There are a lot of challenges that fat people face in the workplace. That’s if they can get a job – as fat people are less likely to be hired than non-fat people. Once in a job, fat people earn less and are less likely to be promoted than their non-fat colleagues.
Within the workplace, fat people may be spending 8hrs a day absorbing microaggressions. The food policing & moralizing in the staffroom (“Oh, I couldn’t eat that”…”Should I be bad and have a cookie?”…”I just feel so fat today”…”I’m on this new diet that…”), the crammed boardroom with no space between the chair and the wall to squeeze through, the anti-fat attitudes of the colleagues and manager(s) demonstrated in the negative assumptions they’ve attached to fat bodies. These micro-aggressions are a form of fat stigma, which is a social determinant of health.
I’ve developed strategies to manage these indignities in my own working environment. I don’t eat or hang out in the staffroom. I work twice as hard to be considered alongside my non-fat colleagues (this is also true as a woman working alongside men; respectability politics are a bitch). I arrive early for staff meetings so I can snag a chair where others won’t have to squeeze by me – or me them if I need to leave early.
Outside my office door is a sign from the amazing Nalgona Positive Pride, which outlines the guidelines for entering my workspace: no diet talk. No body policing. No concern trolling. And I spent my own money to outfit my office with furniture that was accessible and comfortable for my super fat body. I’m lucky that I had the resources to do this.
But now my Institute is proposing to move its’ academic staff from private offices to activity zoned spaces. My understanding of this is a version of open plan, but with types of activity zones. These zones would be purposed for different activities, and might be arranged by noise level allowed or by types of furniture or tech in each area.
I’m horrified by the idea for many reasons, and have been protesting against this since the topic arose five years ago. I’ve pointed to the lit that demonstrates the negative impacts of this design – lower productivity, lower morale, higher stress, more sick & illness, etc.
I’m worried about having to work without privacy. Due to the collaborative & international nature of my work, I regularly have Zoom mtngs with postgrad students, research collaborators, and teaching teams. I also use Zoom (or similar tech) to run online teaching workshops, webinars, and overseas presentations. All of these activities require a closed/private space close by. Additionally, it’s not uncommon for me to receive concerned phone calls from colleagues or inquisitive phone calls from the media; these require a closed/private space close by and with some urgency.
And I’m nervous about the geography of the new space. As a super fat person, environments are not designed with my access or comfort in mind. Chairs have arms. Corridors/walkways between furniture are rather narrow, especially once chairs are pushed out to allow people to sit in them. Some modular furniture has attached benches/tables that are rarely wide enough to allow for fat bodies.
In my own space, I can ensure that my working area is accessible & comfortable for me. If a colleague’s office is too crammed for me to fit through to enter, I can hang in the doorway and chat without being awkward. My office is equipped, for example, with a chair I brought with me from overseas. It’s large & sturdy and supports my super fat body as I work.
When I’m out in public spaces, I have very little control of how accessible or comfortable I am. There are cafes I avoid because they only have booths that are immobile; when dining in small city restaurants I’ve learned to request a table by the front door when I book, knowing the likelihood of being able to make my way through the space without bothering my fellow diners is slim. It isn’t uncommon for super fat people to assess the accessibility & comfort of a space before agreeing to go someone with friends or accept an invitation. Is that now going to be my working environment?
I’m finding in the discussions with my colleagues (the ones excited for this new kind of space) that no consideration has been given to what these changes might mean for those of us whose bodies are different. Be they fat, disabled, old – deviant bodies interact with spaces differently than those who are “normal”, privileged. It has reminded me of a great blog about the way workplace wellness programmes can shift workspaces into hostile environments (& formerly good employees into non-compliant ones). For example,
“Not all disabilities are visible, and employers are not entitled to medical information about employees’ disabilities unless accommodations are needed to do the actual job. For example, if Susie in Accounting has Crohn’s Disease and can’t walk a mile immediately after lunch because it would take her dangerously far away from a desperately-needed toilet, her employer is not entitled to that information. So when Susie’s boss jumps on the “walking meetings” bandwagon, Susie now has a terrible choice to make: 1) She can share her deeply private and embarrassing digestive horrors with her boss; or 2) she can be labeled “not a team player” on her next annual review because she refused to participate in this “wellness initiative” sponsored by her employer. Congratulations, boss! You have taken a well-performing employee and made her body a barrier to success for no reason.”
I’m not sure what’s going to happen with my workplace at my employer, but I know that the new space will not be fat friendly by design without my intervention; which adds another layer to the paid work I engage in, and the unpaid labour I give my employer as well. All because spaces aren’t designed for all bodies.