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Should Obese People Be Protected Against Discrimination?

Discrimination against overweight people may be more common than sex discrimination or racial discrimination, according to researchers. In a thought-provoking report called Weighty Concerns, sociologists Samantha Kwan, Ph.D. and Mary Nell Trautner, Ph.D. write, "Regardless of [a] more socially progressive mindset, sizeism remains commonplace and often unquestioned."

The researchers assert that people and businesses tend to believe obese people are not only lazy and less productive than their svelte co-workers, but put a drain on resources because they have more chronic illness. Both stem from prejudices and neither has been proven, they say.

The writers, along with activists, call for some form of anti discrimination legislation. Here are some points that support their case:

  • Obesity is associated with an 18 percent reduction in wages and a 25 percent reduction in family income.
  • In one study, researchers asked subjects to evaluate an applicant's qualifications or job performance where the applicant's weight was manipulated through photographs, videos, or written vignettes. They found a bias against overweight applicants and workers.
  • Eugene Kutcher and Jennifer Bragger wrote in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, "...research has shown that overweight job applicants are viewed as possessing negative job related traits, such as laziness, lack of self-discipline, greediness, selfishness, and carelessness."
  • In our society of self-determination, being overweight is often viewed as a personal choice and a moral failing, and therefore fat people are blamed for their weight issues, wrote Kwan and Trautner.
  • Though the media propagates the idea that obesity causes much of today's chronic health conditions, research shows that you can be overweight and fit if you exercise. Similarly you can be skinny and unfit.
  • Some employers claim that hiring attractive workers is necessary for their business to thrive. The authors write, "Companies sometimes use this argument to defend their preference for thin employees, maintaining that overweight employees might damage corporate image or compromise business."
  • Currently the only legal recourse overweight people have is to claim that their weight is a disability, which is not usually the case unless someone is morbidly obese.
  • Only Michigan and a few cities and counties (including San Francisco, Urbana, IL, and Madison, WI)
    protect against discrimination by height, weight, or other physical characteristics. Though many claim that might open the floodgate to frivolous lawsuits, that has not been the case in these localities.
The authors conclude
The deeply ingrained Western belief that the fat body is a personal shortcoming suggests that eradicating sizeism will be a formidable task. Some fat acceptance activists, with the backing
of legal scholars and social scientists, champion weight as a protected legal category, akin to sex or race. Yet changes in the law are just one of many cultural and social structural reforms that would be needed to create a more tolerant environment for people of legislation may pave the way for changes to prevent size discrimination, beginning with greater public awareness and a dialogue about the deleterious health effects, both physical and mental, that often come with conformity to rigid cultural body norms.
Laurie Tarkan is an award-winning health journalist who writes for the New York Times, national magazines and websites. Follow her on twitter. Photo courtesy of Flickr user churchstreetmarketplace.