Creating Weight-Inclusive Workplaces
October 8, 2023
Creating weight-inclusive spaces begins “at home.” While we must attend to the experiences of our students, clients, patients, and community members – creating welcoming and inclusive spaces for working with them – the same goes for our employees, colleagues and co-workers.
Because weight bias and stigma are the “norm” in our society, people wanting to push back on this status quo or raise awareness of the harms of weight stigma may not feel empowered to speak up in the workplace where hierarchies and power differences abound. This is especially true in public health, where health and well-being are our focus, and where weight and health are often conflated or used interchangeably. The complexity of these issues defies an “elevator speech” about the potential harms of “water cooler diet talk.” In acts of allyship, we can proactively work to make our workplaces more weight-inclusive and welcoming to people of all sizes.
Here are some aspects to consider:
- Physical Space – Have seating that is sturdy, wide and without arms. Seating that is firm and not low is easier to get in and out of – think: the opposite of a bean bag chair. Make sure aisles are wide enough for people to pass comfortably. You likely have ADA compliant restrooms, or otherwise, make sure stalls are large enough for larger people to use comfortably.
- Visual Aspects – If you have images of people on the walls or in organizational materials, make sure they represent people in a variety of body sizes and abilities. If there are specific health messages, avoid “o words” or other references to body size.
- Conversations – Diet talk, such as promoting a particular “lifestyle change”* or celebrating recent weight loss “victories” can seem like normal water cooler banter (whether an actual water cooler or virtual), but it can be harmful. For a person in a larger body, it can feel like a celebration of not looking like them – stigmatizing and shaming. Diet talk can be a trigger for those who have had or currently have disordered eating. This can happen with someone you are in conversation with, as well as others who might overhear. Some things to avoid: discussing weight loss goals or strategies; celebrating or complimenting weight loss; self-deprecating comments about weight; judgmental statements about what or how much you or others are eating.
It is important to reiterate here that weight-inclusive spaces are not just a convenience and avoiding diet talk is not only a kindness. These types of things can be triggers for disordered eating, which can have very serious physical and mental health consequences. Since we cannot tell by looking at someone whether they have had or currently have an eating disorder, we do not know for certain whether the person we are talking to will be harmed. And, since there is a lot of shame connected to these issues in our society, many people do not share information about their eating disorder history with others. People lose weight for many different reasons. Complimenting someone on weight loss when they may be gravely ill, or engaging in dangerous behaviors could be insensitive at best or cause additional mental or physical harm.
Perhaps reading this brings to mind your employer-sponsored (or imposed) “wellness” programs that focus on weight loss. The potential harm of workplace “wellness” is thoroughly covered in this Maintenance Phase podcast episode: Workplace Wellness. Additional resources are listed below.
*Lifestyle changes – If the goal is weight loss, then it is a diet. Lifestyle changes per se are not necessarily negative, but we have to be honest about what the goal is. Would you make this lifestyle change if you knew you would not lose weight or if you would gain weight?