How bad can it be?
Some women1 are pregnant. Some women are fat.2 Some women are fat and pregnant. Almost all of these women need jobs, the same as anyone else. Employment discrimination in hiring is sadly not unknown to many would-be employees, but the fat-and/or-pregnant job-seeker encounters specific additional challenges.
The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 forbids employment discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, considering it a form of sex discrimination. The strongest protections apply to the hiring process, but are difficult to access unless an employer documents their decision to discriminate. Employers are not allowed to ask applicants if they have children, plan to have children, or are currently pregnant. Of course, at a certain point a pregnancy becomes visible – unless it is mistaken for fatness.
Discrimination faced by fat people is widespread. Fat people are seen not only as failures at controlling their body size, but also as generally untrustworthy, incompetent, and unhealthy. Most U.S. jurisdictions offer no legal protection against weight-based discrimination in employment or any other context. Even if legal protection were available, remedies might remain elusive should traditional code words for overlooking fat applicants be used: “unprofessional appearance” or “incompatible with company image.” Now for the double whammy …
Fat AND pregnant?
Yes, Virginia, fat people get pregnant and have babies! It is in these circumstances that employers fall prey to the particularly injurious prejudices about fat people, who are so often characterized as being “one cheeseburger away from a fatal heart attack.” Imagine if a fat person is also pregnant! It’s practically a death sentence! This rate of fatality would be highly inconvenient to employers – not to mention the fat person herself – if it were true.
There are higher risks of some complications of pregnancy associated with higher body weights, but that is true of other (visible) conditions as well: very low body weight, twin or multiple pregnancy, and pregnancy for African-American women, whose maternal mortality is tragically 3-4 times that of white women. The scientific evidence is finally beginning to concede that higher mortality for the African-American population is not the result of race, but of racism. The role of bias and stigma may also be behind the associations of certain types of risk with bad outcomes for fat pregnant women. Regardless of the science, the popular perception is as stated in Frame 4: hiring a pregnant fat woman will bankrupt your business through high health care costs3 when her pregnancy inevitably goes south.
Why do these beliefs persist?
The cultural understanding of women’s participation in the workplace remains far from settled, at least when women take valued positions previously held exclusively by men. Even women who are not pregnant or incapable of becoming pregnant can suffer from employer suspicion that members of the sex that “naturally” acts as family caretakers are likely to be called to do just that, to the detriment of their jobs. Applicants who are pregnant are felt to be freeloading: if other new employees are not permitted to take leave until they have put in the required amount of time, why can babymakers? They should have kept their legs closed!
As for fat pregnant women, well, should they really be permitted to reproduce? Not only will they almost certainly harm their babies and themselves in the process, draining company and public health dollars at an alarming rate, but they might produce more little fat people. A job would just encourage them!
While these last paragraphs are increasingly sardonic in style, they serve to illustrate the result of combining over a century of anti-fat bias, medical eagerness to believe that fat is the cause of all ills, pressure on businesses to reduce health care spending, an economic framework that blames the need of the human race to reproduce on the people doing the reproducing, and a general lack of understanding that we are all in this together. And this moral mess hasn’t even begun to address the additional and intersectional issues encountered by people of color, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities, or immigrants.
“I want to do the right thing – what is it?”
You don’t really need us to tell you, do you? Stop discriminating!
Admittedly, it’s not that simple. However, like charity, abuse begins at home – and that’s a good place to stop abusing your fat friends and family members. Even if you’re doing it because you’re “concerned for their health.” Especially then.
Then take up the standard in your workplace. Make sure that both pregnant and fat people are accepted as full members of the workforce. If you are responsible for hiring, then you are especially positioned to make change. Finally, when the common beliefs about fat and/or pregnant people begin to budge, work with policymakers to forbid this kind of discrimination.
1We usually use the phrase “pregnant people” or “birthing people.” However, because the topic of this cartoon is extremely gendered, we will refer to “women,” with the understanding that pregnant people who do not identify as women face additional problems beyond the scope of this post.
2The accepted medical term these days seems to be people who “have obesity.” We use “fat” as the term preferred by the fat acceptance movement.
3Obviously, the structure of the U.S. health care payor system is a key culprit in employers’ general fears about health care costs. This post is not trying to solve that problem. One thing at a time, okay?
- Pregnancy discrimination in the workplace. Maren Thomas Bannon, “How Can We Talk about Workplace Equality When We Still Punish Women for Getting Pregnant?,” Quartz, accessed September 17, 2019, https://qz.com/1686054/we-cant-talk-about-workplace-equality-when-we-still-punish-women-for-getting-pregnant/. This article gives an overview of employment penalties faced by female venture capitalists – an elite group. Imagine the hardships faced by hourly workers who need permission for bathroom breaks!
- Weight-based discrimination in the workplace. Jessica Richman and Jessica Richman, “Why ‘Inclusive’ Workplaces Still Make Fat People Feel Invisible,” Fast Company, August 13, 2019, https://www.fastcompany.com/90383592/fat-and-feeling-invisible-even-at-inclusive-workplaces.
- General fat discrimination. Michael Hobbes, “Everything You Know About Obesity Is Wrong,” The Huffington Post, accessed April 24, 2019, https://highline.huffingtonpost.com/articles/en/everything-you-know-about-obesity-is-wrong/.
- Reproductive Justice. Ali Thompson, “4 Ways Fat People Need to Be Included in Reproductive Justice,” Everyday Feminism, June 21, 2016, http://everydayfeminism.com/2016/06/fat-people-in-reproductive-justice/.
- Fat and pregnancy. Well-rounded Mama, “You and the Baby Are About 85% Likely To Die on the Table,” The Well-Rounded Mama (blog), February 14, 2012, https://wellroundedmama.blogspot.com/2012/02/you-and-baby-are-about-85-likely-to-die.html.
- Stigma and health disparities. Mark L. Hatzenbuehler, Jo C. Phelan, and Bruce G. Link, “Stigma as a Fundamental Cause of Population Health Inequalities,” American Journal of Public Health 103, no. 5 (May 2013): 813–21, https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2012.301069.
- African-American Birth Outcomes.Fleda Mask Jackson et al., “Examining the Burdens of Gendered Racism: Implications for Pregnancy Outcomes Among College-Educated African American Women,” Maternal and Child Health Journal 5, no. 2 (June 2001): 85–107.
- See generally. Fat Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Body Weight and Society, https://www.tandfonline.com/loi/ufts20; Plus Size Birth, https://plussizebirth.com/; and The Well-Rounded Mama, https://wellroundedmama.blogspot.com.
All images are shared under a Creative Commons license, unless otherwise noted. Where required by license, changes to the image are noted.
- The hiring panel in Frame 1 is by Waseem Farook. We added part of a “Native plus size woman” from AllGo – An App For Plus Size People.
- The pregnant woman in Frame 2 is by Ken Hammond. The image is in the public domain.
- The “White plus size woman with serious expression” in Frame 3 is from llGo – An App For Plus Size People.
- The hiring panel in a meeting in Frame 4 is by Waseem Farook.