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New York City Mayor Eric Adams has signed into law a measure banning discrimination based on height and weight in employment, housing and public accommodations.
New York now joins a handful of U.S. cities including San Francisco; Madison, Wisconsin; and Urbana, Illinois, along with the states of Michigan and Washington, in adding body size to the list of protected characteristics. But everywhere else in the country, people who experience body-size discrimination aren’t protected.
Tracy Cox has been a professional opera singer for over a decade, and she’s performed with some prestigious companies like the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
But early in her career, mentors and colleagues convinced her that she needed to be smaller to succeed.
“I felt that they were right, that I owed my talent a different body,” Cox said.
Cox came to believe that cruel comments about her appearance — even suggestions that she get weight loss surgery — were just part of the job.
“From that point of view of, I’m just trying to help you succeed because this is the reality of the business,” she said, “But the fact of the matter is I was at work being really blatantly stigmatized.”
She understands now that she was working in a hostile environment. At the time in New York City, discrimination based on body size was perfectly legal.
“Culturally we still tend to view size discrimination as the fault of the individual fat person,” said Natalie Boero, a sociologist at San Jose State University.
She says the misconception that people are in control of the size of their bodies gets used to justify all sorts of discrimination.
“That fat people are paid less, that fat people are hired less often, that fat people are less likely to have jobs that provide benefits like retirement,” Boero said.
And when you add all of those disadvantages up over a lifetime, “you see a huge economic impact for larger people,” she said.
Bans against body-size discrimination at least give victims some legal recourse.
“What we actually want to see is people not needing to file those complaints because employers and landlords and people who make decisions about public spaces are now incentivized to do the right thing in the first place,” said Tigress Osborne with the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance.
And to employers and landlords who fear expensive lawsuits under new protections, Osborne said, “I also think people should be looking at all the money that they are leaving on the table because they are excluding or ignoring fat people.”
Those losses can also include talent. Tracy Cox has a successful opera career, but she knows many other performers who’ve left the business rather than be bullied.
“Fat artists are being traumatized by this industry. Literally traumatized,” Cox said.
She hopes the changing legal landscape in New York, which is home to the largest opera company in North America, will make the whole industry safer for those singers.
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