Episode 112: Your Weight, Your Worth

Show transcript:

Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time on the show…how can being overweight affect your career?

“I got dressed up, did my hair and everything, I was ready for this interview. I got the IM to come and meet the interviewer, and then as soon as he sees me his face just drops.”

“One of the stereotypes is if you’re overweight you’re lazy, and you’re not smart, or you’re slow. And that is something I have learned to actively prove people wrong.”

“Being a black woman in a plus size body, at the time I had long dreadlocks, in front of this white congregation, I was keenly aware of how my body was very different than the other women and the other people in that space.”   

Coming up on The Broad Experience.  

During the last year or so I’ve had several listeners write to me as say, have you thought about a show on being an overweight woman at work? A couple of them told me stories – things that had happened that made them wonder, is my weight damaging my career?

I persuaded two of those women to talk to me on tape. And it wasn’t easy for either of them. Because as you’ll hear, feeling judged is something they grapple with all the time. 

Amy Lockard lives in the Midwest. She’s in her mid-thirties. and for the first part of her working life…

“I worked for a community newspaper here in Michigan, I was a photojournalist and I worked there almost ten years till the paper changed hands. And when it changed ownerships pretty much everyone who worked there lost their jobs.”

And after being out of work for nine months, Amy switched tack and began to work in the corporate world, in cable advertising. She was told there was a lot of room to move around at this company.

“To me that sounded like a good place to start. But it hasn’t been that easy.”

She’s gone for a couple of internal jobs in the last few years, higher level jobs, and hasn’t landed either of them. But she found out recently that she came really close to getting one job last year, a communications role in her department – operations. It was a job she wanted because it would use more of her journalism skills. And she’s started to wonder…could her weight be part of the reason she isn’t moving up?

“I’m a tall lady, I’m a big lady, I’m 5’9, I’m around 300 pounds, you know my weight fluctuates here and there, I’m around size 22/24 American size.”

Last year when that communications job came up she did everything most women would the day of an interview…

“I got dressed up, did my hair and everything, I was ready for this interview…I got the IM to meet the interviewer down the hallway, so I’m walking down the hallway and I see him, he waves and smiles at me, and then as soon as he sees me his face just drops.”

As soon as her whole body came into view, his expression changed. Which wasn’t a great start. She says she was nervous during the interview, especially when she realized just what kind of promotion the job would mean – it was bigger than she thought. But she says the vibe wasn’t weird otherwise.

“So I didn’t think much of it afterwards, I thought when I didn’t get the job maybe I did some kind of mistake in my interview or something like that, until they did the announcement about who got the job. And I saw -- they send out the corporate pictures and then I saw her in my office. They moved somebody from out of state into my state…she had come from a completely different position, she wasn’t in operations, she was in sales, and she was younger and pretty and thin, and I just thought, oh, of course that makes sense…”

She’s been back and forth on this in her head since then. Maybe the other woman had some kind of skill or experience she lacked…she’s just not sure what that is. And when she heard from a colleague recently that she’d almost got that job, it made her wonder all the more. Was her weight the problem? The question keeps niggling at her.

“This discussion is kind of hard to have in public because there is a lot of fat shaming going on especially on the internet, you see it a lot, especially with women who are more vocal about being comfortable with who they are and how they look. Which I’ve always felt fairly confident about that till more recently. I never really thought it would affect me in my job. In my previous job as a photojournalist, every Friday night for 10 years I was photographing football games, running up and down football fields, meeting everybody in the community, and it never was a problem. Until now, when it’s a face to face thing, and I’m just trying to figure out, what are some of the issues? Not that I think this is the only reason that’s holding me back but I’m just questioning, is it something that I’ve been naïve to until now?”

It could be. Various academic studies show there is weight bias in the workplace and that it’s worse for women. Overweight people and women in particular get paid less than their thinner peers, on average. One study from a few years ago had participants look at resumes with pictures attached of obese and normal-weight women. They routinely saw the overweight women as deserving of a lower starting salary and having less leadership potential than the others.

Amy knows that in some workplaces the prejudice can be overt…

“I’ve had a friend who worked in the cosmetology business and she actually had, when she went to leave a job that she was unhappy with at a salon – the owner got nasty with her and said to her face, ‘I hired you even though you’re fat, and you’re leaving me in the lurch.’ So it’s out there and it’s definitely something I started to think about…I started looking online, and reading different articles about weight bias…and the possibility of that, and I’m reading about people who do hiring and what they think about.”

She says one thing she’s read is that companies don’t want to hire overweight people because they’re afraid they’ll be ill more often, take more time off work. Which again, surprised her, because sickness has never been more of an issue for her than it has for anyone else.

Amy says she believes in self-improvement, and she’s happy to make a few tweaks to her image to satisfy the corporate gods. She dresses more formally now than she ever did when she worked in a newsroom. But she says losing weight – for her that’s a personal decision, not something she feels she should have to do to fit a career path. And for her, weight loss is freighted with baggage. She says to outsiders maybe it looks like every fat person should just drop the pounds and they’ll be better off. But it’s not that simple. Once, she lost 70 pounds over a couple years, but…

“I was going through a lot. They portrayed it in the media like it’s this great thing and you’ll feel fantastic and all your problems are gonna go away and you’re this new woman, but the catalyst at the beginning was a lot of emotional devastation. I had a broken engagement, I lost a close friend to a drug overdose, I had family members who got very sick, and I wasn’t happy. But I was thinner than I’d been in ten years. It psychologically messed with me in terms of my body image as well. My body was shrinking and I didn’t know how to feel or what to think about that. You’re supposed to be happy, but I didn’t feel that way. I felt more self-conscious about how I looked, I felt more uncomfortable in the skin I was in. I was changing sizes all the time, I didn’t know what clothes should fit me or what I should buy. And any time anybody made a remark about my weight loss it just made me feel very uncomfortable, it felt like a little stab in the side every time.”

When someone praises you for losing a lot of weight, you’re hearing ‘I love the new you!’ But Amy had liked her old self just fine. Did other people not feel the same? It was confusing.

Fast forward to today, and she’s put the weight back on…

“…but during this period of time, I’ve accomplished a lot of goals for myself. I’ve purchased my first home, and I’m in a great relationship that’s stable and healthy and happy.”

It’s at work that she’s most conscious of her weight these days. She’s even careful about what she eats in front of other people.

“For example during the holidays they bring in a lot of food for people. And one day there was a company that was making fresh donuts for people in the lobby. And I thought about it – everyone was excited, going to get their treat and then I was like, I passed it up, because in my life I was like I don’t want to be the fat girl sitting at her desk eating donuts.”

She says in an open plan office, there are plenty of ways for colleagues to judge.

Unlike Amy, my next guest, who we’re calling Christine, has always felt self-conscious about her body.

“There’s different struggles that people have in the workplace, obviously gender, women have to deal with, but I have an extra one, which is my size, that I have to contend with too. And it really affects how some people see me, and sometimes it’s negative.”

She says she’s over 300 pounds right now, and she see-saws back and forth between fat acceptance and wanting to lose weight to stay healthy. She says she’s been overweight since she was four. Other members of her family are as well.  

“You know, my mom has the same struggle, and my dad’s family has a tendency to be heavy. There’s a genetic component. It’s very complicated. And it’s very hard, the reason I asked to be anonymous is like, I find in our culture, some people have this attitude of well just eat healthier, stop eating so much, walk more, how can you not get this, this is so easy. But for some people like me it’s not easy. I could go on about all the stuff I’ve tried and it’s just really frustrating.” 

She’s been around co-workers who are talking about the outdoor activities they’re planning that weekend, hiking, biking...and she has that feeling like, they assume she never does any exercise.  

“Like I’m actually a certified yoga instructor, and sometimes you can see this expression of like oh, what?”

Christine works in user experience. She’s currently at a financial company on the east coast. She’s in her forties, and like Amy she wonders how much her appearance has affected her prospects.  

AM-T: “Have you ever felt like you lost out on something at work because of your weight?”

“Oh, definitely. One of the stereotypes is if you’re overweight you’re lazy, or you’re not smart, or you’re slow. And that is something I have learned to actively prove people wrong. I went to some really top universities so I don’t think people could ever say I’m dumb, but I’ve had people at work say I’m slow… to the point where I feel like I sometimes have to work faster and stay on top of my deadlines better than other people because I’m afraid that perception would happen.

I’ve had performance feedback where people told me I was slow or I took too long to do things where from my understanding I was doing things as quickly as other people. I had one situation where, this was about 10-15 years ago now, where I worked for a consulting firm – they work very fast paced, it’s a stressful type of job, and the impression people got at this small agency was I was working slow, to the point where I felt like I was being sabotaged…they were giving me way too much, 5 projects at a time, it was too much for one person to handle…and my mentor there or the person I thought was my mentor sat down with me, told me I should quit my job and go on WeightWatchers and lose weight…that she was worried about my health and I should do something about it. Mind you I was at a space where I was riding my bike 30 miles, 50 miles every weekend, so I was pretty healthy. But she felt that she needed to comment that to get ahead in this company, this industry, you need to be skinner. So that was just one example. So I had to leave as soon as I could, after that happened, which is what I did.”

Christine says this stuff can’t help but get to you. And that’s another problem. She finds herself internalizing some of the stereotypes of being overweight – even as she fights against them in public. She’s hampered by this nagging thought that maybe she can’t be successful because of her weight. She thought she’d be at director level by now and she’s still a manager.

AM-T: “I don’t know if you have worked at companies that have corporate wellness programs, have you?”

“Yes, I have, yes.”

AM-T: “I’d love to hear your thoughts on those because many of those programs, being a healthy weight is a part of what they’re trying to sell you on.”

“Right. You know, how do I feel about those? I feel OK about those I guess – it goes back to what I said earlier where there is, it’s undeniably being a certain weight could be a health issue. I know I’ve hit a point where I want to lose weight but what would be a healthy weight for me would be far too heavy for a lot other people. But…it does make me feel a little…it’s not like I’ve been in a place where people have said, you should have a BMI of, whatever, I don’t know what the range is.

That I would have a serious problem with. But to encourage people to exercise and eat healthier, that is good for anyone of any size. But it does feel a bit big brother sometimes. There are some companies that if you smoke, you have to pay more for your health insurance. If that ever came to pass where the same thing would happen if you didn’t have a BMI within a certain range, that would be a huge issue. I would really wonder if I would want to work for a company like that.”

For now, she doesn’t have to.

Coming up in a minute, losing weight means a change in perspective – yours and your colleagues'...

“You’ve spent so much time when people are looking over your breathlessness and your sweating and not being able to fit into a chair, to what does it mean that you are seen.”

It’s one thing working in an office as an overweight person, but what if your job involves standing up and speaking in front of hundreds of people at least once a week? That’s the situation Theresa Thames was in for years – in a body that attracted some comment.

Today, Theresa is associate dean of religious life and the chapel at Princeton University in New Jersey. But for years before that she was a minister at a Methodist church in Washington DC.

“There are interesting body politics in the church. One, that you’re a female body in a male-dominated space, so as female clergy there are so many things you think about. You think about your dress and how much it’s gripping your body…and if you wear a dress is there a pocket to put the microphone thing…also, being an African American woman in a primarily white congregation…there are different cultural norms around bodies for white than black people. Broad strokes…but we’re used to more curvy bodies, the ways our bodies are shaped, especially in a place like Washington DC which is very fitness and health friendly space to be in, so being a black woman in a plus size body, at time I had long dreadlocks, in front of this white congregation, I was keenly aware of how my body was very different than the other women and the other people in that space.”

And so were some of the congregation. Someone slipped a weight loss DVD into her mailbox. This job comes with a lot of human contact, obviously – and not always the type Theresa welcomed. After church on Sunday…

“You’re shaking hands with people at the door and they feel they can say things to you…so they’ll comment about your earrings or they’ll comment about your makeup, but they’ll comment about your body. They’ll say oh, I can tell you’ve lost weight, in a way that is like ‘good for you, it’s about time.’ And one Sunday this woman commented on my breasts – ‘your breasts look different today, are you wearing a new bra?’ And the same face you just made with your mouth wide open is the same face I made. But in that moment you don’t know what to say, because there are lines of people trying to shake your hand.”

She just kept going, kept shaking hands. But she did email that woman – a local professor –  afterwards, and the woman apologized.

But let’s backtrack a bit. Theresa is 37 now.

“I’ve always been overweight. I went to Jenny Craig at 14, and I was 250 lb. I’m in Mississippi, in an African- American family where we eat all the time, we eat great food, food is what we celebrate around, what we mourn around it is a constant. So I’ve always struggled with my weight. When I graduated high school I was well over 300 pounds.”

She says exercise just wasn’t a thing in the community she grew up in. Women were busy – her mother was a bus driver, her grandmother taught in a head start program. And when she was a teenager, Theresa was sexually abused. After that, the extra pounds bolstered her in more ways than one…

“Having extra weight felt like safety to me. I’d joke and say you don’t find overweight women being kidnapped, the struggle of somebody putting you in their car…so the weight was definitely a protective layer and food was comfort. Comfort food is a word that we use, but it was definitely therapy and comfort.”

Still, she was confident – she did brilliantly academically, she traveled, went to college and then divinity school. She loved her work as a pastor. But after some years in that job her home life began to founder, and that was the start of a terrible time…

“I found myself in a marriage that I needed to get out of, so in the spring of 2011 I went through a separation, and then in August of 2011 my sister became really ill, and she ended up dying in November on my birthday…from cryptococcal meningitis, my sister was a single mother of a boy.”

A 9 year-old boy Theresa decided to adopt. So overnight she became a single mother. After that her ex-husband and her father both died unexpectedly. And during all this she kept going at her job. She was doing well career-wise…but it came at a cost.

“I was completely overwhelmed and in the midst of that I was overcompensating. Part of me being an educated black woman is the importance of being competent and proving that I’m competent, and part of proving I was competent was over compensating. I was exhausted, I was literally 457 pounds and doing all these things in my life, really exceling at my job and raising my kid, and mourning and sad and depressed. And I needed a way out.”

She was morbidly obese. But for a long time, food and prayer remained her sources of comfort.

“One thing about being a pastor, that there is always food at church. There are always dinners, there’s a plethora of food at church.” 

She was trying to cook healthily for her son at home, but she ate on the run a lot, and sometimes… 

“…there’d be moments of like, unbelievable bingeing because I was stressed about something.”

Carrying all that weight around made it tough to do her job at times. She remembers doing a baptism…

“…and being completely out of breath, because of holding this baby and trying to occupy space and my own body weight, and talk and walk and hold a 10 pound baby and do a baptism…”

She knew her health was in danger, but she was so depressed, it was hard to change anything.

Then in 2013 she found out about an organization called GirlTrek – it gets groups of black women walking in their neighborhoods all over the US. She had seen an ad for them on Facebook, and she entered a competition where they asked you to write about someone who inspired you on the health front. After that one of GirlTrek’s founders asked Theresa to read----- an opening prayer at a walk that was taking place in Washington DC…

“I was like, sure, no big deal. And two things happened. I went to the event, and I am wearing a GirlTrek T-shirt that they gave me that day and it was so tight, that I went to my car and cut it in a way that it wasn’t as constrictive, it was so, so tight—then it was like I’m gonna do this prayer, which was totally in my comfort zone, and I was like I’m just gonna go to my car and go home…and it was like no, you need to do this 3 mile walk…and I was petrified. Because I was 457lb, I’d lost about 60 pounds so I was in my higher 300s by then, but doing a 3-mile walk was full of anxiety for me and I struggled on that walk. I just remember being in so much pain.”

But that walk was the beginning of Theresa starting to embrace exercise…slowly. Since that day she’s lost more than 200 pounds. You’ll hear more about her and GirlTrek in a future show I’m doing about self-care.

AM-T: “How does it feel now being in this workplace with different body than you had for much of the time at the church in DC? How does it feel to be in the workplace – because you occupy a different space, in both ways of the word.”

“Absolutely, you know Ashley, when you asked me this on the phone last week it really made me think and I honestly am not sure I would have shown up for this job in my larger body. My first Sunday preaching for Princeton University Chapel, they have a pulpit where you have to walk up these stairs to get to the place where you preach. And my first Sunday preaching there, I said if I had not lost weight I would not have physically been able to get into the pulpit, to do my sermons.”

She’s also not sure her name even would have been submitted for the job.

“I do think plus-size bodies get passed up, a lot. When I think of leadership on this campus there are not a lot of plus size women of any race in leadership here. So yeah, I can speculate but it would have been a different experience for me to have this job in an almost 500lb body.”

AM-T: “Is it a relief – I hope – not to have people to commenting on your body, putting weight loss DVDs in your slot and talking about your breasts?”

“[Laughs] Actually, when you’ve lost a lot of weight there’s this body dysmorphia that happens, there are moments that I forget I’m the size I am now a lot of times. Here people only know me at this size. So they don’t know that when I see another overweight person I have so much compassion and I want them to feel seen, because a lot of times I’d walk into meetings and rooms and be treated like the secretary or not seen. It’s so funny to me how someone can take up so much space and be treated like they’re not there at all.”

She says when your physique changes the way hers did...

“People see you, they acknowledge you, and there’s a different vulnerability to that. You’ve spent so much time when people are looking over your breathlessness and your sweating and not being able to fit into a chair, to what does it mean that you are seen. And in this job I am seen in a different way.”

Theresa Thames. Thanks to her, Christine and Amy Lockard for being my guests on this episode.

That’s The Broad Experience for this time. As usual I would love to hear from you…you can post a comment on the show’s Facebook page, tweet me at ashleymilnetyte – without the hyphen – or email me. And I’ll post some links related to this episode at TheBroadExperience.com.

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I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks for listening. See you next time.