Why We Should Take Weight Discrimination Seriously As a Workers’ Rights Issue

Bryce Covert

(Photobank gallery/shutterstock.com)

Near­ly 80 per­cent of Amer­i­can adults are either clin­i­cal­ly over­weight or obese. And yet the med­ical estab­lish­ment by and large has sub­scribed to the idea that the best solu­tion is to sim­ply make peo­ple lose weight. In a recent arti­cle in Huff­Post High­line, jour­nal­ist Michael Hobbes hit back at this con­ven­tion­al wis­dom, point­ing out that obe­si­ty and health can coex­ist and that 95 to 98 per­cent of attempts to lose weight fail. Skin­ny peo­ple, if they aren’t engag­ing in healthy activ­i­ties, are also at risk of poor health.

In the arti­cle, Hobbes writes of the incal­cu­la­ble” emo­tion­al costs peo­ple have paid for this wrong­head­ed way of view­ing obe­si­ty, includ­ing a woman whose class­mates sang Baby Bel­u­ga” as she board­ed the school bus or anoth­er who has passed out while on extreme diets.

But there are also costs in cold, hard cash that fat peo­ple pay in the work­place sim­ply for hav­ing larg­er bod­ies than their oth­er cowork­ers. Thanks to a grow­ing move­ment of self-iden­ti­fied fat peo­ple, a term many are reclaim­ing in an effort to push back against stig­ma, this work­place dis­crim­i­na­tion has received grow­ing scrutiny. 

Gen­er­al­ly speak­ing, peo­ple have been found to asso­ciate obe­si­ty with low com­pe­tence. In a recent sur­vey by Fairy­god­boss of 500 hir­ing pro­fes­sion­als, about 20 per­cent described a pho­to of a heav­ier woman as lazy” or unpro­fes­sion­al,” while less than 16 per­cent said they would con­sid­er hir­ing her. Anoth­er found that obese job can­di­dates were con­sid­ered to be less suit­able for jobs — both those that required phys­i­cal exer­tion and those that didn’t. Par­tic­i­pants in one study rat­ed some­one less employ­able if they found out she had lost weight through surgery instead diet and exer­cise. These were opin­ions formed even before actu­al­ly work­ing togeth­er, based sole­ly on fat people’s phys­i­cal char­ac­ter­is­tics, not their qual­i­fi­ca­tions or skills.

This can all quick­ly trans­late into a finan­cial bur­den. Both men and women who are obese are paid less than nor­mal” weight peers. The impact, how­ev­er, is felt more acute­ly among women. In 2008, data showed over­weight women made 14.6 per­cent less, a loss of near­ly $6,000. A 2010 study found that women suf­fer a decrease in pay for weight gain, espe­cial­ly if they start out very thin; that can add up to los­ing as much as $22,000 in salary.

Then there are work­place well­ness pro­grams, which tend to focus on get­ting employ­ees to lose weight. Well­ness pro­grams are weight con­trol pro­grams,” said Peg­gy How­ell, vice chair­woman and pub­lic rela­tions direc­tor at the Nation­al Asso­ci­a­tion to Advance Fat Accep­tance. But mul­ti­ple stud­ies have found that they don’t work and instead often only per­pet­u­ate stig­ma. The pro­grams are not effec­tive,” she said. When you have a well­ness pro­gram that forces employ­ees to par­tic­i­pate and lose weight you’ve gone wrong, gone astray. They should just total­ly dis­band them.”

Weight dis­crim­i­na­tion is com­mon. Over half of polled obese peo­ple in 2012 said they believed they had been dis­crim­i­nat­ed against in apply­ing for a job or ask­ing for a pro­mo­tion. It’s got­ten steadi­ly worse: the preva­lence of weight dis­crim­i­na­tion increased 66 per­cent between 1995 and 2005.

It turns out that bias against fat peo­ple is taught ear­ly, with chil­dren as young as three buy­ing into the stereo­type that fat is bad. Peo­ple are taught that hav­ing a large body size is bad … that it’s neg­a­tive, that it’s unhealthy, that it’s cost­ly, and the list goes on,” How­ell said. The whole atti­tude is that fat is dis­gust­ing and wrong and neg­a­tive in every way.”

All those things are not true,” she point­ed out. One study found that over­weight and obese peo­ple are no more like­ly to be less con­sci­en­tious, agree­able, extravert­ed or emo­tion­al­ly sta­ble. And yet we are all con­stant­ly sub­ject­ed to adver­tis­ing equat­ing thin bod­ies with health and virtue, espe­cial­ly from diet­ing com­pa­nies. When those are the mes­sages that we see con­stant­ly, every day on tele­vi­sion, in the papers, on the inter­net, every­where you look,” she said, peo­ple tend to believe those mar­ket­ing mes­sages even when they’re lies.”

This doesn’t just deny fat peo­ple their rights in the work­place. It also hurts their health. Peo­ple who expe­ri­ence weight dis­crim­i­na­tion face a high­er mor­tal­i­ty rate. How­ell also point­ed out that employ­ees bul­ly their heav­ier cowork­ers, which can cause both men­tal and phys­i­cal health problems.

The evi­dence of weight dis­crim­i­na­tion at work dates back at least as far as the ear­ly 1990s, when stud­ies start­ed to be pub­lished on the top­ic. And yet only one state, Michi­gan, and six cities — Bing­ham­ton, N.Y.; Madi­son, Wisc.; San Fran­cis­co, Calif.; San­ta Cruz, Calif.; Urbana, Ill.; and Wash­ing­ton, D.C. — ban dis­crim­i­na­tion based on body size. Every­where else it’s legal to deny some­one a job or bet­ter pay because they are fat.

Bills have been intro­duced in oth­er states but have yet to be enact­ed. Mass­a­chu­setts State Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Byron Rush­ing repeat­ed­ly intro­duced a bill in his state that nev­er got through, and he just lost his cam­paign for reelec­tion. Now, that effort might just with­er,” How­ell not­ed. A bill also got intro­duced in Neva­da but, accord­ing to How­ell, nev­er made it out of com­mit­tee, like­ly thanks to the polit­i­cal sway of casi­no owners.

There has also been lit­tle-to-no action at the fed­er­al lev­el. You real­ly have to have some­body who’s will­ing to cham­pi­on your bills for you,” How­ell said. We don’t have a cham­pi­on.” The chal­lenge is that there is so much stig­ma and neg­a­tiv­i­ty around larg­er body sizes. Nobody wants to be fat,” she point­ed out. Even most fat peo­ple don’t want to be fat.” So it’s dif­fi­cult to get peo­ple to sup­port a law sup­port­ing the rights of fat people.

Oppo­nents of anti-dis­crim­i­na­tion pro­tec­tions based on body size often protest that insti­tut­ing such laws will lead to a flur­ry of law­suits and over­bur­den the court sys­tem. But Michi­gan has had its law in place for three decades and has seen very few cas­es. In 2011, the state got 44 dis­crim­i­na­tion com­plaints, or 1.3 per­cent of all dis­crim­i­na­tion com­plaints, which was at the time a high. That is a fal­la­cy, it’s a proven fal­la­cy,” How­ell said. Not to men­tion, she point­ed out, that the goal of anti-dis­crim­i­na­tion leg­is­la­tion is not to inspire law­suits, but to pre­vent dis­crim­i­na­tion before it can even get to that point.

Some oppo­nents have also coun­tered that anti-dis­crim­i­na­tion laws cov­er immutable char­ac­ter­is­tics like sex or race and that weight is some­thing peo­ple can change. But, How­ell coun­tered, Weight is as her­i­ta­ble as your eye col­or.” Indeed, the chances of a woman clas­si­fied as obese achiev­ing a non-obese weight are 0.8 per­cent. Peo­ple blame fat peo­ple for being fat and they absolute­ly believe that we can change it whether or not we can,” How­ell underscored.

We’re sim­ply say­ing that regard­less of the size of your body, you deserve the same civ­il rights as every­body else — peri­od,” How­ell said. This is a civ­il rights issue. Why do we not have the same rights as oth­er peo­ple sim­ply based on their body size?”

Bryce Covert, a con­tribut­ing op-ed writer at the New York Times, has writ­ten for The New Repub­lic, The Nation, the Wash­ing­ton Post, the New York Dai­ly News, New York Mag­a­zine and Slate, and has appeared on ABC, CBS, MSNBC and NPR. She won a 2016 Excep­tion­al Mer­it in Media Award from the Nation­al Women’s Polit­i­cal Caucus.
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