How weight loss office talk undermines DEI initiatives

How weight loss office talk undermines DEI initiatives

As a fat person, I hate the first few weeks of January with a fiery passion. 

Following every holiday season, there’s seemingly no escape from the weight loss industrial complex. Social media is inundated with weight loss ads, people are constantly posting fitness goals, and gyms are in your face talking about “beach bods.” The entire world embraces the disordered eating I worked so hard to escape while gleefully saying, “Your body shouldn’t exist.” To be honest, the world does a good job of that year-round but really cranks it up a notch this time of year. 

Before I started remote work, I would dread the office kitchen in early January, where almost every conversation would include how “bad” folks had eaten over the holidays and how “good” they needed to be now.

The worst was when it would show up at work. I might be able to easily report social ads and mute friends, but how do I escape an email from human resources encouraging staff to join a team weight loss challenge with monthly weigh-ins? Or a boss who encourages her whole team to buy Fitbits so we can compete on daily steps? (Both were real things that happened at two of my former jobs.) 

Employers seem to rarely consider fat people when putting together their Diversity, Equity and Inclusion goals. But creating a space for plus-size employees to feel welcome has just as much to do with diversity and inclusion as any other group.

Before I started remote work, I would dread the office kitchen in early January, where almost every conversation would include how “bad” folks had eaten over the holidays and how “good” they needed to be now. Staring blankly at my colleagues as they described exercise as some kind of self-inflicted punishment for enjoying food, all in an effort to not look like me. 

I’ll admit, it was really difficult for me to notice how harmful these things were until I recovered from disordered eating and I started to refuse to participate. Speaking up about how fatphobic and ableist these kinds of “wellness programs” or incentives are toward people with larger bodies, disabilities and experiences with eating disorders would often be met with an eye roll or a lecture about how my employer is only encouraging “healthy behaviors.” Politely asking co-workers not to discuss restrictive eating with me usually led to awkward silences and not a lot of future conversations. 

These kinds of programs and incentives value weight loss as healthy above all else, completely disregarding the complex factors that go into measuring one’s health. They also ignore the findings of studies that suggest that anti-fat bias and weight stigma contribute to worse health outcomes than a high Body Mass Index (BMI). In fact, weight discrimination (which is still entirely legal in 49 states) leads to poor outcomes for fat folks at work — including harmful biases in the hiring process and less pay.

So if workplace weight loss programs don’t actually improve employee health — what is it they are attempting to do?

As the writer and fat activist Aubrey Gordon put it when discussing workplace wellness programs on a recent episode of her podcast “Maintenance Phase”: “One of the major narratives that drives our understanding of and response to fat people in the world: Fat people are most frequently discussed as a cost.”

And it’s true. Many of the underlying arguments for these kinds of discriminatory programs are in the name of saving health care costs. But that argument starts to fall apart quickly when you consider that fat is not a reliable indicator of health. According to a UCLA study published in 2016, misusing BMI as a measure of health incorrectly labels millions of fat Americans as unhealthy, even though by other measures like blood pressure and cholesterol, they are not. And yet, workplace wellness programs that focus on weight loss and other fatphobic-related measures like BMI and fat percentage persist. 

There’s not much evidence to suggest these workplace weight loss programs even reduce costs. The same “Maintenance Phase” episode pointed out a 2013 study, which found that “savings to employers may come from cost shifting, with the most vulnerable employees — those from lower socioeconomic strata with the most health risks — probably bearing greater costs that in effect subsidize their healthier colleagues.” 

The size of my body has nothing to do with my work. I recognize this sometimes may not be true for certain professions (one of many fine reasons I’m not a jockey or a cave diver).

Another study in 2021 makes the point that “if the goal is to save money by reducing healthcare costs and absenteeism or to improve chronic physical health conditions, there is little evidence that this type of program delivers the desired results.” And one more for good measure: “There is no evidence that these programs work, but ample evidence exists that they are a morale-reducing and expensive distraction from the business of business,” according to medical experts in a 2015 article for The American Journal of Managed Care.

So we’re shaming fat folks, excluding people with disabilities and triggering those of us recovering from eating disorders for … absolutely no reason at all. 

For my own sanity, I do have to believe there are employers out there who genuinely want to support their staff’s health and wellness, and it’s not just a thinly veiled attempt to get sick and fat employees to cover health care costs they don’t want to pay for. Organizations and companies should be focused on how to make the workplace as safe and welcoming as possible for every one of their employees. This means offering benefits that cover mental health care, paid time off for vacation, sick time and family medical leave.

One of the truly best workplace “wellness” benefits I’ve ever received from an employer is a blanket, lump sum stipend that I could use for reimbursements on what I felt would improve my health. I could use that benefit for a massage after I had a car accident, a set of classes at my favorite yoga studio, or a meal box subscription so I didn’t have to meal plan every week. The incentive was to take care of myself and enjoy my work — which in turn, makes me proud to work there and more productive. 

To help make this the rule rather than the exception, employers should be asking themselves: Are larger employees welcome and safe in their workplace? They should remind staff to never comment on people’s bodies, as you would on race, religion, gender or sexuality. As they might accommodate someone with an injury or disability, workplaces should ensure that office space and travel needs accommodate plus-size employees. Office gifts and swag should be kept body neutral or offered in extended sizes for folks who need it. Hiring practices should be updated to recognize and combat anti-fat bias like all other implicit biases. Health care plans should offer a wide range of providers so fat folks can see the best medical professionals for them. Weight discrimination and anti-fat bias could be included in workplace harassment training. And any workplace wellness program that specifically incentivizes weight loss should be acknowledged as harmful and ended immediately. 

The size of my body has nothing to do with my work. I recognize this sometimes may not be true for certain professions (one of many fine reasons I’m not a jockey or a cave diver). But for the vast majority of us, the workplace should be a body neutral space. My value as an employee lies solely in my experience, skills and contribution to the mission of our work — and that cannot be measured by a scale.

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