Fat Discrimination Bills Lumber Forward

A Chicago Tribune story notes that a few jurisdictions now ban discrimination against fat people (generally as part of general bans on discrimination based on physical appearance), and that Massachusetts is now considering specifically banning discrimination against fat people (as some municipalities do).  (The only federal law touching on the subject is the Americans with Disabilities Act, which some courts have said may cover “morbid obesity” (see Cook v. Rhode Island), but which does not cover ordinary fatness; moreover, some courts say that obesity is not a disability because it is a correctable condition, i.e., you can lose the weight if you try).

Quite apart from the fact that such legislation interferes with employers’ freedom of contract (is it really so unreasonable for a movie studio to cast a thin person rather than a fat person in certain roles, or for an airline to want a thin flight attendant who can move easily up and down the aisle and allow passengers to pass by rather than a fat flight attendant who will block the aisle?), it’s also not clear why such legislation should focus on fat people, who can often control their condition, rather than other people disadvantaged by mother nature, like short people.   (I became fat in 1993, but then lost the weight by eliminating alcohol, butter, and extremely fatty foods from my diet.  But short people cannot change the fact that they are short).

After all, most Americans are overweight, so it’s not as if fat people are a tiny minority.   And being fat is not as disadvantageous (at least for men) as being short.  For example, fat people of both sexes are more likely to get married than short men, and short people are less likely to get promotions than people of average height like me. 

A women’s studies professor quoted in the article supports fat discrimination legislation as a way of destigmatizing fatness.  (Some colleges now have “fat studies” programs, whose professors are often drawn from existing  women’s studies programs).  But even if that were truly possible, destigmatizing fatness might do more harm than good to public health.  In my wife’s native France, obesity rates are lower than in the U.S., and lifespans are longer (despite all the cheese, foie gras, and red meat they eat).  Part of the reason is that they simply eat less (not healthier).  Why do they eat less?  Partly due to the shame factor.  My French-born wife’s (thin) best friend told me, with disapproval, that in France, “it is a shame to be fat.”  Shame is not a pleasant emotion, but maybe it’s better to be shamed into losing weight than to be dead from obesity-related conditions, like diabetes, heart diseases, and weight-related cancers.  Those obesity-related conditions are a legitimate cause for concern for the insurers and employers who end up paying for them.