A Boss Focused on Body Size

C.K. Gunsalus offers advice to an employee whose supervisors comment regularly on her appearance.

March 4, 2011

Dear Survival Guide:

I work in a medium-sized department in a small college. The chair and the director of undergraduate studies, both men, are constantly making remarks about my body shape and what I wear to work. Sometimes they even say that I wear inappropriate clothes. I recognize that I am larger than most women. I do my best to dress professionally, but there’s a limit to what I can do to conceal my body shape. I've tried diets and looser clothing; they still make comments that offend me. Now they've brought in a colleague who is young and slim and athletic, and effectively made me her junior. I’ve tried diets and ignoring them, but now I am so distressed that I went to my doctor to talk about more radical intervention — both gastric bypass surgery and plastic surgery. I cry every night and no longer have the social confidence I once had as a result of this horrible professional situation. If I lodge a harassment complaint, I fear that I’ll lose my job or that my life will be still more miserable. What should I do?

--Tired of the Tears

Dear Tired:

I am so sorry to hear about the pain you are in at work. The first thing I hope you will do is find someone with whom you can talk, whether that’s a counselor, your minister or doctor or another professional. Crying every night is not a way to live and I hope you can get some personal support right away.

It is not acceptable workplace conduct to comment on the body shapes or clothing of others, especially repeatedly and in ways that make others uncomfortable. It is appropriate for supervisors to set a workplace dress code, so a question only you can answer is whether you are singled out for doing the same thing that others are doing/wearing, or whether the comments are only about you. Before you do anything else, do a reality check to make sure that your approach to office dress is correct. You have probably already done this, and I only mention it because it is always important to consider our own contributions to any situation before turning to what others are doing. Ask someone you trust, in confidence and in a private place, if there is anything inappropriate about your clothing, or even if there is one outfit that stands out as less suitable than the rest of your wardrobe. When your chair and director of undergraduate studies say your clothes are inappropriate, are they specific?

Of course while it’s legitimate for offices to set standards such as "business attire" or "no jeans," it’s never acceptable to link office dress codes to sizes. If your normal office attire is well within the range of professional office clothing, and the comments are about your body, they are at the least acting like boors and at the worst putting your college at legal risk. If they do not know or recognize that, someone else in the environment should.

Creating a hostile workplace environment is bad for retention, bad for morale, bad management and clearly insensitive. Whether their comments and actions rise to the level of violating federal anti-discrimination laws will turn on more specifics than I have from your letter. The answer to that depends on exactly what they are saying and how. Important factors are whether they are making job-related assessments in response to stereotypical ideas about what you can and cannot do, how they treat other women in your environment and whether there are health conditions involved. Whatever the answers, it is still not OK to be rude, unkind or a jerk.

If these two officials are crossing the line in the comments they make to and about you, are they doing so in other ways with other people? This is at least possible and, in my experience, likely. Many boors are "equal opportunity" and are oblivious to the pain they cause and the ill will they generate. Look around to see how others are affected by their comments These two may well be making inappropriate "positive" comments about other women. Constantly telling someone she looks good for being thin or whatever is also problematic, even if it is theoretically praise. There is great strength in numbers. If their comments are inappropriate across a range of topics and are negatively affecting others too, banding together may be a very effective strategy on several levels. First, it might help you regain some power and control over your situation and second, it could provide leverage for your complaint and some protection against the retaliation you fear. Look around and see how others are being affected.

If these comments are repeated and fairly predictable in their content, another thing you might consider is thinking about what you could say when it happens. After you’ve done that, practice saying it out loud a number of times. The goal is to be able to make a quiet comment and then leave it be. You want it to be able to come out naturally, quietly and fluently. Don’t plan to engage in an extended exchange or follow up what you say. You are aiming here for the polar opposite of a zinger. If you can hypothesize that these comments are the result of seriously deficient social skills, and these two haven’t noticed the pain their comments are causing you, it could be both helpful and important to provide that information in a non-accusatory way.

In this scenario, what we’re talking about is something known as the intent-effect dichotomy: what they intend by their comments may be very different from the effect it is having on you. (An aside: in harassment law, it’s the effect that matters, not the intent, but we’re not pursuing that line of thought, yet.) People come from many different backgrounds and are socialized (or not) in a range of ways. Themes you might consider developing in your own words go along these lines: “Wow, that is really a personal and hurtful comment” or “I try really hard to do the best possible job here, and it hurts when you focus on how I look instead of the work I do.” Seek out help from your human resources office, faculty/staff assistance program, or equal opportunity office. Professionals in any of these offices should be able to help you with an appropriate response and give you support in dealing with these colleagues when they make these comments.

I do not have enough information from you to assess whether there are policies in your college that could help you. Looking up the college policies, and who is responsible for enforcing them, would be a good first step. Is there a workplace dignity or civility or anti-harassment policy? If so, and if the comments might not rise to the level of legal sex discrimination or harassment, these two could be violating the college policy. Again, the staff in your college offices devoted to human resources should be able to help you.

Finally, it is hard for me to assess your fear of retaliation for filing a complaint. That fear is completely natural, and one that just about everyone who considers filing a complaint confronts. What I would most like to know to be able to advise you on that point is whether you have seen others suffer retaliation as a result of speaking out against improper conduct. Retaliation against those who make good-faith complaints about a hostile work environment is also a violation, which brings me full circle to your college policies.

Whatever you find out, and whatever you decide to do, please, please find someone to talk with. Work should not be making you so miserable that you cry every night.

Have a question for Survival Guide? E-mail her.


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