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New research examines the treacherous experience of being “fat” at work

Getty/ose Luis Pelaez Inc
Make-up? Impeccable.
  • Lila MacLellan
By Lila MacLellan

Quartz at Work senior reporter

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

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.”

The women who volunteered for the study were mostly white and middle-class. But they were in a variety of age brackets—from their mid-20s to mid-50s—and came from a range of professions. There was a school principal, who felt her size was an issue in her public-facing role, and an information analyst, who said she hid behind her computer at the office. All agreed to sit for long interviews, up to two hours, answering questions like “In what ways does your size matter in your work?” and “How do you deal with stigmatizing experiences within your job?”

Van Amsterdam says she was not prepared for everything she heard. “We had powerful conversations that blew our mind as to the severity of fat stigma and discriminatory practices on the workplace floor, but also the resilience of people and the different ways in which they’re dealing with managing that stigma,” she told Quartz.

She and Van Eck have since reported on separate facets of their findings in three papers, all rich with insights.  

Flaunting, defensive othering, and distracting

The first study, published in the Scandinavian Journal of Management this spring, presents, in eye-opening detail, the physical and mental strategies interviewees deployed to manage their identity at work and be seen as “legitimate” professionals, the researchers explain, in spaces where their larger sizes were not the norm.

Many of the reflections captured by the academics are indeed candid and moving. (To be sure, they may resonate by varying degrees across cultures; some research shows that fat stigma is slightly more prevalent in Europe than in North America, for instance.) One woman, who was given the pseudonym Jane (fake names were assigned to all participants), describes giving a tour to students who came through her workplace. She said:

During the tour I walked faster than my usual walking speed. I did not want to confirm the prejudice that fat people are lazy or slow. I climbed up the stairs pretty quickly. I noticed that it was warm and I felt that the lining of my blazer was getting really hot. And I thought ‘Am I sweating? Shit. Now they might think I am not fit.’

Another woman, an actress and comedian, used ironic humor to manage stigma. She described dancing at company events (“I twist my hips” she said, “I tell people: I understand you are jealous”), and doing the splits, just to surprise those who think large women can’t be limber. “I can easily fall into a splits. I cannot get out of the splits in a charming way but can make one quite nicely,” she said. “People don’t expect that. So I see that as a form of self-mockery, by falling into a split and seeing all those people think: Huh, how is that possible?”

Several participants talked about paying meticulous attention to their make-up, hair, nails, and clothing, feeling that even a slightly shabby appearance would mean being harshly judged as too casual or complacent about their looks to be competent, even though their non-fat colleagues would dress casually or look less put-together much of the time. The researchers called this a “smartening up” strategy. It’s not altogether different from the “distracting” strategy, another common approach, which relies on visual decoys, like the giant bow-tie from one woman’s anecdote, to draw the eye away from her body.

However, not everyone felt the need to appease colleagues or managers by quietly playing against expectations. Some would instead pre-emptively and explicitly address any concerns about their weight they felt might be lurking in an employer’s mind, perhaps by explaining a medical condition or describing their personal fitness level. Others would use a strategy called “flaunting,” as in purposely taking up extra space to defy the expectation that a fat woman should try to minimize her body’s presence.

Social psychologists have theorized that flaunting is a form of “coming out,” the researchers write, citing previous research from US academics who argued that “when fat-identified women affirm their difference, whether in a bikini or in a restaurant, they are often not affirming difference for difference’s sake but as part of an effort to challenge social norms in order to gain social inclusion.”

One participant in this study was a decided flaunter. “She dyed her hair red and wore cupcake dresses to work on purpose, sort of to make a claim about, I can be here in this space. I have a legitimate right to be here even though I’m large,” Van Amsterdam told Quartz. (That interviewee’s transcript reads: “I just think: you want to look at my fiery red hair or dress with cupcakes on it? And then what, what do you want to say? A fat woman in a cupcake dress? SO WHAT!”)

But more common were the non-flaunters, like Sophie, the woman who talked about how her body always felt in the way at places she worked, particularly in one clothing store where she needed to walk through the shop with clothes racks. “And those clothing racks made a lot of noise, so people noticed me,” she said. “I really hated that, especially when those racks would be empty. So I moved as quickly as I could through the shop to not stand out and hoped that no one would see me. So yeah, with a lot of things I feel like I am in the way of people.”

In examples of “defensive othering,” women would differentiate themselves from other heavy women, while tacitly agreeing with a standard negative stereotype. One subject, who worked in an academic setting, talked about wearing a badge signifying her credentials so that people wouldn’t assume she was the cleaner or another “low-status”employee. The commonly held belief about fat people being less intelligent or ambitious might be true of others, she effectively said, reinforcing biased notions about who deserves to hold power and who deserves to be stigmatized.

Similarly, another woman answered the academics’ call for participants just to say that her size was not an issue for her. Unlike other fat women, she hadn’t experienced prejudice and she gave no thought to the impressions she gave others.

Although the paper’s list of strategies is not exhaustive, the study conveys the sheer amount of energy, for some but clearly not all large women, that goes into controlling perceptions of them at work. The findings establish a need, the authors propose, to further understand these experiences, and how what’s known as identity work—or the effort to project who you are, while dealing with external and internalized biases and power structures—in this case involves the body itself.

Future research should also consider what being fat at work means to women who are also of color, or those who belong to another marginalized group, they write. And managers, policy makers, and others ought to have a higher awareness of the issues raised, because our cultural obsession with size and health is likely only to intensify.

A poetic inquiry

The second paper to spring from the interviews took a completely different form.

In order to “do justice” to the emotional dimension of the research, Van Amsterdam and Van Eck chose to compose poems, which they submitted and deconstructed for the journal Culture and Organization.

This is a niche, but not entirely new approach, they explain. For scholars, poetry offers a chance to be human, because even the best academic writing is, by design, stripped of the authors’ presence and personal responses to their investigations.  By contrast, the poems were an “attempt to capture the voices of our participants at multiple levels: the individual, the social and the political” and acknowledge the conversation between the interviewee (channeled through the voice of the poem) and the listeners.

To turn to an esoteric art form or to claim an understanding of poetry’s rules is, of course, courageous. But perhaps because they leaned heavily on the actual dialogue from their interviews, these poems do the job.

Here’s the first half of one poem:

Laugh Out Loud
What a hoax
endless jokes
‘Cause I am funny
what else to be?
The funny fatty
that is me
I mock myself
so others won’t
To take the sting out
so my colleagues don’t
laugh AT
Do you want some cake?
Of course, I have to think about
my figure
Then we can have a conversation about my weight
instead of a snigger

And here’s one section from another poem, inspired by a more rebellious interviewee:

that’s just how it is
I don’t care what others think
all I want to say is this:
Fat people exist
and we are not going anywhere.
We are not going to hide
Or stay unemployed at home.
We can make a career,
look nice, be fashionable
We’re allowed to have dreams
and be awesome.

Last, a segment from a poem called “The Impeccable Fat Employee”:

My grooming efforts resound
how every single pound
weighs in on perception
of what I am, what I can do
But this is not me,
it’s you

The poems take the work past rational analysis—a strategy that, if nothing else, could conceivably bring more consideration and attention to the topic.

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.)

A few women mentioned the inconvenience of flying budget airlines for work, knowing the seats would be smaller and they’d need two seats to sit properly, thus creating what could be perceived as an economic burden by the employer, the researchers noted. Many women avoided this conflict by not working in jobs that would require them to fly, Van Amsterdam told Quartz.

Tamar, another participant, told a story about a special chair the company allowed her to order that would make sitting at her desk comfortable. When she left the firm, her chair became a symbol of her—and an object of ridicule. She told the researchers:

“When I left the communications department they made a little book for me as a goodbye present. But then everyone had made pictures doing weird things with my chair, standing on it, putting peanut butter on it et cetera. I didn’t like that at all. I didn’t think it was funny. They did though.”

The researchers learned a valuable lesson, too. When they were making arrangements for the interviews, they said, their privilege as slender women meant they didn’t give any thought to seating. The participants, on the other hand, were scouting the venues and looking for ways to minimize their risks. “We learned they were choosing places based on how comfortable they would be there,” said Van Amsterdam.

It was yet another example of impression management, something we all do to a degree, but which some groups must grapple with minute to minute to avoid, redirect, and deflect undue, unfair, and unproductive judgment.

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