Will the Public Accept Laws that Prohibit Weight Discrimination?

Regular readers of these pages will be well aware of the very real problems caused by weight-bias and discrimination.

As noted previously, anti-fat prejudice has direct implications for the health of those struggling with excess weight as it can increase vulnerability for depression, low self-esteem, anxiety, suicidality, maladaptive eating behaviors, avoidance of physical activity, poorer outcomes in behavioral weight loss programs, and hesitation to seeking preventive health-care services.

In most countries (including Canada), it is within the legal rights of most employers to discriminate against their employees on the basis of weight, and those who experience weight discrimination have no means for legal recourse.

But is the public ready to accept laws that will prohibit weight-based discrimination?

This question was addressed by Rebecca Puhl and Chelsea Heuer from the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, Yale University, New Haven, CT, in a paper just published online in OBESITY.

The study was conducted online in a national sample of 1,001 adults to examine public support for six potential legislative measures to prohibit weight discrimination in the United States:

Surprisingly, the researchers found substantial support (65% of men, 81% of women) for laws to prohibit weight discrimination in the workplace, especially for legal measures that would prohibit employers from refusing to hire, terminate, or deny promotion based on a person’s body weight.

Perhaps not so surprisingly, the likelihood of agreement with antidiscrimination laws was higher among individuals who were obese, 35–49 years of age, with a political ideology identified as Liberal or Moderate (or who identified themselves as Democrats), and those with lower education (high school vs. college or graduate degrees) and lower annual income (<$25,000).

In addition, although only 9% of the sample reported having experienced weight-based discrimination in the workplace, these individuals were 2–4 times more likely to endorse agreement with laws than individuals who had not reported workplace discrimination.

Similarly, participants who reported that their family members had been targets of weight-based victimization were more likely to express agreement for laws compared to participants who did not report victimization toward family members.

On the other hand, there did not appear to be much support for laws that proposed extending the same protections to obese persons as people with physical disabilities.

Thus, while it appears that there may be some acceptance and room for legislation against weight-based discrimination (especially in the workplace), there may also be important limitations to both the extent and acceptance of such legislation amongst the US population.

While this is a US study, I am not convinced that public opinion in favor of legislation against weight-based discrimination would be very different in Canada. Although, there have been legal precedents in Canada for rulings in favor of obese individuals (e.g. the airline seat ruling), there remains a strong public bias against people with excess weight.

Have you or someone you know been affected by weight-bias? I’d love to hear your story.

Edmonton, Alberta

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Puhl RM, & Heuer CA (2010). Public Opinion About Laws to Prohibit Weight Discrimination in the United States. Obesity (Silver Spring, Md.) PMID: 20508626