The Heavy Truth About Weight Discrimination
November 23, 2011 Media Source:
Insight Into Diversity Magazine Written By:
"Do I look fat in this?"
How many times have we uttered or heard those words, not giving a second thought to the negative connotation that goes with them. These are the kinds of comments that influence children as young as the age of 3 to develop a bias against overweight people, according to Rebecca Puhl, Ph.D., Director of Research at the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University.
Puhl says that we learn this type of behavior from seemingly benign comments (called “fat talk”) that adults, especially women, make. Besides their parents, children pick up the negative connotations from the media, even children’s media. Overweight individuals are typically portrayed as lazy, mean, and lonely, with poor self-control. The attitudes children have toward overweight kids continues through school. “Although schools have developed stronger anti-bullying policies in recent years, weight is not really on the radar,” Puhl says.
Puhl states that in the past 10 years, weight discrimination has increased by 66 percent—and not because more people are obese. “That was taken into account,” she says. Instead, the discrimination seems to be more pervasive. “More people are reporting it. Compared with other forms of discrimination, it’s the third most common for women, the fourth most common for men.” The bias against weight pervades many areas of life, including employment and education.
The obesity penalty
Studies have found that there is an economic penalty to being obese, known as the “obesity wage penalty.” Obese women earn up to 6 percent less than their thinner counterparts for doing exactly the same job. For men, it’s up to 3 percent less.
Overweight people are also hurt in the hiring process. Dr. Puhl indicates that in a study where resumes were identical, the overweight person was much less likely to be hired than a thin person, and the overweight individual was awarded a lower salary. In some cases, thin applicants were preferred even when they were less qualified.
Jay Stephany, Seeker of Talent at Goodwill Industries of North Central Wisconsin Inc., can see how bias against overweight individuals can occur in hiring. “[Research indicates that] we form an opinion of someone in the first five seconds of meeting them,” he says. “We do this subconsciously, whether we want to or not. In an interview situation, the rest of the interview is spent either validating that impression, or working to overcome it.”
Can thinness be a BFOQ?
Bruce Hurwitz, Ph.D., President and Chief Executive Officer of Hurwitz Strategic Staffing, Ltd. in New York, says that he learned of an incident (not associated with his agency) where a heart association failed to hire an obese person to represent them because it would have run counter to their message. The person’s resume was perfect, the phone interview went great, and the individual’s references were stellar, but the hiring process ended after the in-person interview. The association said they simply couldn’t hire a person who weighs 300 pounds to represent heart health.
Hurwitz says, “Have you ever seen an obese person working at the reception desk of a health club? Someone with bad skin working at a dermatologist's office? Or someone with bad teeth at a dentist's office? It's not because of their race, gender, or religion, it's because they do not fit the image the employer wants.” Hurwitz does not necessarily condone such hiring practices, but sees evidence that they do exist.
Whether such practices are legal with regard to overweight individuals is a debatable point, according to John Mahoney, a partner in the law firm of Tully Rinckey PLLC in Washington, D.C. Mahoney says that technically, weight discrimination is not covered by federal law, so overweight people are not a protected class. Only the state of Michigan has a law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of weight, as do a few local jurisdictions, including the District of Columbia.
It is acceptable to discriminate if an otherwise protected characteristic (like race or sex) is a bona fide occupational qualification (BFOQ)? An example would be a requirement that a female be hired for a job because the job requires modeling of women’s apparel. But the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is very strict in terms of what is allowed as a BFOQ, and Mahoney doesn’t believe “corporate image” is a strong enough justification to allow discrimination on the basis of weight.
Obese find some protection under the ADA
Some individuals, however, are finding protection from discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Joni Kletter, an attorney with Meyer, Suozzi, English & Klein, P.C. in New York, says that the EEOC has seen in increase in filings of disability discrimination, and obesity is a part of that. With the passage of the ADA Amendments Act, which came into effect in 2009, walking is now considered a major life activity. Kletter says we are just starting to see cases based on the revised law work their way through the court system.
In Lowe v. American Eurocopter (N.D. Miss. 2010), a woman sued her employer alleging, in part, that she was terminated because she was disabled. She claimed not only that she was substantially limited in the life activity of walking due to her obesity, but also that her employer regarded her as disabled because of her weight. Whereas under the former ADA she would not have been covered as a person with a disability, under the amended ADA her case was allowed to move forward.
In its ruling, the Court stated: “[A] plaintiff now might be considered disabled due to obesity under the ADA if her employer perceived her weight as an impairment." And this is true whether or not an individual’s weight actually is an impairment.
Employers’ misconceptions of obesity can, in fact, lead to lawsuits. On September 27, 2011, the EEOC filed a lawsuit against BAE Systems in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas (Houston Div.), alleging that an employee was fired because of his obesity. He was able to perform the essential functions of his job and had received positive performance reviews. However, according to the Complaint, he was told he was being terminated because he could no longer perform his job duties due to his weight.
Discrimination in higher education
Weight discrimination is found at institutions of higher learning, as well. In her review “Bias, Discrimination, and Obesity1,” Dr. Puhl finds that overweight students receive poor evaluations and poor college acceptances and also face dismissal because of their weight. In fact, obese students were much less likely to be accepted to college despite having equivalent academic performance to students who were not obese.
In a survey of over 2,400 overweight and obese individuals, 32 percent said that teachers and professors have been the source of stigma because of their weight, and 21 percent said they faced discrimination from that source multiple times. In “The Stigma of Obesity: A Review and Update2,” Puhl indicates that “…weight bias among educators may influence obese students’ academic performance as early as elementary school.”
Socially accepted stigma
Puhl notes that weight stigma is a socially acceptable form of discrimination that is largely ignored. “There seems to be a public perception that the stigma against obesity is justifiable because it provides motivation for people to lose weight,” she says. “But what we find is that the opposite is true. The social stigma causes binge eating, exercise avoidance, and other behaviors that lead to increased obesity.”
According to Puhl, the psychological effects of weight stigma are tremendous for both children and adults. Such individuals face a higher likelihood of depression, low self-esteem, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts and behavior. Stigma is a form of stress, and this is a chronic and daily stressor for overweight individuals.
With two-thirds of the population struggling with weight, this type of stigma can affect a large number of people. “This is a social injustice as well as a public health issue,” Puhl says.
Susan Borowski is a contributing writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity magazine.
1 Puhl, Rebecca and Brownell, Kelly. Bias, Discrimination, and Obesity, Obesity Research 2001; 9:788–805.
2 Puhl, Rebecca and Heuer, Chelsea. The Stigma of Obesity: A Review and Update, Obesity 2009, 17 5: 941–964.
Originally published in our November 15 issue (December 2011).