't go on maternity leave."

10. Hearing Comments About Snacking

"My coworker and I worked very closely together, but we hadn't seen each other all summer (I was a teacher at the time)," says Lauren. "When we came back for our back-to-school rally, there was a reception with food and cookies. I was debating whether or not I should take a cookie, and toward the end, I decided to indulge. As I walked back to our station with the cookie, he looked at me and said, 'Lauren, do you really think you need a cookie?' I was so appalled, but I held my composure as I stared him down, took a bite, and replied, 'Yes.'"

11. Feeling Skinny-Shamed and, Therefore, Judged for Making Healthy Choices

"I am a 50-year-old woman who is naturally thin — I'm about 5'5" and 115 pounds, which means that I wear a size two or four," says Gabrielle. "Many of coworkers were overweight... For me, what I noticed is that I should eat the donuts [coworkers brought in] because some people 'watched' me to see if I ate them, or how much, or would ask, 'Do you eat donuts?' with a tone that had some emotion behind it, maybe some judgement, genuine interest or sarcasm. Yes, I do eat donuts, most times just a half of a donut but, yeah, there was some shaming if I ate the donut or if I didn't eat the donut. Some of the more overweight people would encourage me to eat the donut or other food with them. At potlucks, people would look at what was on my plate, or comment that I don't eat much (I do eat just fine; I don't overeat, though)."
Gabrielle adds that her coworkers would be surprised if she drank a soda or ate fast food, which she does in moderation. They'd make comments if she ate fish, telling her that the ocean is polluted. They'd even comment on her decision to take the stairs rather than the elevators now and then. They made so many comments, in fact, that she didn't feel comfortable eating in front of them anymore, and it became easier to eat alone at her desk. She did eat in front of them when someone would bring snacks for a company meeting, however, to show them that she was "like them."
"What I noticed with my agency is that the company would sponsor Weight Loss Challenges and have various rewards for losing weight (gift cards, movie tickets or cash)," she says. "As someone who was within the average weight range, I always thought that it was wrong to not give the people who did manage their weight any sort of incentive either. What about the people who don't gain weight during the holidays? We got nothing, but if people only gained 10 pounds during the holiday season they could earn an incentive for this. This changed a little within the last year where they had a challenge of drinking eight glasses of water each day for 30 days (that was less body shaming, and even people without weight issues could participate)."
AnnaMarie Houlis is a multimedia journalist and an adventure aficionado with a keen cultural curiosity and an affinity for solo travel. She's an editor by day and a travel blogger at HerReport.org by night.

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