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4 Reasons Weight-Loss Challenges Don’t Belong At Work

With weight anxiety peaking as we reemerge from a year spent at home, the proposition of weight-loss challenges may begin to circulate in the workplace. Though they may seem harmless, these challenges are actually far from it. Here’s why weight-loss challenges don’t belong at work, and how they negatively impact people regardless of where they are on the weight spectrum. 

First, weight-loss challenges normalize weight-based discrimination and size bias.

The fear of fat is a common motivating characteristic for weight-loss goals. Weight-loss challenges send the signal that being a higher weight is axiomatically negative. Further, these challenges incentivize weight surveillance and weight stigma, which can be a stressful experience.  

Second, weight-loss challenges may be more likely to lead to stress than promote team-building.

Though weight-loss may be seen by some as a team-building activity, the truth is that counting calories and pounds can be a distressing and invasive experience for many. Team-building is meant to create a sense that everyone in the workplace feels like they are part of a community. There are many weight-neutral activities that can achieve this successfully. 

Third, weight-loss challenges pose a threat to those with eating disorders. 

You cannot tell from looking at a person whether they have an eating disorder, and to ask colleagues to disclose this delicate information ahead of a weight-loss challenge is an invasion of privacy. The phrase “eating disorders” brings to mind a very specific type of body: thin, white, female, cisgender, and slender. It is this archetype we’ve seen the most in media depictions of disordered eating and even the mental health field has been disproportionately focused on this one, narrow manifestation. The Emily Program website, however, points out, “Eating disorders affect people of all ages, races, genders, sexual orientations, body sizes, classes, and abilities.” 

Though the category of those impacted by disordered eating might seem small, it may in fact be as high as 75% of women between the ages of 25 and 45 in the US when we take into account things like using smoking as a weight control method or cutting out entire food groups in hopes of achieving a lower weight. 

Findings from a Self survey that polled over 4000 women in the US found that: 

  • 39% of women say concerns about what they eat or weigh interfere with their happiness
  • 37% regularly skip meals to try to lose weight
  • 27% would be “extremely upset” if they gained just five pounds
  • 26% cut out entire food groups
  • 16% have dieted on 1,000 calories a day or fewer
  • 13% smoke to lose weight

In a 2019 article titled, “Who’s Considered Thin Enough for Eating Disorder Treatment,” Janell Mensinger, PhD, an associate research professor of biostatistics at Drexel University, points outs, “As a culture, we tend to think that eating disorders don’t happen to people in bigger bodies — or if they do, those patients can’t be as physiologically sick as their thinner counterparts. This isn’t true. You don’t have to be emaciated to be very sick from your eating disorder. We’re seeing people in higher weight bodies actually being more symptomatic in terms of eating disordered behaviors by the time they enter treatment compared with lower weight patients.” The article goes on to point out that discussing weight, clothing sizes or other specific numbers related to body size is triggering for those with eating disorders. This focus on numbers is central to weight-loss challenges. 

Fourth, weight-loss challenges may disproportionately negatively impact women, who already face sexism at work. 

Weight-loss challenges further normalize the idea that work is a place where it is acceptable to judge, assess and monitor another person’s body. Women face disproportionate expectations to be thin. Weight-loss challenges send the signal that they can’t opt out of that expectation at work, where they generate income. The workplace has presented many challenges to women: the wage gap, the glass ceiling, and sexual harassment. Let’s not allow weight-loss challenges to be the newest manifestation of a hostile work environment for women.  

Weight discrimination—like disordered eating—has been correlated with poorer mental and physical health outcomes. We can both decrease weight bias and lower the usage of language that is triggering to those with disordered eating by foregoing weight-loss challenges at work.

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