NYC considers legislation to protect against weight discrimination

Body positivity advocates say awareness and discussion is necessary to curb fatphobia.
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· 5 min read

Progress has been made over the last several decades to protect people from discrimination in the workplace based on sex, race, disability, and age. But it’s still legal in much of the US to pass over an applicant based solely on their weight and size. Now, some localities are starting to change that.

Impacts of weight discrimination. Weight bias (also referred to as fatphobia) is prevalent across countries, including the US, Canada, and the UK, where 54%–62% of almost 14,000 WW International (formerly WeightWatchers) participants report experiencing weight bias from coworkers, according to a 2021 study in the International Journal of Obesity (IJO). Weight bias is defined as “negative weight-related attitudes, beliefs, assumptions, and judgments toward individuals who are overweight and obese,” according to authors in the Journal of Eating Disorders, and is associated with higher rates of stress, depression, and unhealthy relationships with food for those who experience it, according to the IJO.

Megan Ixim, a body-positivity advocate and model, said she has received discrimination based on her size at both blue- and white-collar jobs. She told HR Brew that she can sense a company’s weight bias based on whether there is size diversity among current employees. “There have been instances where I felt like there was absolutely no way that I was going to be hired for positions solely based on the way that I look,” Ixim said. “It definitely felt like, if I didn’t fit a certain aesthetic because of my size, there’s absolutely no way I was going to be hired.”

Not only does discrimination impact overall well-being, it can also impact economic standing. Larger people are likely to experience discrimination in the hiring process and are viewed as less suitable for work, according to a study published in Frontiers in Psychology. Larger women are more likely to have lower-paying jobs than “average size women,” a 2014 study from Vanderbilt University found.

Legal exclusions. As the conversation around size bias continues, there are calls to reduce discrimination via legislation. The New York City Council recently became the latest legislative body to consider a law that would add size and weight as a protected class, since size discrimination is not currently part of any national worker protections. The legislation would protect people from being rejected from employment and housing based on their weight and size, and could be approved as early as May, reported the New York Times.

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While detractors, like the president of business advocacy group Partnership for New York City, told the NYT that the legislation is unnecessary and will only cause more litigation for employers, experts suggest that legal protections for larger people are overdue. Jennifer Shinall, a law professor at Vanderbilt University, told Vox that the law is needed in part because it could lead to bigger change. “If we protect weight as a protected class, it’s a signal that we care about weight bias, and particularly we care about eliminating weight bias,” she explained. “So, the law could go a long way in signaling that this association between obesity and laziness or obesity and lack of productivity is not real and needs to be eradicated.”

“Hopefully the legislation will be preventative in some ways…[we] want it to be a tool to get employers to consider not doing that discrimination in the first place,” Tigress Osborn, chair of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA), told HR Brew.

With or without regulations. Regardless of weight discrimination laws, advocates tell HR Brew that workplaces should actively work to reduce fat bias.

“When you establish that it is a priority to treat fat people equitably in the workplace, then you have to start thinking about how to treat fat people equitably in the workplace,” Osborn said. She explained that it’s vital for HR departments to have written policies around size inclusivity because it likely hasn’t been something they’ve thought much about.

HR leaders need to be honest with themselves about their representation of size at the company, and how to recognize their own biases, she emphasized, “How can a workplace claim to be representative of their community with no fat people? That doesn’t make any sense.”.

Cristina Jimenez, global head of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging at RHR International, a leadership consulting firm, said that HR leaders should look at their policies, find where there may be bias, and invest in education. “We keep coming back to training and awareness of our hiring managers and our hiring leaders, and making sure that they understand not just the standard biases that occur, but actually, we do more straightforward education as it relates to weight discrimination,” she said.—KP

Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.