Bias Against Bodies: Why is it still legal to fire someone for being fat?


Esther Rothblum photo by Dee Mosbacher, Brandie Solovay photo by Lilia Schwartz

You read that right: There are currently no US federal laws protecting people from weight discrimination, and only a handful of cities and states have such legislation on the books.

Professor Esther Rothblum, who co-edited The Fat Studies Reader and has spent her career researching the stigma of weight and LGBT relationships, she credits anti-fat normalization with a lack of legal protections. “People really hate admitting they’re sexist or racist or old,” Rothblum tells WBEZ Restore. “But if you ask people about the oppression of fat people, they’ll tell you they hate fat people.”

This extends to hiring practices and the workplace. Rothblum conducted studies in which participants rate identical resumes accompanied by a photo of a thin woman or a photo of a woman who weighed slightly more. “We had college students evaluating the curriculum,” Rothblum says. “What we found is that when students received the resume accompanied by the fattest woman, they rated her more negatively.” They rated the slightly older woman lower in areas such as supervisory potential, self-discipline, professional appearance, personal hygiene, and ability to perform physically strenuous work.

While there are no federal measures that specifically protect fat people from workplace discrimination, attorney Brandie Solovay points out that state and federal disability laws may protect some fat workers. Solovay runs the Fat Legal Advocacy, Rights, & Education Project. “We never want to discourage contact in case they are discriminated against based on their weight,” Solovay says Restore. “They should definitely contact a nonprofit in their area, an attorney, or even the Fat Legal Advocacy, Rights, & Education Project.”

Corporate recruiter Michelle Duffie wrote about fight fat phobia in the workplace on Linkedin. “I’m not asking for the moon and stars, I’m asking to be treated like everyone else,” says Duffie Restore. “If companies could leverage more opportunities to reduce unconscious biases or make their recruiting teams more aware of when unconscious biases creep in, I think fat people would have a better chance of getting opportunities in the workplace.”

Rothblum agrees that “it’s really important to hire employees in a way that doesn’t focus so much on how they look.” He adds that objective criteria and embodied diversity promotions in marketing materials would also help create more inclusive workplaces.

Here are some facts and figures about weight discrimination in the workplace:

  • In the United States, only two states and a handful of cities have laws explicitly outlawing employment discrimination based on weight.

  • Fat people earn less than their thin peers.

  • But it is difficult to give a number to the so-called “weight penalty” because the salary goes down as the weight goes on—especially for women.

  • Fat people are less likely to be hired in public positions and more likely to be passed over for promotions or raises.

  • Weight discrimination begins to affect women at much less weight than men.

  • The anti-grease permeates every level of the employee experience, including the infrastructure of the office. For example, some companies invest in high-end furniture that doesn’t support or fit larger bodies.

This is part 4 of Reset’s Bias Against Bodies series. Sarah Stark is a freelance producer for Reset. You can follow her @itssarahstark.


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Written by Natalia Chi

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