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When hit film director Kevin Smith was kicked off a Southwest Airlines flight in 2010 after the carrier declared him too fat to fly, it dramatically illustrated the challenges — and routine humiliations — overweight Americans face.
Indeed, research from Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity reported that weight discrimination increased 66 percent from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s. What’s more, at a time when more than two-thirds of Americans are now overweight or obese, the Rudd Center says obesity discrimination is now more prevalent than bias based on ethnicity, sexual orientation and physical disability.
Despite these sobering statistics, no federal law protects workers from obesity-related workplace discrimination. Courts have ruled in favor of individuals who have successfully proved that their weight directly affected their job performance, but such instances are rare. At the state level, Michigan is the only state whose workplace anti-discrimination laws include body size bias — leaving most overweight workers with little recourse when it comes to protecting their rights.
“This kind of bias affects people from the time they are hired to the time they are fired,” says Rebecca Puhl, the Rudd Center’s director of research and weight stigma initiatives. “Our research shows that obese workers are less likely to be hired and less likely to be promoted,” she says. “Obese men earn on average 3 percent less than their slim counterparts — obese women more than 6 percent less.”
The Business Cost of Obesity
In an era when nearly every imaginable form of prejudice is no longer socially tolerated, the rise of anti-fat sentiment is a curious — and confounding — phenomenon. Its causes are as complex as they are challenging. On the practical side, obesity-related issues such as absenteeism and increased healthinsurance premiums are estimated to cost American employers $36 billion annually, according to the National Business Group on Health (NBGH) in Washington, DC.
“We’re talking diabetes, hypertension — forms of disease that are viewed as preventable lifestyle choices,” explains Peter Cappelli, professor of management and director of the Center for Human Resources at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business.
In the face of such sentiments — and research noting that weight issues contribute to some 25 percent of all worker health costs — many employers have begun to offer cash incentives to encourage workers to lose weight. Others are drawing from the US Centers for Disease Control’s LEAN Works program to develop obesity-management strategies for their workplaces. On the opposite extreme, some employers have begun penalizing overweight employees by raising their health insurance deductibles much as they might do with workers who smoke.
Along with issues of economics, the stigma associated with obesity can also contribute to workplace mistreatment, such as isolation, ridicule and lack of promotion possibilities, says Linda Bacon, a nutrition professor and obesity researcher at City College of San Francisco. “There is a denial about why people are fat,” Bacon says. “There’s this sense that fat people are gluttonous, that it’s their fault they’re fat — butresearch shows this is certainly not the case.”
Size Up the Workplace
Given these obstacles — and with workplace protections still far from guaranteed — how can the overweight maximize their career potential while minimizing the possibility of discrimination? According to Yale’s Puhl, overweight folks should take a hard look at any potential employment situation for clear signs of size diversity. Are there overweight people in senior-level positions? Does the workplace feel like a safe environment where such issues might be discussed?
At the same time, Puhl calls on overweight people to “challenge weight-based perceptions” that might be working against them. “There is the stereotype that overweight people are sloppy or disheveled, so make sure you always appear as flattering as possible,” she says.
Meanwhile, folks of all sizes should work to keep their office environments as healthy as possible — or at least stocked with healthy food. “Ask employers to support you in these efforts by stocking nonsugary snacks and healthful beverages and waters,” says LuAnn Heinen, NBGH vice president. “Make sure you don’t feel trapped by the dining options within the office space.”
Although Kevin Smith ultimately caught a later Southwest flight, his very public poor treatment by the airline is emblematic of the daily battles facing the overweight. “This kind of treatment ultimately affects people’s psyches and their souls,” Bacon says. “It can make fat people scared to try new things, afraid to put themselves out there at work for fear of being shot down.”