BY MELODY CHERNY: In Massachusetts, like most states, it’s legal to hire, promote or fire an employee on the basis of weight. It’s also legal to deny housing, public accommodations, insurance or credit because of a person’s weight. Many classes are legally protected from discrimination (race, color, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation and ancestry) but weight is not. Massachusetts House Bill 1758, sponsored by Representative Byron Rushing (D), would amend the civil rights law to include weight and height as protected classes. In a state where nearly two in three adults are overweight or obese, this bill has profound implications.
“Thinness has come to symbolize important values in our society, values such as discipline, hard work, ambition and willpower. If you’re not thin, then you don’t have them,” says Dr. Rebecca Puhl, Director of Research and Weight Stigma Initiatives at the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity.
It’s no secret that American society values thinness. One need only to turn on the television or flip through a magazine to see that thinness is next to godliness, yet paradoxically most Americans are overweight. The media constantly shows photos and videos of overweight people from the neck down, often eating junk food. With such rampant weight stigma, it’s no surprise that overweight and obese people are routinely judged as lazy, sloppy, incompetent, disagreeable and slow. Weight discrimination is considered a socially acceptable form of prejudice and research suggests it has increased 66% in the last decade, now rivaling the prevalence of racial discrimination.
Despite all of this, one study found that 65% of men and 81% of women support workplace anti-discrimination legislation targeting weight. This high level of support may reflect the fact that weight discrimination occurs at every level of employment, with women being the most frequent targets.
This is not the first time that weight discrimination legislation has been proposed. A similar bill was introduced in Massachusetts in 2007, but it didn’t pass. To date, Michigan is the only state where weight discrimination is illegal; it’s illegal in only six cities including San Francisco and Madison, Wisconsin.
Weight discrimination is a controversial issue that is too often ignored. One argument against the inclusion of weight in civil rights law is that it would incite a wave of lawsuits and negatively impact businesses. Though possible, this is unlikely. Michigan’s law has been in place for 30 years and has resulted in few lawsuits.
Another argument is that individuals who are overweight and obese have existing legal protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In 2008, the definition of disability was broadened to include “substantially limiting physical impairments.” Morbid obesity falls under this definition; therefore, reasonable accommodations must be made. But not all morbidly obese individuals consider themselves disabled, nor should it be a prerequisite to gain legal protection against discrimination. It should be noted that the ADA does not consider overweight or obesity a disability, which leaves a wide gap in legal protection.
A third common argument is that weight discrimination motivates people to lose weight and maintain a healthy lifestyle. But research does not support this. In fact, those that experience weight discrimination are more likely to overeat, avoid exercise, develop eating disorders and experience psychological problems like depression. It’s crucial that public health efforts continue to promote healthy weight without promoting weight stigma or discrimination.
Finally, it is commonly believed that weight is a matter of personal responsibility in which government has no place to intervene. Unfortunately, this ignores the host of complexities associated with weight. Overweight is tied to social, environmental and genetic factors and disproportionately affects racial minorities and low income individuals. It’s not as simple as eating less and moving more. If it were, obesity would not be a massive public health problem.
As for Massachusetts House Bill 1758, a hearing took place on June 25 and on October 9 the Labor and Workforce Development Committee voted 7-1 to move the bill forward in the Legislature. There is still a ways to go, but the outlook is promising. If Massachusetts House Bill 1758 passes, perhaps other cities and states will follow suit and set the precedence that weight discrimination will not be tolerated.