Being overweight or sloppily dressed is worse for your career than being a poor performer.

I’m not saying this is fair, I’m saying it’s true. So manage your weight, and manage the image you project at work, and you’ll do wonders for your career.

If you doubt that your image can inhibit your career, think about this: According to a 2005 study by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, good-looking people make more money than average-looking people for doing exactly the same work.

Before you get up in arms over how unfair it is to discriminate against people who are overweight, consider that there may be some rationale behind it. If you’re overweight, you’re probably not exercising every day. But regular exercise increases peoples’ ability to cope with difficult situations in the workplace and, according to University of Illinois kinesiology professor Charles Hillman, might even make people smarter.

And the same self-discipline we use to make ourselves exercise regularly and eat in moderation carries over into other aspects of our lives. This is probably why, in a study from Leeds Metropolitan University, people who exercise regularly were found to be better at time-management and more productive than those who don’t.

So don’t kid yourself that if you do good work it won’t matter if you’re overweight. It’s sort of like people who have messy desks: The perception is that they’re low-performers, poor time-managers, and not clear thinkers. This might not be true at all, but the only thing they can do to overcome the perceptions of their coworkers is clean their desks.

What makes this information particularly troubling is that so many people say they can’t make time to exercise and eat right because they need to work instead. In fact, if you’re overweight, you should probably put aside some of your work, accept that you won’t be performing as well at the office, and manage your image more closely by going to the gym.

That’s right — get rid of that perfectionist streak, do a little less work, and use that time to make yourself look better. People will perceive that you’re doing better work anyway. So instead of rationalizing why you can put work ahead of taking care of your health, start acting like a healthy person. Go to the gym at lunch, or leave work at 5 to hit the gym. Reorganize your schedule to make health a priority and your coworkers will respect you for it.

Here’s something else: Dress like you care. Building a strong brand for yourself is the only way to create a stable career in today’s workplace. You’ll change jobs often, and what influences your ability to get new jobs most is the image you convey. People judge that before they judge one word that comes out of your mouth.

I didn’t have a weight problem when I owned my first company, but I did have an image problem — I was younger than almost everyone, and my mentor told me my age was creating problems. So I hired an image consultant to drag me around town and spend lots of money until I looked more grown up.

I still worry about image issues today — everyone does, no matter where they are in their career. It’s just that today I worry less about looking older and more about what shirt is right for an appearance on CNN. The point is that issues of image are ongoing in a career that matters.

So don’t be overweight and don’t dress carelessly. These are just as detrimental to your career as doing your work poorly. And if my bringing this up makes you angry, consider being more forgiving, because anger is a risk factor for obesity. Besides, forgiveness makes people more resilient to difficulties because it’s about seeing the world in a positive light — which is, of course, also good for your image.

71 replies
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  1. Emily DeVoto
    Emily DeVoto says:

    Great column, Penelope. You’re right, it isn’t fair, but this is still helpful for people who think weight and sloppiness don’t matter – particularly the latter!

    By the way, it’s always amazing to me the lousy and nasty comments you get on Yahoo! Finance – don’t those people ever bother to read what you actually said?

  2. JenK
    JenK says:


    I liked your comment as well. To respond to your aside –

    “Some of the comments sounded to me as if they were describing someone who weighs 300-350 pounds or more.”

    In my case, that’s true. I weigh about 400lbs. :)

    This whole thread reminds me of one of the most frustrating conversations I ever had. Imagine a slumped, newly minted paralegal applying for corporate law jobs in a black polyester skirt, worn cotton sleevless sweater (displaying blotchy arms) and worn-out flats…

    She spent years studying to become a paralegal and is frustrated that she can’t get a job in a corporate law office. She complains that it’s “unfair” to go for “eye candy” when she’s just as qualified. She points out that her IT and computer-programmer friends wear jeans and t-shirts to work, so why can’t she?

    I asked why she didn’t study IT if she wanted to dress like her IT friends. She didn’t get it.

    Is she fat? Yes, about a size 16 or 18 – hard to tell when most of what she wears is country-style hand-me-downs from her mother. But I don’t think that’s it. Camryn Manheim was a size 22 on The Practice, for Christ’s sake.

  3. Sinzen
    Sinzen says:


    Honestly. If you measure your life with success and chasing down the archaic American dream lifestyle then you have failed right there.

    Plenty of people would measure success to what brings them happiness. According to what you have stated, with that nice little package of links you posted there, if you’re overweight you will never be successful. Too bad it’s all relative.

    By now you should be well aware that I am overweight, but I am successful in life and happy with the current state of things in my world. Note I stated my world because of the fact that it really falls back to individual success, not some success that everyone should be reaching for.

    Just your little picture in your site header disgusts me because as much as you would like to stand out of the pack and wave your flag as you show the world how successful you are, your identity and look is cookie cutter to say the least. Your sense of success is and has been done time and again for decades now.

    Fat or thin, small minded people just don’t get how others see success. This society we live in isn’t 1984 darling, it’s 2007. Step aside and watch how people in general succeed in life. Thick or thin everyone can win, it all depends on what level of success they are happy with.

  4. peebee
    peebee says:

    I recently read Gina Kolata’s book “Rethinking Thin,” and that, coupled with my own life experience, has led me to the following conclusion. I understand it may be controversial, but I’m having difficulty seeing why the logic doesn’t hold up.

    Being fat is very similar to, if not pretty much the same as, being gay. However, our society has evolved, over the last 20 years in particular, towards an understanding that discriminating against gay people is wrong. However, we are moving in the opposite direction with fat people.

    Why being fat and being gay are similar:

    There are spectrums of weight and sexual orientation, but at some level (we know it when we see it) someone is either gay or they’re not, and someone is either fat or they’re not. I’m not talking about people who need to lose 15 pounds, or the people who were LUGs or BUGs. I am talking about the people who have lived their adult lives as obese people or as openly gay people.

    Correlations between weight/sexual orientation and health risk factors: Not all fat people are unhealthy or will encounter obesity-related health problems. Not all gay people engage in unhealthy behaviors or will encounter health problems attributable to their sexual behavior. Not all skinny/straight people are healthy or avoid risky behaviors. Yet health reasons are used as a proxy to treat fat people/gay people as less worthy members of our society.

    It (weight/sexual orientation) may be genetically determined. It may be environmental. We don’t really know, but it’s almost certainly some complex combination of both. We’ve set up a dichotomy in this society where that if you can argue “I’m born that way,” your deviations from the norm are more accepted. Why is that? We respect religious diversity, yet for adults, religion is a choice. We may be born into a religious family and surrounded by cultural norms that guide our religious beliefs, but ultimately, we all choose whether or not to embrace religion.

    About that “choice” thing: we’ve pretty much decided that people don’t choose to be gay. Why? Straight people don’t choose to be straight. Why would someone choose to deviate from the norm in a way that subjects them to societal abuse, discrimination, and in some cases, physical harm? Yet we’re convinced that fat people choose to be fat.

    However, with gay people, we do acknowledge that while gay people don’t choose to be gay, they can choose whether or not to act upon their true feelings. They can remain closeted and celibate, miserable and lonely, or they can come out, pursue same-sex relationships and try to be as happy as anyone else in the world. Fat people can’t exactly remain in the closet — their weight is as visible as their race or gender (if not more so, given the levels of ambiguity that can arise between one’s self-identification and external presentation.) But they can either pursue the path of self-loathing, withdrawing from society, constantly dieting, and remaining constantly aware of — and miserable about — their weight. Or they can accept it for what it is — one facet of who they are — and ask the same from the people around them.

    Some claim there can be “ex-gays.” After a dose of intensive therapy, religion, denial, whatever it takes, you can pronounce yourself cured of your so-called deviance, ready to engage in “normal” heterosexual relationships. Some claim the very notion that people are able to cure themselves (or should need to cure themselves) is particularly offensive and should be attacked at every opportunity. Some claim that if you’re fat, you can choose to lose weight, and then you won’t be fat any more. If you haven’t done that, it’s evidence that you’re lazy or morally deficient.

    So now we have all of these ex-gays and formerly obese people running around, waiting for their bodies to betray them at every opportunity. Science shows that at a cellular level, that once fat cells have been created, they don’t go away. They’re just waiting for the next opportunity to burst into corpulence. What Kolata’s book describes is all the ways that we’re finding out that fat people who lose weight don’t become thin people — they just become fat people in thin bodies. The level of constant vigilance required to stay thin and to overcome long-established (and not well understood) metabolic processes goes far beyond what we all understand to be the willpower or self-discipline our society expects of functional adults.

    As a society, we’ve moved in the direction of no longer expecting that superhuman discipline of gay people to remain celibate (unless they’re Catholic priests, but that’s a whole different matter) because we recognize that it condemns gay people to a miserable, unhappy life in denial of what we recognize is their true nature.

    Yet we demand the same thing of fat people: deny yourself the ability to fully satisfy a basic human need shared by everyone (hunger) to meet someone else’s expectation of how you should live your life. And if you don’t, you don’t deserve to have a job, because employers should have the right to select people who look good. You don’t deserve to have adequate health care, because you’re a strain on the system for the rest of us who are morally superior to you. You don’t deserve to have kids, because you’re probably going to pass along your fatness to them and condemn them to an unhealthy, unhappy life too. You don’t deserve to be loved, because you’re probably going to leave your partner spouseless someday.

    Liberal/progressive people find this logic reprehensible when it’s applied to gay people (and call those who employ it homophobic, rightly so) but personally engage in it on a daily basis when it’s applied to fat people. If you really believe that all fat people are going to die sooner, isn’t that punishment enough? Why make their presumably shorter time on earth miserable too? Is it just because you’re insecure about being judged on your looks, and need someone to feel morally superior to?

    Gay people have successfully applied many of the lessons of the civil rights movement, and have fought until sexual orientation has been included in anti-discrimination laws. They are continuing to try to get rid of societal prejudice, and with every measure of public opinion, there is progress. They have been criticized for hijacking the civil rights movement, and for glossing over the differences between sexual orientation and race and gender.

    It is time for fat people to toss aside their self-loathing and demand an end to some of this absolutely ridiculous prejudice. The next time someone tosses out this crap about “you choose to be this way,” or “society is justified in discriminating against fat people because…[you pick the reason],” it’s time to find out whether the person making the statement is a homophobe, and whether they would ever make a similar remark within earshot of a gay person. If the answer is no, then it’s time for some education. If we can pick off all the skinny pro-gay people, then that just leaves the homophobes, and believe you me, quite a few of them are fat.

  5. frieda
    frieda says:

    In’t this true for any aspect of appearance? I’ve always thought that people who are naturally attractive have a far easier time succeeding in the business and social worlds than people who are not good-looking. Couldn’t bad teeth, weird hair, tattoos, piercings, bad skin, etc. all detract from one’s image? It is human nature to be attracted to magnetic, good-looking people, and no matter how unfair and wrong it is, I don’t know how anyone can really change that.

  6. Charlie
    Charlie says:


    Do you have a blog?? You should! Your comment really reasonated with me. I never had compared the plight of gays with that of the overweight, but the analogy is strong.

    It was a great response to d above who I think was trying to argue that employers would rather have an overweight employee than a gay one. I would add that both groups have an extra challenge in getting hired, and I couldn’t say who has less difficulty.

    I’ll add to your analysis that I think gays became more accepted in the workplace because companies recognized positive attributes about them that they could use to their advantage, such as being more available for travel or long hours since we are less likely to have children at home.

    I think being overweight carries much more shame than being gay because, as you said, being gay is widely believed to be out of a person’s control while being overweight is usually thought of as more of a choice. Articles like this promote this shame, and it is completely unfair.

    I have known many overweight people who want more than anything to be thin because they are made to believe that they can’t be happy or feel good about themselves if they are not.

    I believe Penelope’s intention is to show how and why these factors influence hiring. It seems like she wants to encourage people to exercise and eat healthy for their own personal and career good. Sure, her tone is strong, but that is her trademark.

    I wish, though, that she would use these statistics to urge us readers to fight this unfair discrimination when we are the ones doing the hiring. Once we are calling the shots, we can change the status quo. We can learn to look beyond differences that in the past were considered negative attributes. We can learn to accept people for what they bring to the table and not for their waist size.

    Just because there is discrimination now does not mean that it will or should be around forever.

  7. Charlie
    Charlie says:

    This post and its comments have inspired me to expand my business from cute shirts for small-medium-large-wearing people to cute shirts for the plus-sized community who have a lot of trouble finding cute clothes. This will happen by next week, I can’t wait to see how it works out.

    Penelope talks often about the importance of focusing and finding a tight niche market. I have a hunch this one will be very successful! Thanks!!

  8. sara
    sara says:

    all these comments are so interesting… being fat, i can’t say that i’ve experienced feeling held back by my weight.

    it may definitely make a difference in first impressions. but i have never felt that people meet me and automatically assume i’m sloppy, dirty, ignorant, or untalented.

    regardless of what you look like, if you’re great at what you do, that’s the only thing that matters. i am notorious for doing my own thing at work, not fitting into the corporate mold – but my work speaks for itself.

    i am respectful, smart, no-bullshit, and i work incredibly hard. i’m proud to say that my work speaks for itself. i am an asset to a company, and i don’t need to weigh 120 pounds for that to be true.

    of course, if you’re fat AND you suck…. well, there’s not much to be done about that.

  9. ipad3
    ipad3 says:

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