Among the many kinds of biases, we also have the bias based on physical appearance. Even at work people often face discrimination on the basis of physical attributes like weight, height, skin, and facial marks.
“Historically people who are in larger bodies are underpaid and also not looked at for advancement opportunities. But beyond that, as part of the daily experience, people are judged based on their size. Also when somebody drops weight in the workplace, it becomes such a matter of conversation,” Kara Richardson Whitely, a National Expert on Extended Sizes and author of Gorge: My Journey Up Kilimanjaro, told People Matters.
Kara has presented her ideas on overcoming obstacles at major corporations such as Google, Pfizer, and Uber, among others. She had helped brands including L.L. Bean and KEEN connect with a plus-size audience.
In an interaction, Kara discussed some ways in which the physical attractiveness bias still exists at work and shared how corporates can weave in greater sensitivity and acceptance when it comes to different physical appearances.
Here are some insights from the interview:
Do you think there is enough awareness and acknowledgment of the existence of physical appearance bias?
There was a point in time when I lost three-digit weight. It was all anybody could talk about and, they'd follow me into the bathroom. People who never looked me in the eye asked me what I was doing to lose weight people.
They are now holding the door for me. It really needs to be looked at how people look at each other, depending on the size of their bodies, but not intentionally.
Yet at work, it's the last accepted form of bias out there and it really needs to be looked at and worked on. Even employers, with the best intentions for employees’ health, focus on weight loss. Instead, they should focus on wellness.
For example, oftentimes when people look at me, they might think I'm some kind of ticking time bomb. That I'm sure to develop diabetes at any second.Just because I'm so incredibly heavy, especially on my bottom half. But what you don't know when you look at the picture of my body is that I have a condition called lipedema, which is a soft tissue disorder.
Someone who runs every morning, workout works out every day, and is in a perfectly normal-sized body could be at more risk for diabetes than I am.
So, you can't just look at someone's body and know their story and their journey.
Ask and not assume and focus on wellness.
How can corporates weave in greater sensitivity and acceptance when it comes to different physical appearances?
Focus on things like stress relief and work towards helping people based on their needs. For instance, in my journey, I've had a complicated relationship with food and my body, all of my life, but one of the most important things and shifts that I've had to learn is about focusing on my work and stress reduction.
I went through therapy and eating disorder treatment. When I look back, I realise it was all about knowing how to have difficult conversations, how to schedule my day, and how to treat myself and nourish myself with respect.
These are the kinds of things I had to learn. Maybe these are the kinds of things that, companies and culture can help shift and help teach.
How do you think physical attractiveness bias can impact key talent decisions like hiring and promotion?
The best way to know is to audit your policies and salaries and check for these biases.
It might be a good time to audit your team members' salaries. See if there's a discrepancy in how much people are paid based on their weight and how they look.
Take a look at your team, think about how does our company look? The candidates want to work at a place where they feel included and represented, If they are not seeing themselves reflected in the imagery from a company, and when it comes to size, you might be missing out on more than half of the workforce here.
Then beyond hiring, it is also important to look at the experience you want to create for all employees. Make the physical workplace also more welcoming, you may want to have a look at, what do the interview chairs look like. Do they have arms on them? Are they sturdy? Is your lobby area and reception accessible?
For example, I was at a meeting and we were supposed to sit in this tiny antique chair with a group of people. I opted to stand.
Can you share some examples of a few companies that have made progress in removing physical attractiveness bias? What worked for them?
There is one clothing retailer that I think is emerging as a leader on this front. They've really made a point to recruit people and also represent people of different sizes in their marketing campaigns. Another company making a huge difference in this space is doing so through the power of listening. They're willing to listen.
I think that any kind of change requires the willingness to listen and learn.
Organisations and we as a community of people have to take a deep look at what does our culture look like and what do we want it to be to move forward? Are we creating a standard of how we want our team members to look? Is it realistic and welcoming and reflective of society and the talent pool?