A lot of people seem to be under the impression that fat people don’t work, but we do. We’re part of the workforce, we’re part of the economy, and we are productive members of society. We can also face a crushing degree of fatphobia in the workplace. And, what’s more, it’s perfectly legal to discriminate against people because of their weight in 49 states. Fat women also earn an average of 6% less than our thin counterparts. And that’s not even getting into the tyranny of workplace wellness programs and suggestions that fat employees pay higher health insurance premiums! The modern office can be a minefield for fat employees. From work-sponsored Weight Watchers meetings to water cooler chatter about keto, how the fuck do you survive? How do you advance? How do you thrive? How do you, ahem, get that bread?
I’m not a motivational speaker or a person who gets paid by HR to come in and amp up your team about being a cog in a machine. I’m just a fat girl who spent a long time toiling in the professional world until I read some books, listened to some advice, and figured a few things out through trial and error. And I’m doing okay! I’m not a #GirlBoss™ but I have a nice middle-class job with a comfortable salary in the tech world, and a cool “senior manager” title. I have health insurance and vacation time and sick leave and get to work from home most of the time. My GIF game in Slack is unparalleled. I want to make it clear: Marginalized people cannot assimilate or “lean in” their way out of systemic oppression and discrimination. But we can try to survive, and get what we want within that flawed system (because capitalism is a merciless bitch but, also, you gotta pay the rent), and undo some of those little habits and thought and behavior patterns that can sabotage us.
So, here’s are a few tips that helped me get to where I am, which I pass on to the other fat girls (and women and dudes and non-binary folks) trying to survive the 9-5.
1. Your labor has value
I think this is a big stumbling block for fat people in the workplace, and we don’t talk about it enough. We often walk around the office feeling like we’re grateful for a job, feeling lucky that they keep us around, and trying desperately not to step on toes (which would hurt even more because you’re heavy, right?!) and mess up this good gig we have going where they keep us around and pay us some money without treating us too bad. The Imposter Syndrome is real.
But more often than not, walking around like we’re just happy to be there hurts us professionally. We don’t want to make waves (because our waves would be bigger, because of our big bodies, right?!), we shy away from sharing ideas or presenting creative solutions to problems, we can be too meek to innovate, and eventually we end rotting in a cubicle thanking our lucky stars for stability while our colleagues move on to better-paying, and more visible, roles. I know this because I’ve been there. And I know it because I have worked in a big organization where fat people existed in cubicles and nowhere else and just felt lucky to be included. We get passed over, we get ignored, we get taken for granted. And, yes, this is because of systemic fatphobia. Unquestionably. But, in many cases… it’s also because of us.
Talk about money
So, one of the things older women in my life have hammered into me is to not talk about money at work. “It’s uncouth!” they gasp. But here’s the deal: If you do not ask for more money, you will not get more money. And, just as a personal example of why it’s so important to talk about money, here’s where not talking about money got me.
I had applied for a promotion at work, in a different department at a large organization. I jumped through all the hoops, killed it in my interviews, and was certain I was going to get the job. And I did! My two new bosses took me outside to a picnic table on the campus and told me they wanted me to work with them. I was over the moon. I was so proud! And then they told me, proudly, what my yearly salary would be. And it was just $100 per year more than what I had been making in the other department. That was fractions of a penny more per paycheck. I was stunned, and devastated. Because I hadn’t brought up money during the interview process, I got jilted. And because I assumed that this job would be a step up (and it was, in terms of “pay grade”), I didn’t actually end up making much more money, even though it was more responsibility and more skilled work. And because I, sweet summer child that I was, assumed that HR would know what I was making and ensure that the offer for my “promotion” was paid fairly, I ended up doing more work for the same amount of pay.
After that harsh learning experience, I learned to talk about money. At interviews, I find out what the salary range is up front, because for some reason that is not a standard disclosure for non-governmental jobs in the U.S. and I am not wasting my time on a job that’s far below what I believe I am worth. I can speak eloquently about my experience and skills and make a case for my worth. I know what I’m worth, because I have looked at salaries for comparable positions. (Glassdoor is a great tool for this.) At my annual review, I expect an increase, and come to the table with examples of the work I have done in the year being reviewed that make a strong case for why an increase is warranted. And the effect is that I have been promoted and received more increases in the past five years than I did in the 10 years prior to that fateful day at the picnic table.
Is it uncomfortable? Yes, sometimes! Does it put interviewers and bosses on the spot in ways they weren’t prepared for? Yes, sometimes, and especially if they were hoping to pull a fast one on you and give you a low-ball offer! But it’s necessary, because if you don’t have an idea of what your value is, if you don’t come to the table knowing your value and able to explain it, if you seem insecure and just grateful for any opportunity, people will take advantage of you. They will underpay you, not promote you, and not feel bad about it in the least. So, even if you have to stand in your bathroom mirror and rehearse your lines before your annual review, you have to do it. You have to get over it and start demanding to be compensated fairly. Because it will not happen if we don’t ask for it. Companies are more than happy to continue to underpay employees who do not realize what their labor is worth.
And if you’re a freelancer, this thread is a gold mine for figuring out how much your work is worth. And, if you are a freelancer, remember: You deserve to make money. You do not have to work for free. And do not sell your goods for less than what they are worth.
Your time has value
This is something women do in general and I find fat women do even more: We suffer from Imposter Syndrome to such a great degree, we are just so Happy to Be Here, that we willingly sacrifice our time for no compensation. We do other people’s work for them, give them feedback, review their shit for them, help people troubleshoot, even if it’s outside of the scope of what we are supposed to do. We’ll work through lunch breaks, work late, do work at home, all to look like a team player. We prop up others, hoping that eventually they will pay us back or drag us along for the ride as they go up, up, up. (Spoiler alert: they won’t!)
So, even if you have to put Post-Its on your computer monitor that say “Fuck you, pay me,” set reminders on your phone to take your lunch break or leave at 5pm, remember: Your time has value. If you’re doing something extra that is not part of the expectations of your job, you should expect to be getting something in return. Whether that’s money for the overtime you work, trading help with someone else’s project for help with your own (ain’t nothing wrong with a little quid pro quo as long as it’s on the level), increased visibility, shared credit… you should be getting something out of it. Every. Single. Time. Because those people you help? I can guarantee they’re not taking on extra projects that don’t benefit them in any way. By volunteering to help other people with their work, or taking on projects that cast you in the role of someone’s helper, you’re taking time away from your own projects and priorities and instead devoting your time to boosting someone else who will get to take credit for a job well done.
You should not be working for free and then wondering why no one values you. There’s a basic economic principle that the fair market value of a given property is whatever a knowledgable, willing, and unpressured buyer would pay for it. So, when knowledgeable, willing, and unpressured people are paying zero for your time, skills, and expertise… you degrade the fair market value of yourself as an employee. So, stop doing that.
2. Stop mothering people in your office
I touched on this a little bit in my blog on dealing with diet culture in the workplace, but I’m reiterating it because it’s important. You are not your coworker’s mothers. Do you see high-powered men with candy bowls on their desks, and couches with comfy pillows in their offices, and homemade cookies for everyone in the office, just because? NO. NO YOU DO NOT SEE THOSE THINGS.
With fat employees, I think this is something we do out of insecurity. We have Imposter Syndrome coming out of our pores and doubt our value as employees. And we think, well, if I can’t get them with my skills and contributions to the company, then by golly I will get them to like me! Everyone has a need to be liked. But often people who are marginalized seek to be liked as a measure of protection against discrimination. So we end up buying coffee and bagels and doing the dirty dishes in the shared office.
But do you think Jeff Bezos is taking time out of his day to replace the toner in the printer because no one else thought to do it, or going into the staff kitchen and cleaning the pile of dirty coffee mugs everyone else has been adding to because, well, someone’s gotta do it? NO. JEFF BEZOS DOES NOT DO THAT.
So, starting now, just say no to the following things:
- Bringing food to the office for others to enjoy. YOUR COWORKERS ARE ADULTS, they can fucking feed themselves. No one has ever gotten a promotion because they bring bagels for everyone on Friday mornings.
- Distributing people’s mail, unless that’s your actual job. They can go to the mailroom themselves and get their own mail, or wait for the mailroom employees to deliver it. It’ll make your head spin how quickly this nice little favor turns into people leaving piles of mail on your desk for you to take the mail room for them.
- Doing the office’s dishes. I don’t know how many times I have seen someone grudgingly do the office’s dishes and leave some passive-aggressive sign letting everyone know that there is no kitchen fairy who does the dishes. WELL GUESS WHAT. There is a Kitchen Fairy at the office, and it is you.
- Cleaning out the fridge in the lunch room. You are not a janitor. (I mean, unless you are, no disrespect to janitors! They play an essential role in our workforce!) And, again, no amount of signs telling people there is not a Fridge Fairy coming to clean out their moldy lunches is not true if you are the Fridge Fairy throwing out people’s lunches. You work with adults! Eventually they will realize their lo mein from last month is turning blue and deal with it.
- Being the only one to get more printer paper or change the toner. This is a thankless task. If you are printing something and toner needs to be changed, by all means! But doing this on a regular basis does not help your career. Like cleaning out people’s dirty coffee mugs, no one cares that you do this and it does not help people see you as a Serious Businessperson. It makes people see you as an office assistant.
These things all involve taking care of others instead of taking care of yourself. Look, we live in a capitalist society. Wealthy CEOs aren’t taking care of everyone else first. They’re taking care of themselves. In a utopia, we’d all take care of each other. We’d have a fair and equitable schedule for menial office tasks! But that’s not how the modern office works. You’re not going to see on your review that you got high marks for spending time cleaning out the fridge or baking coffee cake for the office. Because those things aren’t your job. They don’t do anything for the company you work for. And, ultimately, they undermine you as a professional and authority figure. They put you in a role of service to other employees, rather than putting you on equal footing or an authority figure.
3. You are allowed to ask for things you need
This is something I see women, and especially fat women, do a lot. Instead of, you know, directly asking someone for that thing we need from them, we spend hours and hours formulating ways to get around someone who is acting as a bottleneck. And, in so doing, we become the bottleneck.
If someone needs to send you a document or give you feedback before you proceed, you are allowed to say to them, “Hey, I need that document or feedback or approval in order to proceed.” You can even give them a timeline! “Hey, I need that document or feedback or approval in order to proceed, can you get it to be by the end of the day?” And if they fail to give you the thing, you can send them a magic email. “Hey, since I am still waiting on that document or feedback or approval, I’m going to move ahead with the project and do x,y, and z tomorrow without you.” Or, “If you’re not able to get me that document or feedback by the end of the day, the project will be delayed by X number of days.” You will often find that, magically, you get the thing you need. Or the thing is done and the person who failed to get you the thing after repeated reminders is the one looking bad instead of you.
Here are some tips for asking:
- Just fucking do it. Don’t dance around it. If you need a thing, ask for the thing.
- Be direct. Tell them precisely what you need and when you need it.
- Follow up. Be proactive in getting what you need.
- DO NOT APOLOGIZE. It’s very rare that someone is actually doing you a fucking favor when a project or task is bottlenecked at them; in almost all cases, it’s their job, and for whatever reason, they are not doing it. And it’s not your fault they are failing to provide you with the thing. So you don’t need to say things like, “Sorry for pestering you!” You are not a pest for asking some asshole to do their job!
- Use Toddler Reasoning with them. This involves giving them choices, neither of which is “ugh, I don’t wanna.” When you have a 3 year old that’s having a meltdown when you’re trying to get him ready for school, you don’t say, “Honey, can you please put your shoes on?” You say, “Okay, my dude, do you want to wear your red shoes or your Buzz Lightyear shoes?” And likewise, you say to Todd, who will not send you the edits you need, “Todd, do you want to send me those edits by the end of the day or proceed without them?”
- Put the consequences in writing. You don’t need to threaten, but a level-headed email that says, “Hey, this thing is overdue by a week, the project is now being delayed by X days.” Leave yourself a little email trail.
And this goes for things like requesting time off and taking vacations and really anything you might “ask” a supervisor for. You do not ask them, “May I pretty please leave a little early on Thursday so I can go to the dentist?” You say, “Hey boss! Just giving you a heads up that I need to leave at 3pm on Thursday for a dentist appointment.”
AGAIN, asking for things like Oliver Twist asking for more gruel puts you in a position of being servile. You’re not an adult letting another adult know you’ve got to get your teeth cleaned on Thursday, or trying to get another adult to send you a thing they fucking well should have already sent you, you’re a child asking an authority figure for permission.
This is sometimes hard, because like I mentioned, fat people in the office are often scared of coming across as rude, or pushy, and uncouth. But it does impact how people treat you. You can be an equal, or you can be a subordinate asking for permission. I say go with being an equal.
4. Learn how to take feedback
So, something I think is true of a lot of fat people is that we’re hypersensitive. We’ve learned to pick up on people’s nonverbal cues and tone in ways others haven’t, because being in tune with how people are perceiving us helps keep us safe. We learn to work around people and get out of the line of fire if someone, say, on an airplane is about to explode at you for being too fat. We can also have a history of being bullied, or have hypercritical parents who obsessed over our weight as children, and we long for acceptance and approval. And when you combine that hypersensitivity and need for approval with raging Imposter Syndrome, you’ve got an employee who is likely to break down in tears when they are notified of an error in their work.
But taking feedback well is essential to succeeding at work. Without listening to feedback and trying to incorporate it into our work, we cannot improve. We get stuck. We don’t grow. We don’t learn. And no one’s going to mentor you if you get hot behind the ears when you’re told there’s a typo in a document. You will not get coached, you will not be put in leadership positions.
To start getting better at taking feedback, there’s a great book called “Thanks for the Feedback” by Douglas Stone and Shield Heen. If you’ve ever cried during a review or wondered if your manager hates you because they suggested you could have some something a little better, this should be required reading.
Here a few important things about feedback to keep in mind:
- Adopt a growth mindset. Feedback is not a bad mark on your permanent record; it’s an opportunity to improve. If your inner narrative is that you’re dumb and worthless and never get anything right, well, that will probably be true because you make it so. But if you say, “Okay, I did not do this thing correctly this time, or didn’t fully understand this aspect of it, but now I do, and next time I attempt it, I can do a better job…” well, then you probably will! The thing is, feedback is a snippet of a moment in time. If your boss gives you some negative feedback, that’s not a fixed thing. In a week, in a month, in a year, you could be getting very different feedback if you actually fix the things you need to fix and grow.
- Negative feedback is not an indictment of your character. So much of the issue we have with feedback is tension between the story we tell ourselves about ourselves (otherwise known as our IDENTITY) and being presented with feedback that contradicts it. So, if part of your identity is being a quick learner, and you are told that you are doing something incorrectly despite being told how to do it correctly, you might immediately buck and kick at the mere suggestion because your IDENTITY is that you are a quick learner and here this asshole is, telling you that aren’t learning quickly. But you have to slap yourself on the face and say, “That’s not what this person is saying at all. They are telling me I did something incorrectly, and if I take their note, I can be certain that I won’t do it incorrectly next time and therefore will actually be acting like the quick learner I believe myself to be.”
- Don’t let negative feedback confirm your worst beliefs about yourself. Recognize when it’s the Imposter Syndrome in your head making you feel insecure about your skills, talent, and value, and not the actual feedback.
- Ask questions, and approach it with curiosity. Feedback is not a colonoscopy; you don’t have to just sit back and take it, you can ask questions, probe for more information, ask for an example, get clarification if you need it.
- Seek out feedback. I swear to god, one of the biggest differences between people who are successful in the workplace and people who toil endlessly in the middle until they die or retire is that they seek out the feedback of others. Ask your boss how you’re doing. Ask for feedback. Accept it with open arms. The thing is, sometimes we cannot see ourselves and our performance clearly. Everyone thinks they’re a great driver. And yet everyone also thinks everyone else is a terrible driver. Getting outside perspective can give you a more accurate picture of your skill level, where you are awesome, and where you need to improve.
- The purpose of feedback is not to provide affirmation for you. It’s to help you grow. So, don’t look for affirmation in feedback. That’s not what it’s for.
Make peace with making mistakes
Look, everyone makes mistakes. ABSOLUTELY EVERYONE. No one is ever perfect at their jobs, even that asshole Karen in accounting who seems to be beyond reproach. You will make mistakes, and it will be okay, as long as you are accountable for them and learn from them. It’s okay! You’re not going to get fired because you get one thing wrong.
5. Get shit done
One lightening bolt moment for me was, surprisingly, in a meeting with the head of my department talking about a toxic workplace situation. I had a boss who was awful. She micromanaged me within an inch of my life, treated me like an idiot, kept me isolated at work, and was just generally a very bad person. Working for her was the most miserable thing I have done in my life. I cried every night when I got home from work. And when I finally couldn’t take it anymore, I scheduled a meeting with my department head to ask to work for someone else, get transferred, or report to another manager.
The head of the department was compassionate to my plight, acknowledged that this employee had a “strong personality” and not everyone worked well with her. BUT. But. But! “She get things done. Every time I need something from her, she delivers it. I can count on her to get the job done.”
And at the time I was absolutely infuriated. Wait a second! You’re telling me it’s okay that this woman RUINS MY LIFE and TREATS ME REALLY BADLY because she gets things done for you?! Yes. That is exactly what she was telling me.
And this is an important lesson: Your boss does not care that you are well-liked and bring muffins to work and replace the toner and work really hard if you do not get shit done. In fact, most bosses only care that you get shit done. You can get away with an incredible amount of bullshit as long as you get shit done.
So, as hypersensitive individuals who can spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about offending others or how to respond to Todd when he’s being a fucking asshole and won’t send the thing he’s supposed to send you and how to deal with Karen yammering on about keto at the water cooler and whether to send an email to HR politely expressing our feelings about the fact that HR is hosting a Weight Watchers meeting in a conference room on Wednesdays at noon and invited you to come, and whether or not our boss hates us because they gave us a 3 on our annual review instead of the 4 we thought we deserved… ALL THAT MATTERS IS THAT YOU GET SHIT DONE.
Getting shit done can also be your secret weapon. Getting shit done can be protective. If you are the employee who says they’re going to do something and then does it? You’re golden. If you can be the employee who is asked by the department head to get together a report, and you deliver it on time, with everything that was asked for, plus some extra stuff you thought was necessary? You’re a rock star.
So, when you’re rewriting the same email over and over again, or spending valuable time thinking about how you can ask Todd for the goddamn edits again so you can get on with it, just remember: ALL THAT MATTERS IS THAT YOU GET SHIT DONE. Does rewriting the email over and over help you get shit done? Nope. So focus your time, resources, and mental energy on getting shit done.
6. Don’t be a work martyr
So, this incorporates a few of the tips, like knowing that your time and labor has value but this takes it a step or two further.
Don’t let perfectionism be your downfall
There’s something fat people do (and many marginalized people do) as a reaction to facing discrimination in school and in the workforce: We become Hyper Competent.
That means if you’re asked for a report, that report is the most comprehensive and beautiful report your bosses have ever seen. If you’re asked to create a Power Point presentation for your boss, that Power Point deck has the most beautiful slides, with animation and sound effects, and you’ve even written notes for you boss on index cards for the presentation, even though he didn’t ask you for it. It means you’ve become a master of what the author of “Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office” calls “making miracles” — think of Anne Hathaway’s character in “The Devil Wears Prada” hunting down an unpublished Harry Potter manuscript. That’s making a miracle. Being given an impossible task, on a ridiculous schedule, and pulling through, and then doing some extra shit just so everyone knows how fabulous you are.
The thing is, instead of getting your own Miranda Priestly to cower in your wake, what it does it set a new bar for what is expected of you. You make your life harder, because more miracles will be expected. And you’re not getting a raise or title change for making those miracles happen, either. Because you set the expectation that you’ll turn stale coffee into wine without asking for anything more.
And there’s a dark underside to it as well, which can be that you are so terrified of turning in work that is not perfect, sending an email that is not worded so perfectly it’d win a Pulitzer, or giving your boss a Power Point presentation that isn’t worthy of being presented in an art gallery, that you freeze. And you fail to get shit done.
So, remember: Sometimes good enough is all you need! Save your obsessiveness for super high-visibility projects that can further your career. Every spreadsheet does not have to be so amazing they teach it in Excel classes at community colleges. Save your miracles for when your workplaces really needs a miracle, and all eyes are on you. And just get shit done.
Good things do not come to those who wait
One thing that makes fat people especially bitter is the belief that if we just work hard, bide our time, and wait our turn, we will get our moment in the sun. Because hard work and time are rewarded, right? But we end up bitter because no one gets to the C-suite by quietly biding their time. People get there by applying for promotions, finding mentors, competing for highly visible projects, letting people know about their successes, innovating, making change, networking, and having grand ideas. That’s how young wunderkinds sail on up the org chat when you’ve been sitting in the same spot in the middle for 10 years.
The easiest way to turn into a work martyr is to quietly wait for the things you want. But no one will give them to you, especially because fat people (despite literally being larger and more visible) are also invisible to many people, especially those people looking to fill a highly visible role. So, put your name in the hat, get in the game, compete for what you want, and fucking grab your moment in the sun. Because the only thing you’ll get by being quiet and working hard is stale cake at your retirement party as you wonder why you never got ahead. And even if you end up failing at some of the things you try, hey, failing up is better than staying put because you were too meek to try.