Body Image in Business
“John was one of the best hires you ever made for this company. He is bright, enthusiastic, and a great problem solver. However, he’s put on a lot of weight over the past couple of years and his appearance is making it difficult for us to promote him. His weight makes it hard for him to dress well. It is really holding him back. Maybe as his friend you could talk to him about it.”
That conversation never happened. Lots of men around the conference room table are overweight. Long hours, too many bad meals in airports or restaurants. Their fashion doesn’t change when they put on weight. A suit is a suit whether it come from Nordstroms or the Big & Tall Shop. In looking up the options, I’ve just discovered Ralph Lauren even has a Big & Tall section on their men’s website. I can’t think of a single negative conversation I have ever had about a male employees looks or presentation. We are more likely to be in awe of the men that manage to stay fit with all of the pressure than condemn those who don’t.
Now substitute Joan for John in the above conversation. I had an email to this effect from a former employer about an employee. She was well-educated and a great contributor. The company had given her projects with a large amount of responsibility but never moved her into a senior management position. My former colleague genuinely wanted to help this woman get ahead but the only solution he could envision was having her lose weight and do a better job shopping. He was clearly unaware that she was already at Weight Watchers and exercising. He certainly didn’t know that the choice for larger women wasn’t the Ralph Lauren dress a few sizes up (they only sell up to a US 12) but a range of large shapeless clothing frequently adorned with odd eye-drawing accessories like zebra patterned bows.
Men are rarely handicapped by their weight or questionable grooming but women continue to be judged on the complete package of brains, talent and looks. I’ve had male bosses comment on my lack of make-up and a Chairman of Fortune 100 company mentioned my unmanicured fingernails. I have never told them I thought their teeth were a disgusting shade of yellow or that their nose hair needed grooming. I doubt it would end the engrained double standards but it might be a bit of fun to let them see what it feels like to be judged every second.
Efforts of the press and the internet continue to fuel issues of body image among women. Not a week goes by without stories on phooshopping and the impact on women of images in the media. The BBC unhelpfully headlined with pieces on women’s obeisity twice this week, complete with the most unflattering pictures from the neck don of an exercise class for women trying to lose weight. Next month undoubtedly they will cover eating disorders and be completely unable to see the conenction in their coverage.
Women continue to take strides toward claiming their places in senior management and around the boardroom table. Where the first wave of feminism was about making it clear that women were people with dreams and ambitions of their own, the latest wave is showing women how to build on the successes of their predeccessors and deomnstrate how to make those lofty dreams a reality. Sheryl Sandberg urges women to lean-in and be more assertive with programs building on campuses to harness her experience while collectives like LaVelle Olexa’s LaVelle & Co are helping women discover their passions and connect with each other.
But what does body image have to do with success in business? The articles and information on body image typically are in the women’s pages of the paper or the more self-help areas of a blog. Oprah talks about her struggles with her weight fully and in public but they are part of the personal stories, unconnected with how she has built and runs her vast business holdings. I widely shared a piece from Girlfriends Hub about embracing our bodies and our beauty (#eobeob) throughout my personal network. It never entered my mind to share it in my professional networks. Bikini bodies and all of our personal foibles are a personal not a professional issue.
But of course it is a professional issue. If our self-confidence is undermined by our lack of belief in our own beauty, we project that in business situations. Our discomfort with ourselves is obvious. Men let out their belt a notch if they are feeling a bit heavy today. Women squirm and twist when their skirts pinch. They put on their looser clothes which are that bit less professional looking. Our lack of comfort in our own skins is there in subtle ways too – preferring to sit at the table while someone else presents our ideas rather than stand up there blowing our own horn with everyone looking at us.
Preventing more conversations like the one I had with my former colleague is not refusing to wear makeup or shave under our arms (regardless of what Madonna is saying this month). It is to prjoect ourselves with confidence however we are feeling about our less than beach-ready body. It is to stand-up and lean-in and fully embrace ourselves so the world recognises we love and respect ourselves no matter that a pencil line skirt is never going over our wide hips. How we treat ourselves personally will shine through when we present ourselves professionally.