Size Matters: The Carrot and the Stick

Size discrimination is an unfortunate fact of life for many fat people working in a corporate environment. Fat workers are often passed over for promotions, denied raises, and told outright to their faces that they are undesirable to clients. Not only that, fat employees on average earn 1 to 6 percent less than employees whose weight is considered “normal.” Fat people are also often the scapegoats for rising corporate health care costs. What protections are there for those facing size discrimination? Being classified as “overweight” generally does not entitle you to protections under the Americans With Disabilities Act or the ADA Amendment Act of 2008, however, under the ADAAA being classified as “morbidly obese” or having health problems considered “weight-related” does. The larger you are, the more likely you are to experience size discrimination, and the more protections you have under the law. But those who are not considered “morbidly obese” also need to be protected, and unfortunately there are no laws that prohibit discrimination based on weight.

As if size discrimination wasn’t enough to deal with, many workplaces are instituting weight loss incentive programs, which further marginalizes fat employees. Incentive programs that include rewards for departments or teams that lose the most weight create a hostile atmosphere in which fat people are shamed for not being able to lose significant amounts of weight. For example, an alumna of Stephens College in Missouri recently pledged to donate $1 million to the college if the staff loses a collective 250 pounds by January 1, 2011. This puts undue pressure on fat staff members who may or may not be able to lose enough weight to contribute “their part” of the collective 250 lbs. The dean herself is expected to lose 25 lbs. to receive an extra $100,000 in addition to the $1 million. Since the dean accepted the challenge on behalf of the college, she apparently has no problem with being pressured to lose that much weight. I doubt the rest of the staff was consulted before the challenge was accepted.

Another type of incentive plan was instituted by Whole Foods that involves lower health care costs for those who maintain a certain BMI. Now, we know that BMI is not the best way to measure health in individuals. This program stigmatizes those who may be unable to reach a BMI considered to be within the “healthy” range, regardless of what their real indicators of health may show. In fact, this program could be seen as encouraging some to be at a weight UNDER what is actually healthy for them just to be in the “Platinum” group, since a BMI under 24 could potentially only be achieved by some people via losing unhealthy amounts of weight. Furthermore, the size discrimination inherent in this incentive program demonizes fat people by attributing high health care costs to those with higher BMIs and penalizing them for their perceived inability to lose weight. Why is it the business of your employer what your BMI is?

Legislation prohibiting size discrimination is desperately needed as more and more people are considered “obese” by the medical establishment and corporations continue to intrude further on fat employees’ personal lives by taking stock of their supposed health indicators. The carrot-stick incentive programs being adopted contribute to the marginalization of fat workers and promote the idea that rising health care costs are the fault of fat people in general. We don’t need to pathologize fatness by having it considered a disability just to fight size discrimination. We need size to be included along with race, age, gender, sexual orientation, etc. as protected under anti-discrimination laws.

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