Fattism: a hard act to swallow

Anoushka De La Banque (left) claims she failed a job interview because of her size. It's not unusual, Emma Cook discovers
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Nigel Baillie, 35 and a freelance writer, has always found job interviews a humiliating experience. "I can still remember one in particular; it was for a clerical job in a hospital. As soon as I walked into the room, I could sense their disapproval. They looked surprised and taken aback. For the rest of the interview I felt they were just going through the motions. I could see them visibly changing and I knew I didn't stand a chance in hell." The reason for this Jekyll and Hyde switch in attitude? Baillie happens to weigh 18 stone.

Baillie's experience suggests that size is just as much a an issue for both men and women. Earlier this week, Anoushka De La Banque, weighing 16 stone, related a similar story at court about her job interview at NatWest Bank. According to her, a recruitment boss commented, "It is very highly unlikely that someone of your size and appearance and race would get a job here." Both stories put paid to the notion that only certain areas of employment - such as airlines, advertising and the media - are preoccupied with size and image. It is a prejudice that increasingly cuts across all industries: Baillie was looking for clerical jobs in insurance and the civil service, Banque's chosen area of work was hardly glamorous or image-oriented.

Angela Kennedy, 34 and a size 20, works as a health and safety officer. She recalls how one manager in her last company took her to one side and told her she would benefit from walking around the office more and not staying at her desk for so long during the day. "It was the idea that I was just sitting around all day that I found particularly annoying because I was working flat out", she says.

"This sort of thing definitely does happen", says Janice Bhend, editor of Yes, a magazine for plus sizes. "We recently heard from a young girl who was told she would have to lose weight if she wanted a job as a receptionist. We've now got a campaign running to make it illegal because it goes on a lot. The problem is that it's underground discrimination and it's very hard to fight."

It is also a battle that has raged on regardless of the current media fad for curvaceous figures a la Sophie Dahl or Sara Morrison, whose size 16 proportions recently graced the pages of Vogue. Not surprisingly, what is promoted by the media for novelty and fashion has very little bearing on people's real life experiences. Celebrities such as Robbie Coltrane and Alexander McQueen, may be perceived to be cool and sexy, but it's still a different story for the majority of people who share their proportions. Even though John Travolta told Slimmer Magazine this week that he was happy weighing more than 14 stone - you feel that it's only his standing as a "cool" film icon that allows him the luxury of feeling content with his middle-aged spread.

The truth is, being overweight, not even obese, still provokes ambivalence in men and women of all sizes, in terms of their own fears and insecurities. Many of the people I interviewed couldn't, or perhaps wouldn't, explain why they instinctively feel as they do. But it was surprising - and depressing - how all the stereotypical assumptions, such as "big people are lazy, slovenly, out of control, jolly, kind" and so forth, cropped up with alarming regularity.

Stephen, 34 and a television researcher, admits that he "just isn't attracted" to women who are, say, two or three stone overweight. "I see a lot of people my age who are starting to pile on the weight - this goes for men and women - and view it as complacency about their stage in life. I look at them and think I really hope I don't get like that. As I find it harder to keep my weight down, I've noticed that I find it less and less attractive in other people." He adds, "Some people find smoking unattractive because the habit shows you're not taking care of your health - you can translate that to people who put on too much weight."

It's not exactly an enlightened response, since smoking is a far graver health hazard than eating too much. As is yo-yo dieting and obsessive exercising. But it does give an insight into people's quite irrational fears on the subject. In Stephen's case the amount of weight isn't an issue - it's actually the "lazy" decline from being trim to getting out of shape that somehow offends his sensibility. "It's that idea of people letting themselves go and not taking care of themselves - I can't understand why they don't want to lose weight."

Peter, 32 and an advertising and sales manager, admits that in his company he knows one colleague who subtly asked an overweight receptionist to move to another part of the office when he was entertaining new clients. More worryingly, Peter doesn't even view such an attitude as particularly outrageous. "I know it's not propelling the world forward in terms of attitude, but if it's creating a bad impression and it's not good for business, then you have to think of those things. You may be PC but perhaps your clients aren't."

Not surprisingly, Peter doesn't take a terribly sympathetic view of overweight men or women. "If you associate their weight with overeating then it is offensive - gluttony was one of the seven deadly sins and there are still very negative associations about consuming too much. If it's a health problem, then I wouldn't pass judgement. The problem is you never really know which one it is."

As well as tapping into fears about mortality and sin, size seems to trigger powerful associations with worldly values, such as success, class and money. Writer Kate Saunders, who gained several stone during her pregnancy, believes weight is also a class-issue. "There's a larger issue to do with diet and socio-economic status. The perception is - probably it's not true - that people who are less advantaged and eat cheaper foods are more likely to be overweight. Words like elegant apply to slim people and they're class comments - as so many style comments are."

For most women, however, the fear is more basic than that. Beyond class and status, it's really about self-esteem and control. Julie, 35 and a publishing editor, says, "I see putting on weight as a lack of self-control. However PC I try to be, I can't help feeling that fat is ugly and thin is beautiful. It's a murky area - when I see someone really plump squeezed into clothes that don't hide their size I think, "Why is she so cool about it? If I was her I wouldn't be happy - I know that probably says more about my own insecurities. Perhaps I am envious - I wish I could be more carefree about my own figure."

According to Deanne Jade, psychologist and founder of the National Centre of Eating Disorders, fears about size are extremely primitive - in some studies they are evident in children as young as five years old. "I've worked with hundred of women on their conscious and unconscious feelings about "fatness". So many see overweight people as terribly unhappy, having a problem, lazy, unsuccessful etc." She adds, "In terms of work, the message is, if I can't take care of myself, I can't take care of the business."

The real fear is that such innate prejudice is in some way validated in today's competitive market. So, nowadays, disapproving of someone's weight can easily be justified by an interest in the company's welfare. Businessmen like Peter can talk euphemistically about people, "creating a good impression" and "fitting in with the company image".

As Bhend says, "There is huge competition for jobs these days so people think, 'Why have someone large if you have can have someone slim and trendy to show we've got a "slim and trendy" company?'" It's sad that the Peters of this world would probably agree.

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