What is weight discrimination?
Discrimination is defined as unfair difference in treatment
made between people because of specific characteristics. It is
based on prejudice, which is defined as preconceived opinion
or judgment without just grounds or before sufficient
knowledge. In its extreme, discrimination is called bigotry,
which is defined as obstinate and unreasoning attachment to
one's own opinions, with intolerance to any opposing views.
When the specific characteristic is body size and weight, that
is weight discrimination, weight prejudice, or weight bigotry.
Is weight discrimination much of a problem?
Yes. In our culture, people who are larger than average
encounter discriminatory attitudes and are denied equal
opportunity in many areas of their lives:
Prospective employers often refuse to hire large size people,
especially in jobs where employees do physical work, or jobs
where employees interact with the public.
Large people are subject to harassment about their weight by
their employers, are kept in jobs beneath their abilities, and
are often demoted or fired because of stated or unstated
Physicians and other health care professionals often tell fat
patients to lose weight rather than treating them for their
specific medical condition.
Health care facilities and equipment (such as cat scans and
MRIs) are often inaccessible to large people.
Large people are systematically denied health insurance and
life insurance, or they are forced to pay higher premiums than
those of average weight.
Applicants are often turned down by colleges, universities,
and other educational institutions because of their weight.
Landlords, housing agencies, and real estate agents often deny
larger people apartments, or show them only inferior
locations, to prevent them from moving into the neighborhood.
There are many other aspects of weight discrimination. The
Council has consulted with a person who was denied membership
in a traveling choir because of her weight, large-size couples
who were turned down as adoptive parents, and a man who was
asked to accept a refund on his gym membership because
customers had complained that they didn't like to look at his
Public facilities are inaccessible to many large people
because of turnstiles, narrow armchairs, narrow doors,
hallways, stairs, and small bathrooms.
Airplanes, trains, and buses often have seating that is
uncomfortably small or tight for larger-than-average people.
Isn't it true that fat people are lazy, stupid,
weak-willed, lacking in ambition, selfish, greedy, gluttonous,
sedentary, and ugly?
No, none of these characterizations have any basis in fact.
These are false stereotypes that are used to justify the
prejudice and discrimination that fat people suffer. The same
stereotypes have been used against Native Americans, Mexicans,
African Americans, poor people, and other groups that have
been subject to systematic discrimination by the dominant
culture of the United States and other countries. People of
all sizes, classes, and ethnic groups have positive and
negative qualities. Some may have personality traits of which
we don't approve, but it is unfair to make a judgment about an
entire group based on a stereotype or based on one
individual's behavior. .
Doesn't an employer have the right to refuse to hire fat
An employer can insist that a job applicant be qualified to do
the job, likeable, and personable, but any criterion which
excludes an entire group of peopleAfrican Americans, people
with disabilities, or larger-than-average peopleis
Doesn't an employer have the right to fire or demote
employees if they gain a lot of weight?
The only valid criterion for job evaluation, raises,
promotions, disciplinary action, demotion, or firing is job
performance. If an employer thinks an employee's weight
hinders their ability to do the job, the employer should
discuss this with the employee and make a determination, not
make a judgment about the person's ability based solely on
What if the job is a fire fighter or some other position
that requires physical fitness?
Employers have the right to require a test of physical fitness
for any job that requires strength, agility, or stamina. If
the position requires a person to be able to carry a hose up a
ladder, then the job interview can and should include a
simulation of that situation. If the applicant can perform the
task to the employer's satisfaction, it should not matter what
that applicant weighs. Conversely, just because a job
applicant is thin does not mean that he or she is physically
fit or capable of handling a strenuous job.
What if the job is a waitress or a receptionist or
salesperson or someone else who has to deal with the public
all the time?
Employers can insist that their public representatives be well
groomed, appropriately dressed, and personable. It is wrong to
assume that fat people are not capable of serving the public
well. Consider comedian and talk show host Rosie O'Donnell.
She is charming, engaging, immensely popular, and makes all
her guests feel welcome. She has stated on network television
that she weighs over 200 pounds. But she would obviously be an
excellent candidate for any position that required interaction
with clients or members of the public.
Isn't it true that fat people take up too much space on
buses, trains, and airplanes?
This question has made headlines because of the notoriously
cramped seating on airplanes, and a lawsuit in which a fat
person sued an airline for requiring her to buy two seats. But
airlines and other carriers do not state that they are selling
a certain amount of space. They advertise fares for passage
for one adult from one point to another. Truth in advertising
requires that they provide that passage. If they want to
change their policy and state that they are selling a certain
number of inches of space, then they will have to give
discounted rates to those who are smaller than average.
Aren't Americans getting fatter and fatter?
Yes, the statistics show that the average weight of people in
this country is going up.
Isn't this because of people being gluttons and not doing
No. The reasons for our increasing average weight have much
more to do with changes in the economy. We were once an
agrarian society, and most people did physically demanding
work all the time. When we became an industrial society, work
was still physically demanding. Today, most people's work
requires little or no physical activity. Cars and public
transportation are so available that walking and bicycling are
no longer common modes of transportation. In addition, our
style of preparing and eating food has changed completely. We
used to prepare food from scratch in the home, and eat most
meals at home. Today, most people eat a substantial portion of
their food outside of the home. Food is no longer scarce, and
is in fact universally available and widely advertised. Huge
industries compete with each other to make their food more
enticing, more available, and cheaper than that of their
competitors. Advertisers are not under any pressure to sell
healthy food, so they advertise what will tempt people to eat
as much as possible.
Isn't it unhealthy to be fat?
Sometimes. While some fat people are unhealthy, there are some
people who can be both fat and healthy. Fatness by itself is
not a disease, but rather a risk factor for certain chronic
diseases, such as diabetes. That means that in a group of fat
people, you will find more diabetics than in a group of thin
people. There is a correlation between fatness and diabetes.
Scientist have not, however, proven that fatness causes
diabetes. Correlation is not the same as causation. Some
researchers have proposed that there is another unknown factor
that causes both the diabetes and the fatness.
Poor nutrition and lack of physical activity have, however,
been proven to be unhealthy. This is true no matter whether a
person is thin or fat.
Even if it were proven that being fat was always unhealthy,
the problem is that we do not have a cure for fatness. (Also
see the answer to the following question.)
Shouldn't we do something about the increasing weight of
Yes and no. Good public health policy demands that we address
the problems of poor nutrition and lack of physical activity.
Pre-schools, elementary schools, high schools, and colleges
should be providing nutrition education, healthy food choices,
and opportunities for physical activity for students.
Businesses should provide similar opportunities for their
workers. Government programs should subsidize such
opportunities for poor people. And there should be public
advertising campaigns that teach people the benefits of eating
nutritious food and getting enough physical activity.
However, it is wrongand counter-productiveto make such an
educational campaign into a weight-loss program. First of all,
knowing a person's weight is not the same as knowing whether
they eat healthy food or whether they get enough exercise.
Thin people need this education just as much as fat people.
And secondly, all currently known weight-loss techniques have
been abysmal failures. More than 90% of dieters regain the
weight they lost. No other medical recommendation has such a
high failure rate. Until science has come up with a way for
people to lose weight and keep it off permanently, it is
useless to recommend weight loss. It may even be damaging to
the public health, since there is some evidence that repeated
diets can lead to binge eating and choosing much less healthy
foods. Many dieters end up regaining more weight than they
lost. Some feel that the diet craze in the last few decades is
at least partly responsible for the increasing rate of obesity
Isn't it true that fat people use up more than their share
of the public health care dollar?
No. As a society, we have chosen to join together and share in
the funding of public health care. Many of us also pay for
private health care and/or health insurance. We do not get to
pick who deserves what portion of the resources available.
Athletes use more health care services because they are at
higher risk for broken bones, injuries to soft tissues, etc.
Those who drive cars put themselves at greater risk for
traffic accidents. Older people use a majority of the public
health care collar. And to use a truly parallel example,
poverty is a risk factor for most major diseases. Poor people
use more public money on health care, and have worse outcomes.
The difference is that our society does not disapprove of
athletes or car drivers, and we recognize that it is unfair to
blame poor people or old people for their greater use of
health care resources. But when it comes to obesity, weight
prejudice makes our society intolerant. We blame fat people
for their condition no matter what the real cause. We blame
fat people for not losing weight, no matter how difficult or
impossible that might be. We blame fat people for using more
than "their share" of health care resources. Our society does
this because of prejudice, bigotry, and intolerance against
those who are heavier than average.
What is the origin of weight discrimination?
There are several theories for the origin of our culture's
disapproval of fatness. Since it seems to have started in the
early part of the twentieth century, some say it started with
motion pictures, since they say "the camera puts on 15
pounds". One theory says that the beginning of ready-to-wear
clothing changed everything. Until the early 1900s, all
clothing was custom-made, so a person's size was of no
significance. Once clothing was manufactured in a range of
sizes, anything outside that range started to be considered
different, or not "normal".
Since weight discrimination affects women disproportionately,
some feel that the disapproval of larger body size has its
roots in the rise in women's power. After women won the right
to vote and started participating as full active members of
society, many men felt threatened by women's power and
stature, and there was a backlash against feminism. Even
today, successful women are constrained by the cultural
pressure that forces them to spend enormous amounts of time
and money on their appearance. A large portion of that time
and energy is spent on the obsession with thinness and the
fear of fatness.
Still another theory holds that fear of fatness is akin to
fear of pleasure and bodily indulgence. Since the United
States was partly founded by strictly religious,
fundamentalist Puritans, this theory says that our culture has
an underlying fear and distrust of pleasure, including the
pleasures of eating as well as sex. This explains why some
people consider themselves righteous when they abstain from
food, sex, or leisure, or when they exercise obsessively.
According to this theory, those with more fat on their bodies
are perceived to be self-indulgent, which is said to justify
any disrespectful treatment they might receive.
Are things getting better or worse for fat people today?
It is difficult to say. Some ways that things are getting
worse include: An increasing number of weight-loss
advertisements, including fraudulent weight-loss scams; the
rise in the number of people (mostly women) with eating
disorders, indicating that fear of fatness is increasing; and
increased bullying, harassment, and violence against fat
children and teenagers.
On the other hand, there are some indicators that the
situation is improving for larger people. There is a lot more
career clothing available for larger men and women, indicating
that job opportunities may be opening up. There are new social
opportunities for larger people opening up all the time, as
indicated by the many websites, social clubs, conventions, and
gatherings specifically for larger people. Larger actors are
seen in substantial roles in movies and on television, and
some of them are portrayed as romantic interests. And more and
more books and articles talk about the possibility that large
people can have good self-esteem and full, active, and happy