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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

p.s. Join my new Facebook page for more posts and links on obesity prevention and management

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


  1. This is ridiculous. If I own a company, I should be able to hire whoever I want based on whatever I want. If someone is too lazy to take care of themselves and stay healthy, there’s no way I would ever hire them, no matter how “qualified” they may look on paper. Resumes may be misleading, but body fat percentage doesn’t lie. If I own a company I should be able to hire whoever I think is most fit for the job, and there’s no way I’d ever hire a fat person. The fact that unhealthy people often require much more in insurance costs is even more reason why I wouldn’t want a fat person working for me. Rather than focus on laws preventing weight discrimination, they should make laws against being over a certain body fat percentage. Laws against weight discrimination will only further enforce the belief that “it’s ok to be fat”, which it most certainly is not.

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  2. I can think of several areas where weight might be a practical factor; unlike skin colour or sexual orientation, weight has a real effect on what you are and are not able to do, and particularly in physical labour type jobs, weighing too much and being too big could be the difference between being able to do the job or not, or even between life and death. That would need to be taken into account in any legislation.

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  3. Although I do agree that discrimination occurs in the workplace based on size I do also believe that there must be some common sense used. For more than a decade in my job in radio broadcasting I was a work horse and learned every facet of my job. I was a great performer on radio (still am) and developed a strong technology and programming back ground. Yet nothing I could do was being noticed and I was consistently passed over for promotions.

    I finally lost the weight and suddenly my career took off like a rocket. It was with another company and I was an instant ‘good hire’ and clearly excelling at my job. So…I feel like I was discriminated against and judgements were made on me based on my size and not my work ethic or professional growth.

    On the other hand we now live in a world with mounting financial pressures for corporate Canada to meet bottom line expectations on revenue expectations and health concerns (i.e. time off due to sickness) are certainly a legitimate consideration. Concern with employee lifestyle is now a huge consideration. As is smoking, drinking, etc. So there are considerations and certain careers where physical limitations do need to be taken into consideration.

    Great article!

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  4. I have a friend who is a PHD in psychology and was fired from his job as a counselor for being obese. He hired us to help him to lose weight, exercise and get back into mental condition. Even though he only lost 50 of 100 lbs, (a major accomplishment with his stressors) his confidence, mental attitude, health and self assurance got him back on the job and feeling capable of leading others.

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  5. I think it’s totally disgusting to read the comments from people who would refuse employment to someone because of their size. If that person is healthy, and able to do the job, they should be allowed to workl. These commentors are promoting discrimination. Where does one draw the line? Maybe an employer won’t like your hair colour, or the fact that you wear glasses, or have crooked teeth because you can’t afford braces. The right to work and provide for your family is a fundamental human right and should not be denied because of any form of discrimination, including size.

    People need to speak against this rapidly growing form of discrimination. If we don’t say something now about it, I fear there will be a mushrooming of other shocking, newer types of discrimination well beyond the current standard ones, i.e., race, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, disability.

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  6. This is a letter to Jenny Craig that I sent today. Just feel quite humiliated about the experience. Lora
    Hello, I had the opportunity to go for an interview yesterday with Jenny Craig. I thought it would be a great opportunity and I was set up with an interview at a Jenny Craig location in my area. When I received a call back the one question I asked was in regards to applying when I myself had weight issues and if that would be an problem when going forward with the interview process. I was assured it would not be and that I would be able to go on the Jenny Craig journey along with working there if selected. I went to my interview and was told by the manager that I was the best candidate for the job. She said my personality was better than anyone she had met with and the only issue she had was that I had weight to lose. She said she had hired people in the past and had to fire them because they didn’t lose their weight after a couple of years. She later called me and decided not to move forward with me. It was just such a misleading and discriminatory procedure. I was more than willing to be a Jenny Craig customer as well as an employee. I would not have applied if being slender was a prerequisite to the job. I am just so disappointed to be told that it wasn’t an issue only to find out it was the only reason I did not get hired. Sincerely, Lora

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  7. I think it really needs to be stressed that the more people as a whole have negative attitudes and stereotypes against a group of people, the more the discriminated group needs legislative protection. The totally disgusting attitudes expressed by the first commenter only reinforces how solidly important it is to have strong federal and provincial protections established right across the country against people based on size.


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  8. I have several family members who suffer the health consequences of obesity:
    type 2 diabetes, lack of energy and inability to do any sustained physical activity (this includes walking up a flight of stairs), propensity of joint injuries, heart disease, back injuries, lower self esteem and depression.

    Obesity tends to cascade with secondary health problems making it more difficult to to loose weight leading to frustration, depression and more weight gain.

    I myself am prone to weight gain and I have to make conscious decisions every day to maintain my health.

    As an employer, health of employees is a real concern. Given the choice between a person who is obese and one who is not, all other things being equal, I would tend to hire the person who is not obese. Yes it is discrimination, but it is not based upon weight, it is based upon the consequences of being overweight upon the health of the person and their ability to perform the job.

    Creating a law that says you cannot discriminate on the basis of weight is ridiculous. If obesity could be separated from the consequences of obesity upon health maybe it is a form of discrimination that should be addressed.

    Obesity is NOT a good thing. Just read what is written on this site and you will see that the public focus should be upon health of people with weight issues and preventive health (including psychiatric health) care.

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