In late May, the Mayor of New York, Eric Adams, signed into law an ordinance protecting people who are obese from discrimination. In doing so, NYC joins a number of American cities and the states of Michigan and Washington that have provided similar protections. Other states are contemplating doing so. The Canadian federal, provincial and territorial governments should follow suit.
Obesity is a world-wide problem that threatens to continue to increase. Rates of it vary in different societies. Globally, it is estimated that a billion people could be obese by 2030. At present, no country is on track to comply with the target of the World Health Organization: stop obesity by 2025. Canada is not being spared: about 29 per cent of adults live with this condition.
The causes of obesity are complex. We should all be eating nutritiously and being physically active. But the sources of this condition extend beyond poor eating habits and sedentary lifestyles ascribed to lack of will – genetic makeup, prenatal and postnatal influences, lack of sleep and an environment that is toxic to healthy living are just some of the other factors.
What is clear is that people who are obese suffer discrimination in various aspects of their lives including education, employment and health care. Studies in the United States suggest that the bigger a woman of size is, the less likely she is to be admitted to college. One survey indicates that more than 10 per cent of human resource professionals think it acceptable to fire employees because of their size. There is evidence that doctors have given large patients shorter appointments, on average, than others they treat.
There have been cases, both in Canada and the U.S., in which those who are obese and have suffered discrimination have secured redress by claiming they are disabled (a protected ground in Canadian human rights legislation). However, demonstrating that obesity is a disability can be difficult. For example, there is controversy over whether obesity should be characterized as a disease (and, therefore, as a disability).
Many of those who are obese object to being so characterized in order to enjoy basic legal protections.
At the same time, many of those who are obese object to being so characterized in order to enjoy basic legal protections. That categorization can underscore negative ideas about obese people, depicting them as incapable, lazy and whatever when they are simply large. Take the famous American instance of an exercise coach in which a 250-pound female aerobics instructor in California who was fit, had lots of students and no performance issues was turned down for a Jazzercise franchise. That company asserted that only “fit, toned” individuals were qualified; in contrast, the instructor wanted to be judged “on my merits, not my measurements.” She was not disabled. She wanted to do the job. Her size should not have been an impediment. To the contrary, she could have inspired students dealing with body issues.
While legislated protection for discrimination against obese people is moving across the U.S., thus far no jurisdiction in Canada has followed suit. A private member’s bill to address such bias repeatedly failed to pass in the Manitoba legislature. Yet, there is evidence both in Canada and the U.S. that support for such protections is quite high even without concerted national campaigns to ban such discrimination. In the U.S. a nationwide survey found that 79 per cent support laws banning weight discrimination with no difference in the levels of approval based on political orientation. In Canada, the evidence is mixed but remains very high (76.9 per cent) for laws targeting discrimination in employment.
Enshrining protection of people who are obese from discrimination in human rights legislation has complications. However, existing evidence indicates that when such legislation has been enacted in the U.S., there have not been numerous cases asserting bias. Those that have been initiated have been addressed through existing processes for resolving similar complaints of discrimination.
Affording those living with obesity explicit protection in human rights legislation will not solve all issues of discrimination and stigmatization. But it will be an important move in the right direction, signalling basic human dignity for all. A step toward the day when those who are obese are judged on their merits – not on their measurements.