A category of discrimination that does not yet have federal protection is discrimination on the basis of weight. Weight discrimination in the workplace is quite prevalent but remains unprotected nearly everywhere in the U.S. One troubling 2023 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management revealed that half of people managers indicated a tendency to favor interacting with “healthy weight” employees.
A study specifically regarding weight discrimination in hiring processes illustrated how much one’s size can inappropriately impact their employment opportunities. The results indicated that job applicants experiencing obesity were rated as less suitable compared to candidates of average weight or candidates whose sizes were not revealed. Female applicants experiencing obesity were identified as more likely to be discriminated against than their male counterparts. Finally, those applying to more physically demanding occupations were deemed as less suitable for the role when experiencing obesity. Evidence in other studies have noted that people experiencing obesity are perceived as having “less leadership potential” and “expected to be less successful.”
Countless employees report facing bias, prejudice, and even harassment day in and day out due to weight. From being passed over for promotions to enduring harassing comments, the impact of weight animus on one’s career and mental well-being cannot be overstated. Sadly, as we know, this animus extends across society, from kindergarten bullying to disparate treatment by healthcare workers to employment discrimination.
The rise of social media and digital platforms has fostered the proliferation of fat-shaming, trolling, and cyberbullying. However, social media has also provided room for marginalized voices. Those of bigger sizes have successfully harnessed their power to normalize varying body sizes on screens and find camaraderie and support. Social media has also allowed for society as a whole to engage in and be exposed to conversations about body positivity. Although weight discrimination has long been ignored, it seems that American society is finally starting to validate this form of discrimination & seek remedies for those experiencing it.
Just two weeks ago, New Jersey advanced a bill that could make it the second state in the country to render unlawful discrimination based on weight. The last state to do this was Michigan—back in 1976. From coast to coast, cities across the nation have successfully obtained protection against weight discrimination, including New York City, Binghamton, Washington, DC, Madison, Santa Cruz, and San Francisco. The country has a very long way to go, but momentum for protecting this trait has markedly increased. Several other jurisdictions across the U.S. are presently working to pass similar bills, including Vermont, Massachusetts, and New York.
While Texas does not yet have any active legislation to protect against weight discrimination, several Fifth Circuit courts have made moves in the right direction. Unlike most jurisdictions across the country, multiple district courts in the Fifth Circuit have held that obesity can be an actual or perceived disability under the ADA, regardless of whether there is an underlying physiological condition.
Unfortunately, last year, the Supreme Court of Texas chipped away at this progress. According to Dr. Niehay, a former medical resident at Texas Tech, she was discriminatorily terminated due to her weight. The question before the court was whether morbid obesity qualified as an impairment under the Texas Commission on Human Rights Act without any evidence that it was caused by an underlying physiological disorder or condition. The Court held that unless an underlying physiological disorder or condition causes the obesity, the obesity itself does not qualify as a disability.
This setback highlights the importance of making weight a protected class of its own. This way, workers can confront weight discrimination head-on. Every employee deserves to be treated with dignity, respect, and fairness, regardless of size. Hopefully, the momentum we see now will help us to foster a more inclusive work environment for all.