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What happens to your career if your culture positively welcomes the larger framed woman?

When Susie Orbach wrote her pioneering book ‘Fat is a Feminist Issue’ in 1978, she successfully highlighted the links between sexual politics and female dieting.

Research that has focused on the link between weight and career advancement has found that fat still remains a feminist issue, and that while being fat is often no barrier for men, it can harm a woman’s career prospects.

As I write this, it is apparently World Obesity Day – yes, yet another day for another issue - and a survey carried out by the World Obesity Federation reveals that four out of five of those questioned believe people are viewed negatively if they are overweight.

More than 1,000 obese adults were asked about their experiences in the survey and 45% said they had felt judged when going to hospitals and the doctors, 32% had the same experience at the gym, while a third, 31%, felt judged at work. Almost two thirds of people (62%) thought those who were overweight were likely to face discrimination, compared to 60% who considered it due to their ethnic background and 56% for their sexual orientation.

One of those surveyed, Maggie Clinton now 65, suffered discrimination as a nurse and later a senior lecturer in Paediatrics. "On one occasion, I was asked by HR if I would agree to have a clause put in my contract to say that if I had sickness that was directly related to my weight, my employer would not necessarily pay me sick leave... that was shocking," she says.

Fat Chance of Succeeding

Women who are overweight have much less chance of being promoted at work than plump male colleagues, is one of the findings of previous studies into this issue. They have revealed that while a high proportion of men in top jobs were fat, overweight or obese women were significantly under-represented among their bosses.

These findings add weight (no pun intended) to accusations of sexism in the workplace and stoke many women’s suspicions that female employees are judged on appearance and not solely on their ability to do the job. A study published in the British journal Equal Opportunities International reviewed 29 previous research papers on hiring, firing and promotion practices. It found 61% of top male bosses were overweight compared with only 22% of female executives.

What happens to your career if you come from a culture that not only accepts but positively welcomes the larger framed woman?

According to Mark Roehling, who led the study, the findings indicate that society has a “greater tolerance and possibly even a preference for a larger size among men but a small size among women.”

This alarming conclusion would suggest, says Roehling, that “the glass ceiling effect on women’s advancement may reflect not only negative stereotypes about the competencies of women, but also weight bias that results in stricter appearance standards for them.”

But obesity is a complex issue says psychologist Dr Stuart Flint, who notes that while it’s easy for people to point the finger, “We know there are over 100 different factors that contribute to overweight and obesity.”

Johanna Ralston, Chief Executive of the World Obesity Federation says the media has job to do "to reshape the narrative around obesity" and to change the narrative to better inform public perceptions.

What Price Culture?

But what do these findings suggest for your career if you come from a culture that not only accepts but positively welcomes the larger framed woman? Precious Ramotswe, the African protagonist in Alexander McCall Smith’s No 1 Ladies Detective Agency novels, proudly declares herself to be “traditionally built”. From the sounds of these reports, this may go down well in Botswana, but perhaps less so in Birmingham.

But, talking of culture, the clash between size and cultures can happen even within Europe. Journalist John Lichfield, citing a French survey that has charted wide discrepancies in the average weight of men and women in different European countries, states that: “The typical French woman is slim and thinks that she is fat. The typical British woman is plump but is convinced that she is thin.”

For many traditional Africans, a larger size denotes an abundance of food and, therefore, prosperity.

The author of the study in question, Thibaut de Saint Pol, says that his research suggests that average national weight is strongly influenced by cultural differences and national attitudes to what is seen as attractive. For example, he says, in some countries, such as Greece, male fatness is still regarded as a symbol of power or strength.

For many traditional Africans, a larger size denotes an abundance of food and, therefore, prosperity. Commenting on such an African’s girth is, therefore, less likely to result in embarrassment than a proud rub of the stomach accompanied by the explanation, ‘Good living!’

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Author of the novels ‘From Pasta to Pigfoot’ and ‘From Pasta to Pigfoot: Second Helpings’ and the books I Want to Work in… Africa: How to Move Your Career to the World’s Most Exciting Continent’ and ‘Everyday Heroes – Learning from the Careers of Successful Black Professionals’

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