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When you apply for a job, you think of your work experience. You update your resume, fill out the appropriate paperwork and wait for those calls. You prepare for your interviews; picking out a professional outfit or making a quick stop to the mall to purchase a nice blouse. You put your best foot forward. Sometimes you shoot your shot with that position that would be ideal but perhaps you’re not super qualified for. Other times, you apply for the positions that you’re clearly overqualified for, because money is tight and capitalism is a total bitch.
These are relatively manageable challenges for the average person looking for work. Some problem solving around sharing the car with your partner or child care might be required. Interview and first day jitters are common for a lot of us. But we do what is necessary because we need to get our needs met. We have to provide for ourselves and for our families in a world where the dollar is the only valid currency and the cost of living (and just being a human) continues to rise.
Superfat in the Workplace
Imagine that in addition to these challenges, you’re met with numerous other obstacles in both finding and securing employment, based entirely on the size of your body. Imagine living in a world designed for bodies much smaller than yours and facing challenges that impact your ability to thrive.
This is reality for us fat folks. Especially us superfats. Whether it’s finding appropriate clothing, navigating spatial issues, or having limited mobility, being a superfat in the workplace is stressful.
I wouldn’t say it’s best practice to assume all fat folks have the same limited mobility issues. Some fat people are flexible, have great stamina, and the strongest knees. Some don’t. The reasons for this variance in mobility could be related to health and size, or they could not. We give thin people the grace to be varied in their experiences and abilities, so I just want to preface this by reminding folks of just that – we are all different. My experience is not guaranteed to be the universal fat experience. However, in a world where the fat experience is ignored and undervalued, it’s important to acknowledge that one-third of the US population is considered “overweight” and to be quite honest, there’s a whole shit ton of fat people out there that can relate.
For the past year and a half, I’ve had the privilege of working from home. As a freelance writer and content creator, I had such a blast spending my days sharing my passions with the world. But when it came time to monetize those creative endeavors, well, let’s just say it’s much more difficult than it looks. The devastating state of my finances led me to reevaluate my work from home lifestyle. Back to the traditional workforce for me!
Sifting through the slew of job postings on this website and the next, I started getting discouraged. How can I best set myself up for success? Which kinds of jobs should I be applying to? At this point, I was pretty tight on cash, and needed to find something stable and also reasonably accessible as a fat person. I can’t stand on my feet for more than half an hour without feeling excruciating pain. I can’t walk long distances, stairs, or fit in tight spaces. Anything with high customer traffic that wouldn’t allow me to take very frequent breaks to sit down will not work. This pretty much cuts out all sales, retail, and food service positions.
I finally started taking chances on applying for positions within the social work field. Surely, that field is much more likely to be able to provide accommodations for my limited mobility and size. But in reflection of multiple interviews, I came up against another obstacle.
What if they don’t want to hire me because I’m fat?
This is a real fear for fat people – and it’s entirely valid. Research has shown that overwhelmingly, hiring managers are less likely to hire fat people, as they consider them to be lazy and unprofessional. Yep, weight based bias is a real thing. Fat people are still a federally unprotected class. That means weight based bias and discrimination is entirely legal. And it impacts us on a real level. If it doesn’t keep us from getting hired altogether, it stops us from being able to access healthcare benefits, receive promotions, and even from earning the same wage as our thin peers for doing the same work. This hinders us from being able to get out of poverty and support ourselves and our families. We can’t thrive.
Let’s say, for funsies, that a person of size with limited mobility like myself does in fact land that job that ticks all the right boxes. I pushed through the initial interview – the big reveal of my true size and somehow the weight bias didn’t thwart me. No sighs of relief just yet. Every moment following will require extra thought, preparation, advocacy, and most of all – vulnerability.
What to wear and how will it be perceived?
It often surprises me when I talk to thin people about buying clothes and they don’t already know that I can’t shop in-store. I cannot. I’m not exaggerating, there are no options. Suggestions about just popping over to Walmart for some cheap dress pants are irrelevant to me. Most if not all clothing stores do not carry my size in pants, shirts, sweaters, coats, underwear, tank tops etc. Nothing. If I need a blouse or a button up, I have to shop online. This means it not only costs more, but the fit is unpredictable and last minute purchases are impossible. Being a superfat, I’m further limited by which online stores even carry my size. I can count on one hand the stores that do and most of the time, those stores only have a few items in my size listed.
As stated previously, common perceptions of fat people are that we are lazy and unprofessional. A way to combat this in a traditional workplace where the dress code is business casual, is to upgrade our wardrobe and make sure we’re looking professional. But have you ever noticed that the standards for thin people to be considered professional versus fat people don’t really align? A thin person can wear a cardigan over a v-neck tee and look business casual. The same outfit would be perceived as dressed down or even “frumpy” on a fat person. Dress pants in straight sizes seem to have all the proportions correct. Meanwhile, fat people are drowning in our dress pants because whoever’s designing them believes our ankles are the same width as our thighs, (typically not the case). How are we supposed to adhere to rules not made with us in mind?
The Seating Situation
Navigating unfamiliar spaces brings on a lot of anxiety for many superfats. Personally, I was really worried about what kind of work space I would have at my new job, considering I’d be spending damn near 8 hours of my day there. Will the chairs have arms? Will they be sturdy? Almost every superfat has a story about a time when a chair crumbled beneath them. My worst fear is always that on my first day, I’ll crush a chair in front of all my new coworkers and I’ll have to first, struggle to get up off of the floor and then immediately find a bathroom to go cry in out of embarrassment. Not fun.
And even if that worst case scenario doesn’t happen, what would finding appropriate seating look like? Not every workplace has funding to provide appropriate chairs for varied individuals. Nor are they required to prioritize that need. Further, how might you feel sharing this need with a superior you’ve just met, drawing attention to something so vulnerable to judgement?
A Superfat in the Workplace Who Eats
Is it true that thin people judge what a fat person chooses to eat? Yes. We’re human, we make judgments about people. Our society is obsessed with diet culture and thinness. We place moral implications on decisions related to food. We value health and beauty standards above all else. It would be naive to think that a fat person could eat whatever they wanted, however much they wanted, without their thin peers making judgments about what they should/shouldn’t be consuming, or why they’re consuming it.
This is why I consistently have anxiety about groceries every single week. I worry a lot about what my peers think about the foods I bring in. I fear that they’ll make judgments about my need to snack throughout the day. I’m afraid they’ll deem me a “bad fatty,” if I decide to bring food that I’m supposed to feel guilty about eating. But then, if I bring items that are typically seen as healthy, I worry they’ll make the wrong conclusions and decide to engage in conversations with me about dieting (yes, this does happen).
What can I bring for snacks that will feel satisfying? What will make the least noise and draw the least amount of attention? How can I make sure my meal looks balanced? Do I want it to be balanced for my own benefit or to try and control how I am perceived about the food I eat?
Establishing myself as A Fatty Who Eats Freely in the workplace requires courage and a lot of work. I have to be strong in my values and even repeat them to myself in times of insecurity.
“I’m allowed to eat. I have to nourish myself like anyone else. Food has no moral value. Diet culture is toxic and I’m not taking part in that. Health is not a prerequisite for respect.”
This is a lot of unnecessary stress and emotional labor. I don’t want my anxiety around food to stop me from being able to eat at work. I know that being terrified of people’s perceptions of me as a fat person eating can negatively affect my performance and also trigger my eating disorder. That is not what I’m trying to do here! While I’m committed to “doing the work,” and practicing what I preach, surely one can admit that figuring out lunch for a long work day and having these anxieties shouldn’t be this taxing.
Am I going to be put in physically demanding situations?
Its nearly impossible to anticipate every potential physical activity that’ll be involved in a new job. Still, you can gather the basics. How big is the property? Will I be expected to regularly walk long distances? Is there a lot of driving involved? How much standing will there be?
The thing is, the definition of what is “physically demanding” is subjective. And I think the general public expects fat folks to suffer through more pain and discomfort than thin people. The narrative is that we did this to ourselves, so we should suffer through until we fix the problem; our fatness. Again, forcing us to feel like we have to shrink to the space instead of make the space safer for everyone.
It’s terrifying trying to advocate for ourselves knowing that most people feel this way about us and our bodies. I have been in numerous situations where I’ve pushed myself past my limits, injured my body, and even had a full meltdown because I forced myself to endure pain that my thin counterparts wouldn’t even entertain suffering through. Expecting that everyone will be able to participate in the same level of activity, without leaving room for accommodations, does not create a fair and ethical workplace.
Okay, but…who cares?
The thing about these challenges is that they aren’t unique to me specifically. Remember that nearly one-third of the US population is considered “overweight.” With a changing population, you’d expect that the structure of our workplace would adjust as well. You’d also expect that common perceptions of fat people would adjust and become less discriminatory. But because attitudes around weight based bias have not evolved, that leaves it up to the disenfranchised to advocate for our own needs.
Unfortunately, internalized fatphobia, shame, and fear leaves fat folks feeling like they have to shrink to fit the space – both figuratively and literally. Make our bodies smaller as well as our voices. We often stay silent to remain safe instead of demanding that we be valued for our worth and that our needs get met. And honestly, I’m one of those people a lot of the time.
“Even the most progressive activists forget to include fat people as a marginalized group needing such advocacy.”
So what am I asking you to do exactly? If you’re reading this post, you’re probably someone who cares about social justice. You may even advocate for social change to protect our most vulnerable populations. The problem is, many of these discussions leave out the fat experience. Even the most progressive activists forget to include fat people as a marginalized group needing such advocacy.
It starts with listening. So thank you for listening. Continue listening to our struggles and keep them mind. Check your own weight based bias and challenges those narratives. Look out for opportunities to make your work-place more accessible to people of all sizes and abilities. Are there many types of seating options, some with higher weight limits and/or chair with no arms? Have you problem solved around your orientation process, team building activities, and tours to provide options for those with limited mobility? These examples are just small opportunities that can create meaningful impact in the lives of many of your peers. Being an ally to superfats in the workplace can help us feel safer, more welcome, and more equipped to thrive.