Scenes from a National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance rally in New York. Getty Images
"This Is Uncomfortable" Newsletter

This is why weight discrimination is legal in most of the U.S.

Hannah Harris Green, Marika Proctor, and Tony Wagner Mar 29, 2024
Scenes from a National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance rally in New York. Getty Images

This week’s episode is all about bias against certain body types, how that bias can knock careers off course, and the surprisingly few workplace protections in place to guard against discrimination based on size.

When we’re telling a complex story like this, Team Uncomfortable consults a lot of experts to make sure we’re reporting accurately and sensitively. The research and reporting process can take months, and those conversations don’t always make it to the final product. When they do, you might only hear a small piece.

We’re all about showing our work around here. So to set up for this week’s story, we’re sharing some more highlights from our interview with Tigress Osborn, executive director of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance. Check out some edited excerpts below, and read to the end of this email for even more research material that informed this episode.

TIU: What does size discrimination in the workplace look like?

Osborn: Size discrimination in employment starts at the very beginning of the employment process and exists across everything that can happen to a person in their working life. Things like whether you can dress professionally for your job: Are you able to find clothing options that meet the expectations of your profession? If there are uniforms, are you able to fit those uniforms? Do they cost you more? What kind of barriers are there for you in getting started in a job? What is the physical space like at your job? Is it accommodating for you? Is it safe for you? Is it comfortable for you? And what is your employer willing to do to make accommodations if there’s something that you need?

As you move your way through your career, are you relegated to positions where you’re not dealing with the public, or are you limited because of perceptions of what people in your job are supposed to look like? Do attitudes or stereotypes about fat people affect you even when they are not true for you? Perceptions that fat people aren’t as smart or don’t work as hard, even when you are succeeding and excelling in your job, those kinds of perceptions can hold you back in terms of mentoring, in terms of opportunities for advancement.

TIU: What kind of jobs are most affected by anti-fatness?

Osborn: I think that for people who are new to thinking about employment discrimination and size, they might be like, “Well, you’re a model, you have to be the size of the clothes,” or, “You’re an actor, we expect actors to be handsome in a very particular way,” or something like that. I want people to question those assumptions, of course, but that can happen in any kind of profession. It’s not just that you showed up to be a Hooters girl and they didn’t think that you had the right look. It can be you showed up to be the receptionist, you showed up to work a sales position where you’re going to be interacting with the public — not just in retail, but in any kind of sales. There are lots of positions where there’s this idea that, because you’re a representative of the company, you’re supposed to look a certain way, even if you have all of the other qualifications or exceed all of the other qualifications for the job.

TIU: What laws are in place to protect folks from this kind of discrimination?

Osborn: Around the world, there are actually very few laws, and the United States has most of them. In Michigan, since the late 1970s, height and weight have been protected classes under their civil rights law. There are some protections in the state of Washington, through their state-level disability laws. Those are the only states. There’s active legislation pending in MassachusettsNew York, New Jersey and Vermont. And there are a couple of other states that are actively working on getting ready to introduce some new legislation in 2024. So I do think we’ll see more protections in the next few years, but most of the country is not explicitly protected. A handful of cities have prohibitions against size discrimination, the most recent of those is New York City, which just in November put into effect a law that bans size discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodation.

Now, if you live in a place that doesn’t have a law, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t still take your complaints to the local Human Rights Commission or Equal Opportunity Commission or whoever in your area might govern a complaint about discrimination. You should still take them forward.

TIU: Are these laws controversial? What are the arguments against them?

Osborn: Well, a lot of the arguments against these laws are based on the idea that obesity is a disease, and that if you are nicer to fat people, you’re somehow enabling their unhealthy behaviors. And that’s just an oversimplification of everything about size, health, mistreatment, all of it. There’s no research that shows us that treating fat people poorly enhances their lives and health. The idea that withholding civil rights protections from people could be a motivation for them to get healthier is, actually, a really dangerous idea, and one that we seem to only be wanting to apply to fat people. Another part of the argument is that fat is mutable. You could just change. If you don’t want to be discriminated against, just lose weight. It’s just not as simple as that for many people, and even if it were, is that the world we want to live in?

The other argument that we sometimes hear is that — especially in the case of employment discrimination — it’s just going to be so expensive to be more accommodating to fat people. It’s going to create all of these frivolous lawsuits, and it’s going to create all these burdens on the business community. In fact, again, Michigan has had this law since the late 1970s. We haven’t seen industry collapse in Michigan because of it. San Francisco has had a protection around height and weight for over 20 years now. People are still being employed in San Francisco, no businesses are being driven out of the city because of the extreme expense of being accommodating to fat people. That is just not something that is bearing out. In fact, if you create a more fair workplace, you open yourself up to the possibility of hiring more talented people and people who can be relatable to your customers and clients.

TIU: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Osborn: A lot of times we think about weight bias as just what happens between people and not about the systems that are around us. And size discrimination is actually about the systems. What does your workplace do? What does the medical establishment do? That’s not just about whether you feel cute as a fat person, or whether other people think you should lose weight. It’s actually systematized, and what we need is system change.

Defend Your Splurge with weight discrimination expert Virgie Tovar

Money messes with all our lives, but sometimes the right purchase at the right time can make things a little better. Tell us how you’ve treated yourself lately, and we’ll include the best stories in our newsletter!

This week’s splurge comes from author, lecturer and podcaster Virgie Tovar. She’s written several books, including “The Body Positive Journal” and “The Self-Love Revolution.” Most recently, Tovar’s been chronicling her wedding planning via the Substack “Fat Girl Gets Married.”

A woman poses sipping a fancy hot cocoa in a mug reading "The Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay."
Courtesy Virgie Tovar

“Do you want the fully loaded hot chocolate?” asked the smiling waiter at the Ritz-Carlton in Half Moon Bay, a tiny seaside town on Northern California’s coast known for its pumpkins and Christmas tree farms. Behind him are miles of blue ocean and undulating shoreline, a small putting green and other bougie hotel-type stuff. 

“What’s fully loaded hot chocolate?” I asked, bedazzled by the possibilities. I know about fully loaded baked potatoes, fully loaded tots, fully loaded nachos, but this was new territory. 

He went on to explain that this $35 concoction (to be fair, mug included!) comes piled high with whipped cream, marshmallows, KitKats, M&Ms and anything else you can think of that you’d trade for Garbage Pail Kid cards in third grade. 

“Yes, I’ll have that one!” I said, lustily. 

To me, this moment isn’t just about treating myself, it’s about a deep personal, political and financial history that’s tied to being a plus-size woman. 

A superlative treat like this was — at one time in my life — utterly unthinkable. Delicious food used to feel totally off limits to me as a plus-size woman. I bought into diet culture really young and it had its nasty vampiric fangs in me for way too long. For years, I mostly lived off of lean chicken, cans of tuna, iceberg lettuce and increasingly flavorless legumes. Rarely did I allow myself a dessert, nary even mayo on the aforementioned tuna. All of this was in the name of someday becoming thin.

To me, thinness wasn’t just about meeting the cultural standard of beauty or wellness. The story of my pursuit of thinness began when I was around 5 years old. That was the year that I learned from my peers that I was fat, that fat was the worst thing anyone could be, that people could be as mean to you as they wanted without any repercussions because I was fat, and that the only way to stop their cruelty was to — essentially — stop eating. I internalized this belief system, and it led to a lot of unfortunate things, including the belief that I wasn’t allowed to eat yummy things (like an overflowing cup of hot chocolate), and more importantly that I didn’t deserve to eat them. As I aged, I eventually ended up in grad school studying the long-term effects of weight-based discrimination on women. I found something called “fat activism,” the political and ideological parent of body positivity. It was there that I learned that I could stop punishing myself for being in a larger body and that, yes, I was allowed to eat foods I loved.

I would go on to become an author and lecturer, then a consultant who helped companies become more weight inclusive. I would teach them about how weight discrimination led to negative outcomes for plus-size women, including lost wages of up to $19,000 per year and a lifetime of hiring challenges due to weight bias (for example, research done in 2017 found that only 15% of recruiters said they’d hire a plus-size woman candidate). My professional life is living, breathing evidence of these outcomes. Similar to other plus-size women, I found it very difficult to find work outside of low-paying retail, education and care work jobs regardless of my qualifications because plus-size women are less likely to get higher-paid, client-facing positions. I had to start my own company in order to be taken seriously. As my job evolved, I saw all the spaces that plus-size women feel just aren’t “for us”: the travel space, the luxury space.   So, this Ritz-Carlton moment was about all that too. 

In short, my splurge is about healing my relationship to food and my body, it’s about asserting that women who look like me belong everywhere we want to be, and it’s about feeding that little girl who would have loved a big ol’ cup of fully loaded ho cho. 

The Comfort Zone

Further reading and listening that guided and inspired this week’s episode.

This newsletter was written and edited by Tony Wagner. Marika Proctor produces “Defend Your Splurge.” Hannah Harris Green produced our interview with Tigress Osborn.

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