Obesity Can Mean Plus-Sized Scrutiny at Work

How to handle bias based on weight and protect your rights

McKinney acknowledges size was a major part of the challenges she faced trying to move into corporate America. “No one wants to walk into a board meeting and look at a 400-lb black woman running the show,” she says. “I’ve had mentors all but tell me I needed to lose weight to move up.”

Since leaving the human resources industry, McKinney has lost more than 100 lbs from her 5’8″ frame, slimming down to just over 270 lbs. “I have noticed that, even in being an independent contractor, I have gotten more referrals and more respect from my peers,” she says.

Currently, there are no federal laws that prohibit discrimination against overweight individuals. As a result, most people who fight weight discrimination must use other legal statutes, such as the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. The only state where its illegal to discriminate because of weight is Michigan. And according to the Rudd Center For Food Policy & Obesity, most weight discrimination cases fall into the employment discrimination category, and many are unsuccessful.

Both McKinney and Burks agree that though weight bias and discrimination exists, that doesn’t make it right or good for business. “Any form of discrimination is inappropriate,” Burks says. “If you are qualified and you have the talent, you should get the job.”

McKinney urges professionals to know their rights and fight for them. “People unjustly assume that because you are obese that you are lazy, unhealthy, and eat 24/7,”  she says. “You have to work three times as hard as anyone else, so get in there and show them that you not only deserve to be there, but that it is in their best interest to keep you there.”

If you feel you’ve been discriminated against because of weight:

  • Document incidents in detail when they happen. Like any case of discrimination, a paper log is vital if you plan to pursue legal action.
  • If you have been the target of office jokes, bullying, or inappropriate behavior toward you based on your weight, take your grievance to your human resources department and/or supervisor. It is best to approach the issue as you would any other issue of inappropriate behavior in the office that makes you feel uncomfortable or unsafe.
  • Be prepared for a challenge if seeking legal action. Proving discrimination based on weight can be difficult. No federal laws exist that make weight discrimination illegal, and Michigan is the only state where weight discrimination is illegal. Some states also have inclusions in statutes listing weight among factors that cannot be used to discriminate in cases of employment.
  • Do your research. Find resources and support with organizations such as the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA) and the Council on Size and Weight Acceptance.

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  • Marisa

    I think in some cases where weight and appearance are important for the job, it is justified that weight becomes a factor. For example, cabin crew members are required to be of a certain weight and height to move through the plane aisles easily and be able to assist the passengers quickly. It’s when the weight s irrelevant, and the employer insists on making it an issue that it becomes discriminative.