Should laws be enacted to protect obese people from being denied employment or housing based on their weight? According to a study that looked at how these factors affect perceptions of obesity, weight bias, and weight discrimination laws, your gender, race, or your own weight may influence whether you answer yes to this question.
About half of Americans would support laws against weight discrimination, with those who had personally experienced weight bias about twice as likely to support the policy as people who did not. the findings, which were presented on June 7 at the annual meeting of the American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery (ASMBS). in Dallas.
Can I be denied a job or fired due to being overweight?
Weight bias is defined as negative attitudes, beliefs, judgments, stereotypes, and discriminatory actions directed at people simply because of their weight, according to Obesity Action Coalition (OAC)). It can be obvious or subtle and can happen in any setting – at work, in healthcare, at school, and even in personal relationships.
What exactly does weight shifting look like in practice? Let’s take a case Taylor v. Burlington Northern Railroad Holdings, Inc. Casey Taylor was a former Marine who sued after a railroad company made a conditional job offer, but then withdrew it when a physical examination showed his BMI (body mass index) was in the severely obese range. Taylor was 5’6″ tall and weighed 256 pounds, which translates to a BMI of 41.3.
A person with a BMI between 25 and 29.9 is considered overweight, while a person with a BMI over 30 is considered obese. According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, BMI is calculated based on a person’s weight and height, and the same formula is used for men and women.
Taylor was informed by the railroad company that their policy was not to hire anyone with a BMI over 35; to be able to start work on the railway, he will need to provide proof of satisfactory health by passing several tests (for which he will have to pay out of his own pocket), including a sleep study and an exercise tolerance test, or lose 10 percent of his body weight and keep it for six months.
Taylor stated that this was a violation of the Washington state anti-discrimination law. The case reached the Washington Supreme Court, where the court ruled in favor of Taylor. The Court ruled that obesity is a violation and therefore a protected disability.
But there are very few pieces of legislation like the one in Washington, says the study’s senior author. Fatima Cody Stanford, MD, MPH, Associate Professor and Physician in Obesity Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston. “There are no universal laws for weight discrimination in the US. With the exception of Washington, Michigan and a few cities, weight discrimination is legal,” she says.
People are more likely to support laws banning weight discrimination if they are affected by it
To learn more about how people feel about obesity bias, the researchers asked a diverse group of 1,888 adults to complete a 26-item online questionnaire; participants were as follows: 328 Asian or Pacific Islander, 404 Hispanic or Latino, 395 black, and 761 white. The questions covered issues such as whether obesity is a disease, what most Americans think about obesity, awareness of organizations that advocate for protection against obesity, and whether the participant supported laws against weight discrimination.
About half of Americans in general would support such legislation, and the researchers found several major predictors of support—or lack of it. “Adjusting for other variables, if you personally experienced a weight bias, you were twice as likely to support the policy. If you considered obesity to be a disease, it would be 1.8 times more likely,” says Matt Townsend, MDlead author and resident internal medicine physician at Duke Health in Durham, North Carolina.
“Interestingly, blacks and women were 1.4 times more likely to support anti-discrimination laws. We can only guess that the life experience of stigma is a powerful motivator for things to be fairer,” he says.
According to Dr. Stanford, it makes sense that people who have had to overcome racial and gender bias are more likely to support laws regarding weight bias. “These people probably face more weight discrimination just because they belong to a racial/ethnic group, are female, and then are obese,” she says.
Obesity was first recognized as a disease almost a decade ago.
American Medical Association (AMA) labeled obesity as a disease in 2013. Although it is influenced by behavioral factors, experts now recognize that genetics, environment, social determinants of health, and biological factors influenced by drugs, disease, and hormones all play a role.
Too much body weight for your height is associated with an increased risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and even certain types of cancer. More than two out of three US adults are estimated to be overweight or obese. US Department of Health and Human Services.
When people are overweight, other people make a lot of assumptions. They may assume these people are lazy, passive, lack self-control, or make bad decisions, Stanford says. “We know that these prejudices are not true, but they are widespread in our society,” she says.
Weight bias must be dealt with in several ways.
Dr. Townsend believes that a culturally ingrained problem like weight bias needs to be addressed on multiple fronts – individual, institutional, and through social or political means. “On a personal level, it’s more of an awareness of the problem — how it creates disparities in achievement, socioeconomic status, and psychological harm,” he says.
At the institutional level, organizations can take steps to root out the most common sources of weight stigma, Townsend said. “Our study found that the media was the most common source of weight bias, but high rates were also seen in the employment and healthcare sectors,” he says. Townsend uses the entertainment industry as an example of how bias can be recognized and corrected while avoiding the stereotype of fat laziness in movie characters.
According to him, action is also needed at the political level. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 does not define weight as a protected condition, and as Stanford notes, laws preventing discrimination based on weight are the exception, not the rule.
“Legislation can create fairer protections for people with obesity, and our study found that about half of Americans support laws against weight discrimination,” Townsend says. He adds that these findings can be used to build public support for these “natural allies” of anti-discrimination legislation.
Recognize and eliminate weight bias
Want to know if you have negative weight assumptions and could be part of the problem? One way to find out is to take Free Harvard Implicit Association Test about weight bias, says Stanford. “It can help you determine where you are on the spectrum; if you have biases in this area, you can start working on correcting it.”
She says self-education can be a good start. Obesity Action Coalition offers information and resources to help people understand the problem, as well as ways people can take action to promote positive change.