Thin is good. Fat is bad. Even though more and more body positivity movements challenge this ideal, American culture still uses weight as a quick measure of a person’s intelligence, health, beauty, and worth. Roughly 42% of U.S. adults experience weight discrimination, also known as “sizeism.” Yet, no federal laws prohibit discrimination based on weight. The same is true in 49 states.
Weight-based discrimination can come in many forms. If you are overweight by society’s standards, you’re more likely to earn less at work than your “normal weight” peers. Public spaces may not be designed for you (think buses or theaters). Or you may have an undiagnosed medical condition unrelated to weight, but your doctor might only prescribe weight loss for all health concerns.
To get a picture of the current landscape of weight discrimination laws, Rebecca M. Puhl identified cities and states where weight is a protected civil rights category. Only six cities in the country prohibit discrimination based on weight.
Washington state classifies obesity as a disability. State law now prohibits employers from refusing to hire a qualified candidate if they are, or appear to be, obese.
Michigan is the only state to make weight-based discrimination illegal. The Great Lakes State included weight as a protected civil rights category in the Elliot-Larson Civil Rights Act passed in 1976. “Weight” is not defined in the law, thereby protecting people of all shapes and sizes from discrimination in the workplace, housing, and public services. Almost 50 years later, Michigan remains the only state to prohibit weight discrimination.
Discrimination threatens all aspects of health regardless of body size, and weight discrimination is no different, increasing the risk of depression, eating disorders, and substance use disorders.
To push for anti-weight discrimination policies, Puhl recommends using the positive power of social media for advocacy and awareness. Puhl also found growing public support around including weight as a protected civil right. Massachusetts and New York may soon join Michigan in the club of states prohibiting body size discrimination.
Databyte via Rebecca M. Puhl. Weight stigma, policy initiatives, and harnessing social media to elevate activism. Body Image, 2022.