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Is Sizeism Illegal? New Frontiers in Anti-Discrimination Law

Is Weight Discrimination Legal?

Many people are familiar with laws that prohibit workplace discrimination based on race, gender, and age. But few are familiar with laws that prohibit sizeism. This is probably because only one state, Michigan, lists size as a protected class. A few other jurisdictions prohibit discrimination based on "appearance," which encompasses size. Put differently, laws that specifically address sizeism are rare.

In addition, the few lawsuits addressing sizeism tend to favor employers, including by allowing certain industries to maintain “image standards” and reinforcing the idea that employers are legally allowed to discriminate based on body size.

We believe sizeism is one the next frontiers in anti-discrimination laws. Sizeism has negative effects on people’s health, happiness, and, of course, livelihoods. If you are denied employment opportunities or even terminated because of your appearance, what are your options? 

What is Weight Discrimination or Sizeism?

Sizeism is prejudice against or discrimination of people because of their body size. Typically, it manifests as prejudice against "fat" or obese body types, but it can also be discrimination against short, tall, or thin people.

Can You Sue for Weight or Size Discrimination?

Current laws usually do not prohibit discrimination based on someone’s size. However, anti-fat bias often overlaps with other types of bias, as Yale researchers proved when they found that overweight women are stereotyped as slow, lazy, undisciplined, and sloppy more often than overweight men are. What the researchers found was evidence of gender discrimination: fat women were lazy and undisciplined, but fat men were too busy with work to exercise or cared more about having fun than about their health. Similarly, if the targets of weight or size discrimination are only people of a certain race, the bias is illegal. Last, if one’s weight can be linked to a health condition, stereotyping is prohibited under current disability discrimination laws.

Sizeism Based on Gender Stereotyping

While heavier men do experience discrimination, data show that these stereotypes impact women more than men. For example, one study found that approximately 50% of male CEOs were overweight, only 5-22% of female CEOs were overweight. This disparity suggests that overweight men may be perceived differently than overweight women and that sizeism may be actionable as gender discrimination.

Sizeism as Racial Discrimination

If an employer’s problem with certain workers’ body types is just race discrimination in disguise, then it is illegal. For example, if a company refused to hire people of a certain size and race but hired someone of the same size and another race, the action could be unlawful based on the protected characteristic of race.

Sizeism as Disability Discrimination

While being overweight is not itself a disability, and weight has limited correlation with health, the American law encourages "medicalizing" conditions to obtain legal protections. What does this mean? It means that if you can link weight to a medical condition, you are protected from disability discrimination even though sizeism is not otherwise illegal. (We agree: this is not fair and the law should change.)

In fact, in recent years, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has been lowering the bar for protecting obesity as a medical disability. It has expanded the definition for disability as anything that substantially limits major life activities, paving the way for obesity to qualify if it arguably impacts a person’s ability to move, walk, lift, bend down, etc.

Sizeism on Its Own

Of course, many acts of sizeism are not related to disability, gender, or race. Plenty of people have stereotypes about fat people that are based on the diet-industrial complex and internalized fatphobia. Regardless of why or where this bias comes from, discrimination against “unconventional” or “undesirable” body types does not belong in the workplace, yet it will probably persist until sizeism on its own is regulated or widespread attitudes about body types and related personal attributes change.

Talk to an Experienced Employment Lawyer Today

At King & Siegel LLP, we have helped hundreds of workers hold employers accountable through legal actions. If you believe you have been discriminated against for your size and a related illegal reason, our attorneys are here to help.

Need legal help? We provide free, confidential consultations to California workers. You should contact us as soon as possible to make sure your claim is still within the time limits set by law. Contact us today through our website or give us a call at (213) 214-3757 to schedule a free consultation.

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