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Working In These Times

Tuesday, Oct 9, 2018, 2:01 pm

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

BY Bryce Covert

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(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?”

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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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