Earlier this month, the stockbroking company Zerodha announced that it would give employees financial rewards if they could keep their Body Mass Index within certain parameters. Employees with a BMI under 25 would receive a half-month’s salary bonus; additionally, if the entire team could get their BMI ratings under 24 by August, they would all receive an additional half-month’s salary. Aside from the use of the BMI index (denounced, but not widely enough, as being racist and sexist, having been created exclusively on a sample base of adult Caucasian males), this is a straightforwardly discriminatory exercise.
“Sitting is the new smoking, & the idea has been to nudge everyone to move,” Zerodha’s CEO Nithin Kamath posted online. The blithe way to remark on this would be to say people should just move out of the company, but that’s a privilege few have at any point, let alone in today’s economy. Worse than workplace dissatisfaction itself, this so-called incentive advances a noxious work environment, in which the boundaries between one’s personal life and one’s professional performance are blurred. This is partly about body-shaming, but also extends into the employer’s creepy sense of ownership over employees’ use of personal time, nutritional choices, health records and more.
This BMI challenge is supposedly a World Health Day initiative, but pointedly chooses to ignore the question of mental health. If implemented, there will undoubtedly be detrimental effects on the mental health of employees due to the pressure of meeting the parameters. This may include bullying and even sexual harassment (given the importance placed on the physical form, and the open invitation to comment on others’, in the guise of motivation). It will also impact new hiring choices. It doesn’t matter that work-from-home has become the norm. The fact that there is a group incentive means that one cannot opt not to participate.
When I looked up Zerodha on Google News, I was intrigued by how outspoken the founder has been over the last few weeks, opining on a whole number of finance-related subjects, with his name or the brand’s often prominently in the headline. Zerodha has certainly invested – in a robust PR strategy, that is. The thought crossed my mind that the BMI challenge was designed to be a publicity stunt, one that got the brand name out beyond the business pages. If that’s the case, it worked, of course. At many people’s expense.
One of the easiest ways to hurt someone is to comment on their weight, shape or size. This is one of those rare instances in which the phrase “Everyone knows this” applies. No matter how body-neutral or body-positive or secure in their skin a person is, we have all – without exception – received conditioning on what ideal body types are, and how we measure up against them. How many people saw the news and felt that familiar twinge of pain? How many were triggered into low self-esteem spirals because of it? Announcing a reward for weight reduction, demonising natural bodies, is abusive on a widespread scale. It is discriminatory in the workplace, obviously – but more insidiously, it propagates and indeed celebrates appearance-based discrimination in the world itself.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express in April 2022. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.