You read that right: There are currently no federal U.S. laws that protect people from weight-based discrimination, and only a handful of cities and states have such legislation on the books.
Professor Esther Rothblum, who co-edited The Fat Studies Reader and has spent her career researching weight stigma and LGBT relationships, credits the normalization of anti-fatness with the lack of legal protections. “People really hate to admit that they’re sexist or racist or ageist,” Rothblum tells WBEZ’s Reset. “But if you ask people about fat oppression, they will tell you they hate fat people.”
This extends to hiring practices and the workplace. Rothblum has conducted studies where participants evaluate identical résumés accompanied by either a photo of a thin woman or a photo of a woman who weighed slightly more. “We had college students rate the résumé,” Rothblum says. “What we found is that when students got the resume that was accompanied by the fatter woman they rated her more negatively.” They rated the slightly larger woman lower in areas such as supervisory potential, self-discipline, professional appearance, personal hygiene, and ability to do a physically strenuous job.”
While there are no federal measures protecting fat people specifically from workplace discrimination, lawyer Brandie Solovay emphasizes that state and federal disability regulations may protect some fat workers. Solovay runs the Fat Legal Advocacy, Rights, & Education Project. “We never want to discourage to reach out in case they are being discriminated against based on their weight,” Solovay tells Reset. “They should definitely contact a nonprofit in their area, a lawyer, or even Fat Legal Advocacy, Rights, & Education Project.”
Corporate recruiter Michelle Duffie wrote about combating workplace fatphobia on LinkedIn. “I’m not asking for the moon and the stars, I’m asking to be treated like everybody else,” Duffie tells Reset. “If companies could employ more opportunities to decrease unconscious bias—or make their recruiting teams more aware of when unconscious bias creeps in—I think fat people would have a better chance at getting opportunities at workplaces.”
Rothblum agrees that, “It’s really important to hire employees in a way that doesn’t focus on their appearance so much.” She adds that promotions based on objective criteria and body diversity in marketing materials would also help create more inclusive workplaces.
Here are some facts and figures about weight-based discrimination in the workplace:
In the United States, only two states and a handful of cities have laws explicitly prohibiting weight-based employment discrimination.
Fat people make less money than their thin peers.
But it’s tricky to put a number on the so-called “weight penalty” because salary goes down as weight goes up—especially for women.
Fat people are less likely to get hired in public-facing positions, and they’re more likely to get passed over for promotions or raises.
Weight-based discrimination starts to affect women at a much lower weight than men.
Anti-fatness permeates every level of the employee experience, including office infrastructure. For example, some corporations invest in high-end furniture that does not support or fit larger bodies.
This is Part 4 of Reset’s Bias Against Bodies series. Sarah Stark is a freelance producer for Reset. You can follow her @itssarahstark.