When I congratulated a friend on her promotion to the head of a non-profit organization, she smiled and then told me it almost did not happen. “I learned that someone on the board did not want me to get the position and campaigned actively against me,” she told me.
“Why?” I asked. “You were obviously the front-runner.”
“Because I am fat,” she replied. “He told everyone on the board that he would not hire anyone who was fat. At least he is not criticizing my competence, only my size.”
But she was wrong.
The board member was likely not rejecting her solely because he believed her size or shape might affect her stamina in wearing the hats of an administrator, fundraiser, and creative director of a mid-size organization. He may have believed that her obesity reflected a deficit in her overall ability. A review of many studies of employer attitudes toward obese workers presented evidence that obese people are thought to have less leadership potential than normal-weight individuals. The obese are viewed as lazy, undisciplined, slow, unmotivated, and incapable of advancing to positions of responsibility. Thus my friend, whose resume indicated an unusually strong record of leadership and creativity in a previous position, could have been judged as inferior on these traits simply because she was fat.
Had she been male and obese, her size may not have been considered a detriment unless the job required physical skills that were difficult to perform because of weight. But an obese woman whose job requires some visibility—while fundraising, representing the organization at meetings, or giving presentations—might be passed over because of her appearance.
Had she failed to win the position, a claim that she was being discriminated against would have had no legal impact in the state in which she worked. The state of Michigan and some cities, including San Francisco and the District of Columbia, have outlawed employment discrimination against the obese.
Proving that a job is not offered or advancement not received because of size discrimination is very difficult. The board member did not publicly announce the reason for his opposition to anyone, but secretly told other members of the search committee. Happily, there were leaks, and eventually everyone in the organization knew and so did she. But even though he wished to deprive her of the position because of her weight, there was little she could do about it. What real proof did she have?
Obese employees face the same type of discrimination that smokers do, although 29 states prohibit the non-hiring of smokers. However, one justification of the employment discrimination against smokers is based on health risks to the smoker and thus increased medical costs to the employer. Other reasons include leaving the work site to smoke in a designated area, although this is a weaker argument since breaks for everyone are often built into the workday.
Many assume that the smoker, or indeed the obese individual, could quit or lose weight if he or she wanted to. Thus discrimination against these groups is sometimes justified by the belief that it’s their fault.
An article in the New England Journal of Medicine refutes the argument that smokers irresponsibly raise healthcare costs because they don’t want to stop smoking. What is rarely understood, except by ex-smokers, is how hard it is to break the addiction to nicotine. Surveys have shown that 69 percent of smokers want to quit but are unable to do so.
Losing weight and maintaining weight loss is similarly difficult, and the same uninformed attitudes persist. “Just stop eating so much and start exercising!“ (As if they hadn’t tried to do so.) The reasons for gaining weight are so varied and often so psychologically complex that simplistic solutions make about as much sense as trying to prevent the oceans from rising by stacking sandbags on a beach. I have a neighbor who gained a substantial amount of weight while she was on large doses of prednisone to reduce inflammation, and a distant relative who gained 125 pounds on a combination of antidepressants and mood stabilizers. Would they be unemployable?
The laws protecting the obese from workplace discrimination are insufficient or nonexistent. Children bullied on the playground may have more protection, because sometimes there is a teacher who can intervene. No one is watching or reprimanding the adult bully who refuses to hire or promote someone who is overweight.