University of South Florida
While conducting interviews for my dissertation research, I would ask women if they had ever experienced fatness-related discrimination while at work . Given my interests in the fatness-related wage gap, it seemed like a logical thing to ask; however, this question was seldom met with an affirmative response. Usually, they would pause in reflection, issue a noncommittal mumbling, and respond with one or more of the following lines: “I don’t know,” “possibly,” “maybe?” “I don’t think so?” Or simply, “no.” Their uncertainty motivated me to ask different questions, specifically, questions about their embodied experiences. I would ask how they felt in their bodies, how they saw their bodies, and how they thought others saw their bodies in paid labor market settings (e.g., interviewing and the workplace). While my interviewees were unsure if they ever really encountered discrimination, nearly all of them worked in settings where fatness was devalued and many described ways they would use their bodies in defense against potential anti-fat bias.
Upon analyzing these interviews, I was taken back to my grade school days. It was during this time that I quickly grew accustomed to classmates’ jokes and pranks directed at my fatness. The teasing occurred so frequently that walking by any laughing group of kids would stir up my insecurities. I would wonder, “What are they laughing about? Oh. They must be laughing about my body.” My weight had become such a subject of ridicule for my peers that it was difficult for me to imagine anything else attracting their attention. Groups of laughing youngsters started to serve as a constant reminder that I did not fit in -- into acceptable clothing, shoes, desks, or social circles. (I sometimes feel that way today.) Those kids could have been laughing about anything, but they were always laughing at my weight.
Uncertainty is a powerful tool for controlling bodies. Michel Foucault described how officials could effectively control prisoners (and eventually the citizenry) if people were uncertain when, or even if, they were being monitored (Foucault 1979). Extending this insight to women’s bodies, Sandra Lee Bartky described how women discipline their bodies in order to conform to patriarchal expectations of appearance and comportment (1998). Women need to be slender (but not too scrawny), well coifed (but not overdone), smiling (but demure), unthreatening (but not a pushover), and taking up as little space as possible. What is acceptable for our bodies is contingent on the day, the setting, the subject, and the beholder. When acceptable standards are a moving target and the enforcers of these standards are nowhere yet everywhere, bodily discipline becomes a round-the-clock endeavor. According to Bartky, women are experts in this practice.
Workplaces have become spaces where people are expected to discipline their fatness even if weight is unrelated to the requirements of the job. As an example, many employers have instituted weight management programs for their employees (Benedict and Arterburn 2008). The women in my study described interactions with supervisors, co-workers, and customers that point to the devaluation of fatness in the workplace. Some describe their experiences with the abovementioned weight management programs, and even more of them observed or participated in dieting regimes and competitions with coworkers. (These coworkers were usually other women.) Some of the women received weight-related commentary during work hours, and a few were even treated differently by supervisors, colleagues, and customers. Fatness was not explicitly banned (or even denigrated) where most of these women worked, but anti-fat sentiment was certainly present.
In addition to working in fat-conscious (or even fat-phobic) environments, individuals may encounter anti-fat bias during job interviews, wage negotiations, promotion consideration, or while socializing with colleagues. While studies on real employers’ biases are rare, a tidy pool of research reveals that anti-fat bias may pervade various dimensions of the paid labor market (reviewed in Puhl and Heuer 2009). Experimental research also indicates that fat workers tend to be perceived as underperforming, unfit, lacking interpersonal skill, and lacking self-control (Giel et al. 2010). One study estimates that as many as twelve percent of American adults report some form of discrimination or mistreatment based on their height or weight -- with higher rates reported among women, younger individuals, and the obese (Andreyeva, Puhl, and Brownell 2008). However, interview research by Hayden and colleagues revealed that while fat women have experienced discrimination, many had trouble articulating their specific experiences with it (2010).
The women in my study were wary of labeling any of their experiences as discrimination. However, they would describe extensive efforts they used to protect themselves from anti-fat bias, regardless if they had suspected any bias or experienced any discrimination. These preventative strategies constitute embodied impression management (for more on impression management, see Schlenker and Weigold 1992). These women would discipline their bodies in ways that distanced themselves the negative stereotypes associated with fat people. Some women would reduce or alter their eating habits in front of coworkers (to appear more in control of their desires). Some women would work their bodies harder than expected (so that they would not appear lazy). Few even extracted their bodies from unnecessary interactions entirely (as to not be seen struggling in uncomfortable situations, like walking up stairs). Most of the women I interviewed dressed in dark clothes in order to obscure their fatness, or strategically used cosmetics and high heels to emphasize feminine features such as long hair and long slender legs.
Back in school, I too would try to minimize the impact of my fatness with my body. The small desks would leave red marks on my arms and legs, so I learned how long it would take for them to disappear before leaving class. I could estimate if my body would fit in a chair or even hold my weight. The school required us to tuck in our shirts, so I devised a way to billow my shirt so that it appeared tucked in but also camouflaged my hips bulging above and below my waistband. I would carefully choose my food during lunch, never leave the house without a body-shaping garment under my clothes, and ensure with a degree of precision that my large body would not bump into another person or accidentally step on their feet. (I did not want my fat body to inconvenience anyone.) From time to time, I would even smile at jokes made at my expense in attempts to be gracious. I suppose I became an expert in using my body to shield others from the negative impact my fatness.
Fatness matters at work. While estimates vary, research has consistently found an unexplained fatness-related wage gap among women  (Mason, 2012; Judge and Cable 2011; Han, Norton, and Stearns 2009). Discrimination is usually offered as an explanation for this fatness-related wage gap; however, there are few ways to empirically test this relationship due to lack of data, the subtlety of discriminatory behavior, and the inability for targets to even put their finger on it.
When I started this project, I was hoping to find the processes that produce the fatness wage gap. What I really uncovered were the subtle ways that women comport their bodies to protect against anti-fat bias (and thus, discrimination). The additional efforts made by these women constitute appearance labor, that is, the additional time and energy spent into maintaining a suitable appearance (Peluchette, Karl, and Rust 2006). For fat women, this pursuit is especially labor-intensive, given the limited availability of plus-size clothing -- a lamentation echoed by many of my respondents . Their embodied labor was offered up as a form of compensation for the potential negative impact of their fatness at work .
Research on the embodied experiences of fat folks, both in and out of the workplace, enhances our understanding of how expectations of appearance and comportment have far-reaching consequences. Many of the women in my study described other ways they would discipline their bodies in other contexts (i.e., at school, at home, in medical offices). The research described here attends to the experiences of mostly white, middle class, cisgender women. We need to know more about these processes to make social change and resistance possible for people whose bodies transgress multiple axes of domination .
 The data used in this project are drawn from weight-related oral histories I collected from twenty women with fatness-related labor market experience.
 Research on the fatness-related wage gap for men is less consistent.
 Thirty-six percent of American women are obese (Flegal et al. 2012), but only about seventeen percent of the retail market is dedicated to plus size clothing (Clifford 2010).
 To read more about strategies for coping with obesity stigma, see Puhl and Brownell 2003.
 The intersectionality framework establishes that individuals can simultaneously occupy multiple disadvantaged locations in systems of inequality including race, gender, class, disability status, sexuality, age, and fatness (Kwan 2012; Collins 2007).