• Thu, Aug 19 2010

Bullish: Be Thin or Be Fat, Just Be On Your Game

Image via WENN

I wish Oprah would stop talking about being fat. She’s Oprah. What does Oprah-freaking-Winfrey have to gain by losing weight? Is there really some (um…) career opportunity that’s going to open up for her should she become a size six?

In 2008, Oprah published an essay in O Magazine in which she said, “I’m mad at myself. I’m embarrassed. I can’t believe that after all these years, all the things I know how to do, I’m still talking about my weight.” (I don’t know about you, but when I’m embarrassed, I tend not to write it about in a magazine with my first name and photo on the cover). It’s hardly necessary to proffer up a laundry list of Oprah’s accomplishments; let’s just do 1) billionaire, 2) The Color Purple, 3) girls’ school in South Africa, and 4) analysts estimate she delivered over 1,000,000 votes to Barack Obama.

When I see a 200 pound Oprah Winfrey, you know what I see? I see fat that is made of solid fucking gold.

Additionally, Oprah can afford to clothe her 200-pound frame in thirty- seven yards of silk and four thousand diamonds. Do that. At such point in the future that I am nothing but a powerful collection of desiccated wrinkles, I fully intend to accentuate my wrinkles with as many diamonds as I can physically carry. (Incidentally, Oprah is four years older than Madonna, and has zero wrinkles without having to inject imported Kobe beef fat into her face, or whatever the hell Madonna’s doing. How many fat people do you know who get Botox? None? Yep. Everything’s a tradeoff.)

Newsweek has recently run a series called The Beauty Advantage, confirming what we already knew: attractive people are more likely to get hired, they make more money, and even babies prefer them to ugly people. The book Looks: Why They Matter More Than You Ever Imagined tells much the same story. Okay, we get it.

In 2008, Forbes magazine reported:

The bulk of research has also shown that the bias tends to be felt most by overweight white women, who are battling both the glass ceiling and the stigma of being heavy. A 2004 study by Cornell University Associate Professor John Cawley found that when the average white woman puts on an additional 64 pounds, her wages drop 9%. (Some studies have shown that overweight white women are evaluated more harshly than overweight African American women and that African Americans tend to be more accepting of large body types, according to Roehling. In 2004, Charles Baum, of Middle Tennessee State University, also reported in the journal Health Economics that obesity could lower a woman’s annual earnings by as much as 6.2% and a man’s by as much as 2.3%.

Okay, so being fat is also bad for your career. Sort of. I’d like to take this apart a bit. In the same article, Cort Rudolph, a Wayne State University researcher, is cited as having concluded that bias against overweight people “appears to be most prominent during the hiring process, when an employer knows a potential employee the least and therefore is most likely to be influenced by stereotypes (such as fat people are lazy).” Hmmn. Interesting. There’s something (other than losing weight) that you can do about this! I wrote in How Business is Like Dating that “Most people gets jobs through their friends, and this is only going to become more the case in the era of social networking. Random-ass emails with resumes attached might be your only option if you are a programmer from Ukraine looking for a work visa (I used to receive a lot of these). And if you are a young person who hasn’t had a lot of time to make connections, this might also be your only option. But by the time you’re 30, you don’t want to be in this position. You want to be well-known enough in your field that when you become available, someone snaps you up right away.” This, apparently, goes doubly if your appearance is likely to work against you in the hiring process (for any reason).

Raina Kelley, writing in Newsweek, says more bluntly: “Capitalism always trumps beauty— because it trumps everything.”

Here’s something else — maybe, statistically speaking, being thin would be better for your career, even though that sucks. So, what are you supposed to do about that? (Um, poof, be thin! Not good advice). Obviously, it is possible, although difficult, to lose weight over time. There are also plenty of reasons why people choose not to (or choose not to right now) — for instance, severe dieting makes you (temporarily) dumber, because your brain needs a steady release of high-quality carbohydrates (like whole grains), as well as a reasonable amount of fat, in order to function optimally.

But whether you decide to lose weight or not, here’s something I don’t think I’ve heard anyone else say before: shut up about your diet at work, unless you are really happy about it. If your diet is making you miserable, or you are finding it really difficult, or you feel guilty that you are cheating on your diet, or your diet isn’t working the way you want, or you hate exercise but are making yourself do it anyway, or you feel guilty about not exercising: don’t tell people that. Because you should not advertise your own failure at anything in the workplace.

This advice is for thin people, too: whether you are failing at eating only salad, or failing at training for a marathon, don’t advertise it. The only time it makes sense to talk about personal failures at work is if your personal failure is somehow charming and highlights your valuable, much more important skills (Isn’t it hilarious that our computer programmer did such a miserable job baking a birthday cake, since obviously her brilliance at PHP coding is at odds with her ability to make flowers out of frosting?) Whatever you’re doing to maintain or shrink your body is personal. We don’t want to hear about your colon cleansing either. Now, if you’re in the running to be the “at home” winner of The Biggest Loser, by all means, let your coworkers cheer you on. But losing weight is hard, and most people fail, or feel like they are failing at some point. An overweight person who brings a weight struggle into the office looks like she is not on her game; a person of the same size who diets but doesn’t talk about it, or isn’t concerned with her size at all, seems confident.

You know what I find intimidating (in a good way)? Women who look
like they’ve invested in a seriously expensive size-18 wardrobe.
That’s a confident woman. That’s not someone with a closet full of unworn skinny clothes that one hopes to someday squeeze into before they go out of style and before one’s sister’s wedding.

I don’t mean to make light of discrimination against large people — it’s totally real, and it’s pervasive. Whether you choose to fight it head-on or avoid it by becoming thin (or both?) is up to you. But I do think there are two things you can do now: make sure you’re not in a “blind” hiring situation in the first place, by making connections and becoming known in your field while you’re still employed; and maintain a workplace persona such that your size and your concern with it do not detract from the value and skills you bring to the table.

Let’s end on this piece by Raina Kelley — Beauty Is Defined, and Not By You: But why does that have to be such
a big damn deal?
— which I found to be a pragmatic delight.
(“Sonia Sotomayor may never win a Miss America pageant, but boohoo, she’s a Supreme Court justice.”) Kelley writes:

Beauty bias notwithstanding, there are still opportunities for people who aren’t hotties—lots of them. Virtually all the women I know have come to terms with the fact that their self-esteem cannot be tied to Photoshopped 15-year-olds on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar.
Never in the history of the world have women had so many amazing opportunities, and it makes not a whit of sense to squander them obsessing over our looks. We do not yet reap rewards equal to those of men. But we can either succeed in the breathtaking arenas that are now open to us—and work to enter more of them—or we can spend our days competing with fashion models and movie stars. In other words, you can be Hillary Clinton or Heidi Montag. It’s your choice.

Maybe it’s the case that all this beauty bias is most relevant at the low end of the skills and value spectrum. Outside of the entertainment industry, who’s the most powerful women in America who seems to be trading on her looks? Sarah Palin.

Statistics can certainly obscure the truth. While being overweight may cause you to make 6.2% less, that’s not across the board: it may be that, among people with below-average skills, the effect is much higher. And I think that’s certainly a logical assumption — a larger person is fantastically likely to be discriminated against for a minimum-wage job folding jeans at the mall. Maybe that 6.2% is much
higher at those kinds of jobs, and much lower at other kinds of jobs.
Figure out how to make money for your employer — or go into business for yourself — and your body is no one’s fucking business.

Share This Post:
  • Emily

    One explanation I’ve heard about the bias is that athletic (not necessarily skinny) people are considered disciplined and goal-oriented. Every time I’ve mentioned running a marathon in an interview I’ve gotten the job. My current boss even brought it up on my first day, saying he wanted to see that kind of energy and determination in the workplace.

  • eEv

    Hear, hear!

  • WM

    I’m a size 18 and a brown belt in kung fu, I eat healthy and have a super hot husband, I’ve always had straight A’s and a kick ass job so people who believe overweight people are lazy are pretty ignorant.

  • georgeelliot

    Indeed. No one in the workplace wants to hear about how little success you’re having in the proverbial of the bulge; or your romantic foibles; or your various other failings and shortcomings.

  • A.C.

    I’m the same height as Oprah, though Caucasian, and have been loosing pounds for six months with few people knowing.

    When people will comment about my weight loss, I simply say “Thank you”; if they ask how much, I respond and change the subject.

    I’m close to the 200 mark and feeling great, and dressing sexy.

    Oprah, I don’t, and I think many other plus size women, simply don’t give a damn that your weight ‘yo-yos’; it happens. Shut your mouth. It’s getting old. Seriously.

  • meg

    i don’t think you get to complain about people talking about being fat unless you are also fat. or have been fat. if you are/have been, you know that IT SUCKS and that the ENTIRE WORLD is endlessly on your case about it. all day, every day. you are never, ever allowed to forget that you’re fat. oprah talks about it because it is always on her mind, 24 hours a day. maybe she doesn’t give a shit that no one is interested. she’s interested. she’s upset about it. she needs to talk about it.

    this article smacks of “let them eat cake.” no pun.

    • SusanCooper

      Did you even read the article or did your knee just jerk involuntarily?

      The writer acknowleged several times that bias is unfair, but we ought to at least know the options or have strategies to cope. I thought the piece was very even-handed.

  • Mellie

    I always assumed Oprah’s talking about her desire to lose weight was a sort of psychological kung fu marketing ploy to get her to seem like an Everywoman and not the Master of the Universe that she is. She makes $ and builds her empire by getting women to relate to her and feel like she is their close personal friend.

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