To know women is to know diet culture. Many of us are trapped in a perpetual state of anxiety about whether weight gain will make us unattractive, or judged as lazy and uncaring. Now, there is an even larger threat for overweight and obese Hoosier women: losing your job.
In 49 states, it’s perfectly legal to refuse employment or fire an employee based on their weight, and Indiana is one of them. Only Michigan and a handful of cities have laws on the books that explicitly protect employees from weight-based discrimination. A hospital in Texas recently became embroiled in a lawsuit and PR nightmare when they announced they would no longer be hiring applicants with a BMI over 35, stating that employee’s bodies “should fit with a representational image or specific mental projection of the job of a healthcare professional.” The CEO of the hospital in question cited healthcare costs and the “encumbrances” of obese workers as valid reasons for the policy.
And, as obesity is not a protected class, it’s likely that the hospital will win.
“I don’t think that there are any laws in Indiana that prohibit discrimination on the basis of body weight,” said IU McKinney School of Law professor Jennifer Drobac. Interestingly, she also said that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) includes a provision for mobility-based disabilities, which may greatly affect an employee’s weight gain (or loss), though that change in body type is not itself protected under the law. Your employer is required to provide reasonable accommodation for a disability, but may still be able to fire you for the changes in your bodyweight that disability might produce.
All of this is underpinned by two divergent cultural understandings of weight and disability: disability is not a choice, but weight is. And even though study after study continues to show that genetics and environment play a powerful role in our weight, the “healthy lifestyle” ideal continues to be shoved off as the sole responsibility of the employee.
“It is easy to be overweight. It is easy to not exercise. It is easy to eat fast food, drink sugary beverages, and have a number of other ‘habits’ that don’t favorably contribute to wellness,” says Jenea Mitchell, recruiting manager for staffing agency Milliner & Associates. She glimpses all kinds of work environments, and finds that the “healthiest” ones are those that take a 360-degree approach to employee health, from providing healthy food access to eliminating smoking areas outside.
Crucially, these companies don’t tend to “gamify” the healthcare of their employees, which Mitchell says frequently produce more negatives than positives.
“Weight loss challenges that offer a prize in the workplace can be counterproductive and result in positive intentions producing negative results. Employers who offer resources, motivation, tools and incentives that don’t have ‘winners’ or ‘losers’ would likely find more positive success.”
Overweight employees might already be feeling the social stigma of being overweight, and that feeling can get worse in a situation where an inability to lose weight produces a very tangible failure, understandably amplified if that failure affects their co-workers in team challenges.
Weight is also affected by a million other factors, like sleep, genetics, medications, hormone imbalances, and even sunlight exposure. All of those factors work together to alter our diet and exercise decisions, which are indeed at the heart of the weight gain and loss equation. But anyone who has ever cried into a pint of Ben & Jerry’s or felt a little exhibitionistic eating Cinnabon in public knows that stress and emotions are locked into food choices as much as hunger is.
A CareerBuilder survey from 2018 found that 45% of employees had gained weight at their current job, with 26% of them gaining more than 10 pounds and 11% reporting a gain of more than 20 pounds. Combine stress eating with the sedentary lifestyle that white collar work requires, and you have a recipe for weight gain, which might cost some women real money.
It’s true that obese employees spend more on healthcare costs, but for men that expense is only $1000 more a year. For women, the number increases to a staggering $3,600 extra dollars per year for obese healthcare. For every $2 an hour an overweight man lost, women lost double that at $4 per hour versus their normal-weight counterparts. Obese women earned $19,000 less annually than their average-weight counterparts for the same work.
“In 49 states, it’s perfectly legal to refuse employment or fire an employee based on their weight, and Indiana is one of them. Only Michigan and a handful of cities have laws on the books that explicitly protect employees from weight-based discrimination.”
Women are typically the ones who absorb the stress of domestic life as well, with the working women—even the breadwinning women—still overwhelmingly doing the most cleaning, laundry, and cooking. That cortisol from the stresses of work that causes binge eating and weight gain is the same cortisol at work when the kids are screaming, the laundry is a mountain, and the sink is full of dishes. All of those chores require energy, leaving little if any left over to cook healthy food or get in 30 minutes of exercise.
It feels like there is a maddeningly narrow definition of weight and working womanhood: not too fat, not too thin. The threshold for weight discrimination is much lower for women than for men, too. Overweight men report that they felt weight stigma when their BMIs were over 35, while women reported discrimination at a BMI of just 27 or above—a number which does not even fall in the obese category. Overweight women were much less likely to be offered employment than overweight men, and studies have suggested that overweight women experience as much as 16 times the instances of weight discrimination as the average overweight man.
Mitchell says the effects of this stigma, whether overt or covert, can often have “long-term, negative impacts,” from robbing women of their confidence to speak up or show off accomplishments, to removing themselves from opportunities to avoid scrutiny or ridicule.
And just like weight, those things often appear to be a choice: the choice not to go out for a promotion, the choice not to lead the meeting. Those behaviors reinforce the stereotypes about excess weight, that it’s a product of laziness, choice, and the lack of ambition to be “healthier.”
But Mitchell says that there is a middle ground that all managers and employers should strive for: encouraging healthy habits across the board without specifically singling out weight as the only metric of success, with managers modeling those behaviors first. She encourages all employers to provide healthy food and invest in their employees’ overall wellbeing, without turning it into an obsessive numbers game that sets employees up for failure.
“Responsible employers can focus attention on healthy lifestyle choices without making it a thing.”
Sarah Murrell is a regular contributor to Indy Maven.