Fatphobia - the hidden barrier for young people in employment
By Annie Bocock
We all know that young people disproportionately have faced the brunt of unemployment for decades compared to other age groups. This has increased during COVID-19 with youth unemployment increasing by 10%, however there are cumulative factors that make this worse for some groups over others. Ethnicity is one of them, for example in 2019, 19% of people aged 16-24 who were not White were unemployed compared to 10% of White people; disability is another, within the same year 46.4% of disabled people aged 20-24 were employed compared to 71% who are not disabled.
There is one factor however, amongst many, that lives out of sight for young people when discussing unemployment, and that’s being fat.
I’d describe fatphobia (or weight-stigma) as the systemic discrimination, disregard and violence towards overweight or obese people. In the real world, it extends beyond microaggressions such as concern trolling (expressing misguided concern over a fat person’s health in effort to perpetuate fatphobia) and name calling, to the consistent barriers fat people face in medicine, employment, education and beyond.
While there is little research that investigates the role of weight on youth employment experiences in the UK specifically, and that’s a problem in itself, there is evidence to support that fatphobia in all aspects of employment exists. Fat people are less likely to be hired: a study by Sheffield Hallam showed that when employers were presented with identical CVs with photos of fat people and those of thin people, there was a clear swing in perceiving the latter group to be more employable and suitable for the role. Fat people earn less on average: scientists at the University of Exeter found that women who were a stone heavier than other women of the same height earn on average £1,500 less a year than their counterparts.
So we know that fatphobia is a serious issue for young people in the workplace, what’s being done about it? Pretty much nothing.
Fatness is seen as a choice by many, and that with enough resources, effort and discipline it can be overcome. While in some cases it’s true, people can lose weight and stay there, it’s mostly not. Study after study has shown that losing weight for a lot of people is very hard. Diets (even the ‘good’ ones) don’t work and genetics play a huge role in someone’s set-point weight. The fact that people think it’s easily alterable often leads people to believe that it is a motivation issue, that it’s a solely personal decision, and it’s seen as a bad one at that – so they justify their hatred for fatness through that.
Fun fact that demonstrates how the above works in practice: when researching for this piece I tried to find a formal definition of fatphobia, this is what I found instead…
Fatphobia exists in this weird space between not being a protected characteristic by law, due to this belief that it’s a decision to be fat, but also being extremely harmful to those affected. While obesity could be defended under the disability protected characteristic of the Equality Act 2010, there is a lot of grey area, and it only really covers discrimination based on significant physical limitations of obesity. Not having weight as a protected characteristic makes it hard for fat people to call out the discrimination they face from employers, report hate crimes, take fatphobic schools to court, and the list goes on. In an age where there’s arguably more stigma than ever around being fat we need clear legislation to protect us.
In my own life, and in the lives of fat people around me, weight-based discrimination affects us daily. I have personal experience of employers express concerns in interviews about my ability to carry out physically demanding work (potentially due to my weight), employers have ignored my uniform sizing requests to assume I need bigger sizes and customers and colleagues make comments about my weight. My sister, who also identifies as fat, has faced similar experiences of unacceptable comments and inaccessible working conditions throughout her career. This is just within the workplace – outside of that we’ve received misguided medical advice, stigmatisation throughout education (especially PE) and the mental burden of logging online to see people claim we deserve to be fat-shamed.
Based on research, case studies and my own fat opinion, I believe that the best thing employers can do to protect their fat employees is to formulate thorough and precise policies against fatphobia in line with other discriminatory clauses. Take the leap before law requires you to, in order to put measures in place to protect fat employees now rather than later, to promote their mental welfare and professional development in a way that is accessible to them. Also ensure that fatphobia isn’t a barrier for deserving applicants to your organisation, be conscious of preconceptions you may have about fat people during the hiring process and actively address them.
To policymakers and MPs: at least start the discussion about the wide-ranging systems in place that hinder fat and obese people. During COVID-19, obesity is seen as a high-risk factor for serious illness from the virus. Fat people need legislation and measures to protect them rather than shaming them to lose weight. It’s the perfect time to ask your colleagues whether, based on evidence on what makes fat people fat, legislation should come into place to protect fat people from discrimination, violence and stigma.