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Weight Bias: The Next Civil Rights Issue?

Weight Bias: The Next Civil Rights Issue?

As a war against obesity heats up, some Americans are fighting back, and demanding equal rights for people of all shapes and sizes.

From the Rights Stuff Newsletter, Summer 2010


weightbiasDiscrimination against people who are overweight is as common as racial discrimination, according to a study at Yale University published in the International Journal of Obesity. For those who would challenge such discrimination, the study confirmed what many say has long been abundantly clear: bias against people who are considered fat is pervasive — in employment, education, public accommodations, and virtually all aspects of our society.

Those who are overweight earn less than non-overweight people in comparable positions, are less likely to be hired in the first place or considered for a promotion, and are often viewed as lazy or lacking in self-discipline by employers and coworkers. Over a 40-year career, a worker who is overweight is likely to earn $100,000 less than a person who is thinner, according to another study, and women are stigmatized and financially penalized more than men for extra pounds. In the Yale study, women were twice as likely as men to report that they had been discriminated against in the workplace because of their size.

While most would agree that America has at least made progress in ending discrimination based on race, gender and other characteristics protected under federal and state laws, the discrimination people who are overweight experience every day has in fact become worse over the past few years, some evidence suggests. The increase in discrimination may be surprising, given that Americans are fatter than ever. In fact, more than 60 percent of us are considered overweight, and more than one-quarter of us (26.9 percent nationally) are considered obese.

As a result of what has been called an obesity epidemic, some health experts have declared a virtual war on fat, and responded to what they see as a health crisis by encouraging everyone to lose weight, with the help of employer-sponsored wellness programs and an extensive media campaign.

But while such efforts may be well-intentioned, they may also lead to the further stigmatization of people who are overweight, and to even more discrimination. "Wait a minute," some would say, "Yes, it can be unhealthy to be fat. But thin people can be unhealthy, too. People can be both fat and healthy." Public relations campaigns that focus on fat are wrong-headed, some argue, and likely to be counterproductive, since 90 percent of dieters ultimately regain the weight they lost.

Weight is not a protected characteristic in Minnesota, under the state Human Rights or any other Minnesota or federal law. That means it is generally not illegal for an employer to refuse to hire, fire, or treat an employee or job applicant adversely because the employer believes they are too fat (or too skinny, or doesn't like something else about their physical appearance.) But it can be illegal to discriminate against a person who is overweight in some circumstances. 

Examples that range from the probable to the possible include:

• If an employer engages in gender discrimination by having different standards for women than for men when it comes to weight and fitness

• If weight rises to the level of disability

• If the overweight person is perceived as disabled by the employer

• If a weight requirement has a disparate impact against another protected class, such as age

• If obesity causes a disability

• If obesity results from an underlying disability, such as an eating disorder, or a compulsive behavior (though some argue that this theory may be more speculative)

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