Quartz: New research examines the treacherous experience of being ‘fat’ at work

16 Sep 2019
How to design an inclusive work space, specifically by considering the nonverbal messages in material objects like furniture, doorways, or corporate uniforms.

Originally found at Quartz, by Lila MacLellan

A few years ago, Dutch researchers Noortje van Amsterdam and Dide van Eck posted an ad on Wondervol, a closed Facebook group that serves as a virtual meeting place for Dutch women to talk about “body positivity, weight discrimination, fashion, self-acceptance, and more.”

The researchers were looking to interview women who self-identified as “fat”—a reclaimed word among fat positivity advocates and one the scholars use intentionally because it lacks the medicalized connotations of “obese” or “overweight.”

They eventually interviewed 22 subjects, mostly “Wondervol women,” some of whom later confessed that they had googled the academics, looking for photos, to find out whether the researchers, too, were fat. They’re not.

But that little detail about the mental preparation the women made ahead of their meeting with the interviewers was exactly the kind of observation Van Amsterdam, an assistant professor of organization studies at Utrecht University, and Van Eck, a PhD candidate in gender diversity studies at Radboud University Nijmegen, wanted to record.

The researchers’ goal was to move beyond what we know about pay and hiring discrimination and the psychological effects of workplace wellness programs that purport to promise better health. Instead, they investigated body size as an identity and diversity issue, a topic routinely named a top priority for corporations in most developed nations, yet rarely applied to weight. Their inquiry focused on women and the hidden work they do to literally fit in, because, says Van Amsterdam, “[f]irst and foremost, they’re seen as fat people with all the negative associations and stereotypes involved. But also because, for women, appearance usually matters more than for men.”...

Common fears for “fat” workers

The final and still forthcoming paper in their trilogy, which they presented at the 2019 Academy of Management Annual Meeting in Boston last month, offers the most concrete advice for managers about how to design an inclusive work space, specifically by considering the nonverbal messages in material objects like furniture, doorways, or corporate uniforms.

It’s one thing to, say, do away with so-called “BMI bonuses,” or other financial incentives that reward employees for health or weight targets, but these interviews also showed that on a daily basis, “fat” employees work in minefields where opportunities to symbolically and literally stand out from their peers are hiding everywhere.

A few interviewees explained how people of their size were not considered when uniforms were designed and selected. Others talked about needing to make their own clothing or having to special-order a company outfit, when the standard-issue uniform didn’t fit their frame.

Flimsy chairs made of light materials were a constant source of anxiety among the participants. In general, the women are wary of chairs, something people who are not fat have the privilege of never considering, the researchers noted. And the fear wasn’t just about chairs at their desks, but in lunch rooms or in client meetings at restaurants, where they would have little control over their seating arrangements.

“When you go to dinner with clients at a restaurant with very small chairs, like those fragile folding chairs, then you sit down very carefully. You don’t want the client to sit across from you while you are lying on the ground,” said a subject dubbed Jane. (Jane isn’t worried about getting injured, the authors point out, but instead she’s preoccupied with the impression she would create.)

Continue reading original article at Quartz.

Read the original research in Academy of Management Proceedings


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