After being laid off from her job at cable television provider Comcast, Shavonne Patrice Owens thought she had finally landed a new job last year at a child care centre in Huntsville, Alabama. A friend had recommended her and when she went for an interview, she was introduced to the children and staff.

Even when they’re able to do the job competently, obese people routinely face discrimination in the workplace

She followed up with multiple phone calls but they were never returned. “I had worked in a day care centre before and was qualified for the position, but they told my friend they weren’t going to hire me because I was too big,” says Owens, who is nearly six feet tall and weighs more than 500lb (227kg). During the interview, she had reassured them that despite her weight, she could easily sit on the floor and interact with the children.

Even when they’re able to do the job competently, obese people routinely face discrimination in the workplace. While discrimination against employees because of their sex, age, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion or disabilities is illegal in a growing number of countries, including the UK, many businesses still consider it perfectly acceptable to refuse to hire — or to fire — obese individuals.

Obesity is one of the categories where we still do think it’s OK to discriminate

“Obesity is absolutely one of the few stigmatised categories where we still do think it’s OK to discriminate,” says Enrica Ruggs, assistant professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

“It’s especially interesting that it’s still so pervasive a stigma with so many people in the United States who are overweight.”

Drawing the line

Obesity is generally defined as a body mass index  (BMI) of more than 30, while morbid obesity is a BMI of more than 40. (BMI can be calculated by dividing your weight in kilograms by the square of your height in meters. Normal weight is considered to be a BMI between 18.5 and 24.9.)

Employers often misjudge the abilities of obese people and presume they can’t handle difficult tasks or work long periods without getting tired. Some overweight people may actually be quite strong and have high endurance levels. “You need to judge the individual person and not assume because people are large that they can’t do certain physical things,” says Abigail Saguy, a sociology professor at the University of California at Los Angeles and author of the book What’s Wrong with Fat.  “Some large people are very fit; there are people who fall in the obese category, but run marathons.”

There are people who fall in the obese category, but run marathons

Ruggs conducted a study to determine whether overweight men faced discrimination in retail stores as job applicants or customers. Men of normal weight first visited some stores looking like themselves, and then went to other stores wearing overweight prosthetics. What Ruggs found was that the men who appeared to be overweight experienced “interpersonal discrimination,” meaning more subtle expressions of bias. Employees they interacted with smiled less, made less eye contact, stood farther away from them, and tried to end the encounter more quickly than with men of normal weight.

Worse for women

Some studies show that obese women encounter more discrimination than obese men. Scientists at the University of Exeter have found evidence that simply being a more overweight woman leads to lower opportunities in life, including lower income. They studied 70 genetic variants associated with body mass index, using data from 120,000 participants in the UK Biobank who were between 40 and 70 years old.

“Genetic variation that makes a woman a bit fatter also makes her a bit poorer,” says Tim Frayling, professor of human genetics. According to the study, if a woman was a stone (6.3kg) heavier for no other reason than her genetics, she would have an income £1,500 ($1,867) less per year than a thinner woman of the same height.

Even when obese women get jobs involving customer contact, they earn less than other women

Obese women also are more likely than normal-weight women to work in jobs with an emphasis on physical activity, such as home health care, food preparation and childcare, and are less likely to hold positions that involve public interaction, according to a study by Jennifer Bennett Shinall, assistant professor of law at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. Furthermore, she found an “obesity wage penalty” for heavyset women compared with women of normal weight. That’s partly because jobs requiring physical labour tend to pay less than those with more public interaction, but Shinall also found that even when obese women get jobs involving customer contact, they earn less than other women.

“Society places more emphasis on women’s appearance, so one possible explanation is taste-based discrimination,” says Shinall.“Employers may be concerned that their customers consider obesity less palatable for women than for men and want to keep obese women out of jobs requiring interaction with the public.”

Calling for change

The Obesity Action Coalition, based in Tampa, Florida, has developed a guide for employers around the world  about weight bias in the workplace and ways to reduce it. For example, it urges companies to include body weight bias as part of diversity programs, add “weight” to anti-bullying policies and conduct sensitivity training for hiring managers.

David Brittman, who has been overweight much of his life, recalls going to diversity training at a law firm where the Korean-American and African-American women leading the workshop talked about sex, racial, ethnic and religious discrimination. When he told them they were missing an entire group — fat people — they laughed and said they didn’t feel those employees were discriminated against.

Now retired, Brittman says his forthrightness reduced the number of insults he received. “I wasn’t the typical milquetoast fat person sitting in a corner and bemoaning my fate,” he says. But he occasionally was the subject of joking. While working as supervisor of the word processing centre at a dental school, he recalls, “another manager said everybody better move because David’s getting on the elevator.” He reported the incident to the human resources department but was told that it wasn’t a reportable offense. (His top weight was 461lb/209kg; now he is about 275lb/125kg.)

Setting legal precedent

Employees generally have little, if any, legal protection unless the courts consider their obesity a disability. In the US, only the state of Michigan and some cities have laws barring discrimination based on body weight. The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has brought several suits against employers by using the federal law prohibiting discrimination against disabled people, but with limited success so far.

In the US, only the state of Michigan and some cities have laws barring discrimination based on body weight

“The challenge with this type of legislation is that many obese people aren’t disabled by their weight so disability-focused laws may not provide protection against all instances of weight discrimination,” says Rebecca Puhl, deputy director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at the University of Connecticut.

Most courts have rejected the disability argument. Earlier this year, a US federal appeals court ruled that a man’s obesity wasn’t a disability and affirmed a lower court’s ruling that he didn’t have a discrimination case against BNSF Railway. The company hadn’t hired him for a machinist position when it learned that his BMI exceeded 40, too high for its safety-sensitive jobs.

In that case, the appeals court said that obesity must result from an underlying physiological disorder or condition to be considered a physical impairment under disability law. But the EEOC did win a settlement of $125,000 in 2012 from a drug-treatment facility that fired an employee allegedly because of her obesity. In that case, the US federal court ruled that severe obesity may qualify as a disability regardless of whether or not it is caused by a physiological disorder.

“If a court accepts morbid obesity as an impairment, then an employer is going to have to show that a person they didn’t hire can’t do the job or would pose a threat because of their obesity,” says Christopher Kuczynski, assistant legal counsel at the EEOC.

The European Court of Justice also has ruled that obese employees would be protected only if they were disabled by their weight. The ruling came in a case involving a Danish childminder who was dismissed by the local municipality from the job he had held for more than 14 years. Following the European Court’s decision, the Kolding City Court in Denmark did not find evidence that he couldn’t perform his duties and ruled against him. The case is now on appeal to the High Court in Denmark.

People would make comments assuming I wasn’t as smart as other people because of my weight

“He could perform his job satisfactorily, but his obesity entailed a limitation in the performance of his job: For example, he had more trouble getting up and down from the floor to play with the children and couldn’t run or walk as fast as the children,” says Jacob Sand, the plaintiff’s attorney.

Because obesity can have more damaging effects on women than men in the workplace, Shinall, the Vanderbilt professor, says she believes that the government could bring action against some employers for violating the law barring sex discrimination. Indeed, the EEOC successfully sued US airlines in the early 1990s for sex discrimination because they required female flight attendants to meet certain weight standards.

Coping with comments

Some people have developed coping techniques when they encounter obesity discrimination or simply fat jokes in the workplace. Valinda Royal was once fired from a dental clinic because a new dentist joining the practice “wasn’t comfortable” with her size and with her working with patients. She complained and the clinic ended up settling with her for about $1,000.

“Sometimes through the years, people would make comments assuming I wasn’t as smart as other people because of my weight,” she recalls. “But I learned years ago to not let insults about my weight or discrimination tear me up. Some things in life are what you make of them; you don’t have to let people make you feel bad about yourself.”

Over time, she received valuable support from her family and developed strong self-esteem. “You can also teach people how to treat you, to give you respect when you want it,” says Royal, now a psychiatric counsellor living in Gaithersburg, Maryland, who stands five feet tall and weighs about 250lb. “For example, I asked direct questions like, ‘Is something bothering you?’ when someone wasn’t treating me right. Most of the time, they’d stop acting that way around me.”

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