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Are Body-Image Issues Holding Your Team Back?

A new event and book offer two different paths for recognizing and addressing this under-discussed concern.

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When a business leader ticks off the things that might hold their team back, it typically includes resources, training, time or motivation. But very few managers would add body image to that list. As it turns out, they should.

Emily Mosely
Body-positivity advocate Emily Ho

Negative body image affects nearly one-in-five people in the workplace, according to a Horizon Media study. Of those, 80% don’t talk about it with colleagues. Moreover, 30% percent don’t talk to anyone at all. Before you move on, please know that the one-in-five number applies equally to men and women.

“I definitely think perceptions of body shape and size affects you in the workplace,” says Brynta Ponn, whose first career was in human resources. She’s now a body-positive content creator and influencer on Instagram and TikTok. “It affected the roles I would take on. It held me back from putting myself out there sometimes.”

Related: 12 Ways to Boost Your Confidence in 2022

Alicia McCarvell says her body image held her back professionally, before she amassed 4.3 million followers on TikTok talking about “self-love, swear words and snaps,” according to her bio. 

“The biggest part of my journey was realizing how many things I held myself back from,” she continues. “We’re talking as little as photos to as big as job interviews and applications. Realizing the role that our relationship with our body plays in what we actually allow ourselves to do in our life is so important.”

Ponn and McCarvell are two of an all-star roster of body-positive social media influencers headlining BodCon, a one-day, virtual body-celebrating conference taking place Sunday, Feb. 27. The speaker roster includes bodies of all shapes, sizes, colors and genders. 

But a new book from two European sociologists suggests that self-confidence love fests alone won’t solve the problem of body positivity in the workplace. In Confidence Culture, Shani Orgad and Rosalind Gill assert that mainstream focus on positively promoting one’s self-image has created a cult around confidence in today’s society. In their view, self-focused body positivity treats the symptom, rather than the cause. Their recommendation is for business leaders to focus on company culture, not just individual self-image.

To understand both options and help determine which may be a better approach to address body issues with your teams, we first have to better define the problem.

What is body positivity?

Part of the difficulty in finding a solution to the body-image issue is the moving target of what's generally accepted as a socially appropriate perspective. The current body-positivity movement evolved from the fat-acceptance movement of the 1960s. A cousin of feminism and civil rights, fat acceptance evolved to fight discrimination against people based on their size. 

Body positivity emerged over the last few decades with broader definitions of body image. It isn’t just about weight or fat, but height, color, gender, sexual identity and physical capability. Some women add on the acceptance of body hair and menstrual hygiene in an effort to challenge societal expectations of the female appearance. Regardless of perspective, the general message is every body is worthy of love and respect. 

“I thought body positivity was about looking inward to accept and love your body,” says Emily Ho, a plus-sized fashion influencer known online as Authentically Emmie. “It was similar to the messaging in Dove ads: 'Love the skin you’re in,' and, 'EveryBODY is beautiful.'"

Ho embraced that attitude toward body positivity after recovering from an eating disorder and enduring years of extreme dieting and chronic over-exercising. But as she evolved into an influential plus-sized person, she realized that the roots of the fat-acceptance movement were fundamentally about anti-discrimination. 

“Mainstream body positivity as it exists on Instagram and other social media can be helpful if it reaches others who may be feeling insecure about their bodies and are longing for ways to find self-acceptance,” she says. “Still, for some, the ‘positivity’ portion can feel like too far a stretch. The current understanding of it still centers around forming an opinion about your body.”

Ho, who is not involved with BodCon, says body neutrality is her current personal focus. “It’s a way of looking at bodies without assigning any judgment,” she explains. “They aren’t good or bad — they simply exist.”

This hints at Organ and Gill’s more academic opinion of how to help a team whose members might struggle with self-image.

The confidence culture

Orgad and Gill noticed a pattern emerging in everything from feminist writings to popular music. Any time inequality was the subject of conversation, it was frequently followed with the idea of women needing to overcome their lack of confidence. 

Confidence Culture implies the problem is beyond a specific domain,” explains Orgad. “We’re in an era where the meanings circulating in all these arenas convey a similar idea, which encourages women to believe the fundamental problem holding them back is their lack of confidence. Therefore, the primary solution is they should work on themselves.”

Gill says anyone who feels marginalized, be it as a woman, a member of a minority group or someone who simply doesn’t feel normal compared to others physically, typically falls into the impostor-syndrome trap. They fear being found out as frauds by colleagues and supervisors. Instead of individual-based solutions like self-improvement or therapy, Gill and Orgad say the change needs to come from the other direction.

“One thing businesses can do, in relation to having many of their staff feel like impostors, is they can start looking at themselves,” Gill offers. “Why do they feel like impostors? What are we doing in our workplace to make them feel that they don’t fit in? That they’re not welcome here?”

Vivian Kaye is a fan of the Confidence Culture approach. She has grown KinkyCurlyYaki into a $6 million business that seels premium hair extensions for Black women and was founded primarily to allow them to feel more confident in the workplace. “Whenever you see a corporate photo of people and all you’re seeing is able-bodied, white, skinny men and women, that’s a problem,” Kaye says. “People feel confident where they feel seen. One of the ways you’ll fix this issue with confidence in the workplace is starting from the top down.”

Adds Ho, “All bodies are ‘normal’, and we can focus on what they do for us versus how they look. I live in a body that falls outside of the norm of what seems to be ‘acceptable,’ even in body-positivity spaces online. I am negatively impacted by anti-fat bias, size discrimination and lack of comfortable access to many spaces. My focus isn't turned inward, accepting that my body looks good as it is. I am more concerned with focusing outward on how systems and cultural norms impact how larger bodies move through the world.” 

Gill says that in order for many with body-image issues to feel welcome and confident in the workforce, they need to see a diverse workforce and know that it’s not a tokenistic check-box to be compliant.  “Organizations and CEOs have got to do the work,” she expands. “They’ve got to start looking at their cultures.” 

Related: Need More Confidence? Here Are 8 Bestselling Books to Get You There.

There’s nothing wrong with self-confidence

For their part, neither Orgad or Gill would dissuade people from considering events like BodCon. “It’s not that we’re positioning ourselves against confidence,” Gill explains. “We’re very much in favor of women feeling confident, feeling comfortable in their own skin, feeling positive about their bodies. We’re very pro-body confidence. But we are also very pro-social justice.” 

When asked to review BodCon’s event website, both had positive things to say, including complimenting the diverse roster of speakers, whether pertaining to body size, gender, race or other factors. The event includes a panel discussion on body confidence in the workplace that will feature Kaye, Lisa Schoenbergr, Keka Dasgupta and body-positive business coach Lindsay Johnson. It's billed as a talk about how to squash diet chat and change the focus of office chatter to more positive things. 

“Body weight and diet talk are not good for the workplace,” Johnson advises. “Not only is it not appropriate to be talking about these things there, but people need to feel empowered to opt out of those conversations or put up boundaries to say, ‘I don’t want to talk about this.’”

Johnson echoed themes from Confidence Culture when describing what today’s body positivity movement is truly about. “It’s about understanding anti-fat bias and fat phobia in our society in general,” they assert. “It’s about complex systems that are causing harm and keeping people locked out of opportunities like healthcare services, access to things like restaurants, flights and seats. When you talk about how to educate our leaders in the workplace to relate and create environments that foster confidence in a person, it’s much deeper than self-confidence. It’s understanding how fat phobia is perpetuated through the media, how it’s learned and how misinformation biases the leaders themselves. They have to be the change, and an occasional lunch and learn about body positivity isn’t enough.”

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