Posted by: ezzakazhall | October 22, 2012

Promotions (or lack thereof) and babies (fat ones)

Hello again. My apologies for having sorely neglected The Body Police over the last couple of weeks. Have had my hands full with exposing rape culture at Victoria University and trying to crack shorthand at 60wpm. One of those has been slightly more successful than the other.

To make up for lost time, here are a couple of wee gems from the New Zealand media I wanted to share, both of which fit in nicely with subjects I’ve already discussed on this blog.

This article appeared on on 6 October. It mentions German research published in the BMC Public Health Journal, which found that body weight is indeed an influencing factor when it comes to considering candidates for a job or a promotion. Of the research, the Stuff article said:

“Involving 127 human resource professionals from a range of industries, participants were shown six photos of individuals differing in ethnicity, gender and body mass index. All subjects in the photos were aged between 40 and 50, and had a higher education. The participants, who regularly made career decisions about other people, were asked questions, including who was most suitable to be short-listed for a supervisor position and who they would not consider for a job.

“When asked who they would not hire, 42 per cent picked the obese woman while 19 per cent said the obese man. The non-ethnic normal-weight woman was least often disqualified from hiring consideration. When it came to a promotion, normal-weight candidates were almost five times more likely to be considered.

“If both obese male and female candidates were compared, the man was more than seven times more likely to be considered.

“The researchers noted that, while there were mild gender and race biases, weight produced by far the largest inequalities.

I will say now I have my suspicions about this research. For example:

1) The subjects in the photos used were between the ages of 40 and 50. Has the research taken prejudice against older workers into account? What kind of results would the researchers get if they displayed photographs of younger people of differing weight? Did they think of testing what an employer would do if they had to choose between a younger overweight person and a slim person who was middle aged?

2) Were participants selected from various European countries, or was the survey confined to Germany? German-based research may not necessarily be applicable across all European states (Spain, for example, is known for a culture of body positivity– for example, it’s Government has banned size zero models from its runways, and Spanish studies showed 7 out of 10 women are happy with their body shape), or other Western democracies. How it would fit into a New Zealand context one would have to find out.

3) If this research was carried out in a country the size of Germany (with a population of 81.8 million), 127 human resources representatives sounds like a pathetically small sample size on which to carry out a survey of this type.

4) Did the researchers consider testing an employer’s reaction to large people they had met in person, as opposed to just testing their reaction to a photograph? How, for instance, would they react to an overweight person who gave an impressive interview, and presented themselves with confidence and poise, as opposed to a normal weight person who lacked confidence? Too taxing to carry out, I suspect.

Aside from these suspicions…I will say that, as a large woman currently studying towards a professional qualification, this research (if it is to be believed) scares me to death. It does sadden me that an employers have and will continue to use body size as a barometer of competence in the workplace. As I said on this post, the US media has explored many cases in which employees have been fired because of their weight, corporations have had policies against hiring anyone with a BMI over 30 and where obese women have earned significantly less than their thin co-workers.

This Daily Mail piece from 2010 reports on a study which shows that overweight workers in the UK are more likely to be bullied at work, less likely to be considered for promotion, and even less likely to be selected for a job – with one in 10 bosses admitting they had turned down an applicant solely on the basis of weight. This more recent Daily Mail piece tells the story of a larger woman (word of advice: don’t read the comments) who has been turned down for 160 jobs on the basis of body size (obviously, her weight was never stated as the reason, plus there is the age factor working against her- but she did say she never had problems finding work until she gained 6 stone, or 38kg.). The article also cited research from the University of Manchester, which showed fat women were far less likely to be selected for a job over their normal-weight rivals.

Here in New Zealand, I have never heard of any cases where a person has not been hired on the basis of body size- at least not any that the media have picked up. In the five years I worked for the New Zealand public service before studying journalism, I worked with and for many overweight people, whose weight had no bearing on their competence, intelligence and management skills. That being said, my major concern is, as I pointed out on my blog of 1 September, that our human rights legislation cannot punish size-related discrimination in the workplace by law. Under the Human Rights Act 1993, discrimination on the basis of race, sexual orientation, gender, marital status and disability is punishable by law- whereas size-related discrimination is not. So, I worry how much protection an overweight person who faces discrimination in the workplace would be entitled to here in New Zealand.

I will admit that one of the things that disturbed me the most was an old friend’s response when I expressed my concern/disgust about the Stuff article on Facebook. She said it makes sense, as an employer would probably see weight as a measure of “a person’s discipline and control over themselves.” Whether or not she herself believes that, I don’t know- but I did find it upsetting. And also problematic because: A) as I have mentioned many times before, obesity is not solely caused by a “lack of control or discipline” when it comes to diet, B) by that logic, an employer would have to fire or refuse to promote thin person who has struggles with food and C) in the case of a promotion of an overweight person, what would an employer do if a person’s struggle with “discipline” over food (at any weight) had no effect on their work performance whatsoever? Sounds like a justification of prejudice to me.

The second article I wanted to talk about was this one, which appeared in The Dominion Post late week. I won’t speak on this one at length- except that it ties into my blog of 15 September about “hardwiring” healthy habits into young New Zealanders from birth, even from conception. The research from Auckland University quoted in the above DomPo article would certainly support this healthy hardwiring: as apparently a mother’s weight and diet before and during pregnancy can influence the weight of a child in later years. In addition: “Babies that were premature, small, overdue, first-born and whose mothers had severe morning sickness were more at risk of becoming overweight in adulthood.” 

My husband and I had a good laugh when we met my mother-in-law for brunch yesterday. She said my husband was doomed weight-wise, as she lived off orange Frujus and Caramello chocolate when she was pregnant. My Mum lived on custard squares- plus, I was 3 weeks premature and a small baby- and hubby and I are both the firstborn. So, we’re stuffed. However, in all seriousness, the problems I have with the article are:

1) The DomPo did not explore why, or use any quotations from endocrinologist Wayne Cutfield to explain how smaller, premature (though he does touch on the overfeeding issue- though I’m not sure how many premature babies are overfed, and he doesn’t mention any statistics to confirm this), firstborn or babies born to mothers with severe morning sickness are most likely to have weight problems later in life. I, for one, am quite curious to know the scientific reasoning behind this.

2) In stating that a mother’s diet during pregnancy can reprogramme her genes and pass them on to her child, Dr Cutfield says: However, we now know that obese mothers overeat and a significant portion of those calories are being delivered to the baby.”  We do? Statistics? Sources? Were no other factors (such as medication or medical issues) considered during this research?

3) I’d also like to know how Dr Cutfield came to the conclusions that he has done. Has his department at Auckland University monitored and growth and dietary habits of a certain sample of mothers, and caught up with their children later in life? Has it analysed a sample of either firstborn or premature babies to find out if they are, in fact, overweight as teens or adults? Have they surveyed a portion of overweight adults, asking them what their weight at birth was, if their mother had morning sickness and what their mother snacked on while pregnant? Or, were these just facts all found out in a lab? Given the public purse does fund scientific research here in New Zealand, I’m quite keen to find out.

At the end of the article, Dr Cutfield calls for “targeted education for women in their reproductive years about the effects of being fat on unborn babies, a better understanding of optimal nutrition in pregnancy, and better awareness of overfeeding small babies past early infancy.” Which sounds good in theory, for sure- however, as I mentioned on my last post on the topic, a woman’s body can produce all kinds of cravings during pregnancy (such as orange Frujus in my mother-in-law’s case), and physical complications that are not necessarily conducive to maintaining a regular exercise routine.

Education on maintaining healthy habits during pregnancy (for example, the foods with strong nutritional values for both mother and baby, and gentle exercise routines that will not place additional stress on a mother’s body) is certainly important, particularly for women that ordinarily would not have access to such information. So, I’d be supportive of Government-funded programmes that support women in looking after their health while pregnant. My hope is, however, that any such programmes do not use shaming or fear-mongering tactics (like these, for example?) to “encourage” pregnant women to mind their weight. Seeing as pregnancy can be a physically and sometimes emotionally difficult time for a lot of women, the last thing the average kiwi Mum needs is pressure from the Government and the medical profession to mind her waistline.

More later.

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