Do We Discriminate Against Fat People Because We Fear They’re Contagious?

Don Tennant

Let’s face it: The IT profession doesn’t exactly lend itself to physical fitness. I don’t have any statistics to prove it, but my hunch is that IT pros on average would probably fall on the heavier side of a scale that measures the weight of workers as a whole. Beyond the fact that it’s a largely sedentary profession, it’s also an extremely demanding one of relentlessly long hours. So something like getting to the gym may be mundane for people in other lines of work, but for IT pros it’s more likely a luxury, if not a near impossibility.

Given that two-thirds of American adults are overweight or obese, it’s probably not a huge stretch to suggest that the proportion of overweight IT pros is even higher than that. So I have to wonder: Are people in IT more likely to be subjected to weight discrimination than people in other professions? And given that we’re a nation of overweight people, why on earth would we be prone to discriminate against overweight people in the first place?

The issue of weight discrimination was on my mind last week when I spoke with Donna Ballman, an employment lawyer in Florida and author of the book, “Stand Up for Yourself Without Getting Fired: Resolve Workplace Crises Before you Quit, Get Axed, or Sue the Bastards.” As the title of her book suggests, Ballman is kind of a character, or at least that’s the welcome impression I had after our interview.

For starters, I asked Ballman if she could make any sense of the fact that people who are overweight are so often discriminated against in a nation of overweight people. Her theory is that it has something to do with an irrational fear that fat people are contagious:

I think people sometimes have a lack of perception about their own weight. I think that to some extent, we treat the overweight the way we treated people in the early days of AIDS—I think we treat them as if they’re contagious. I think there is some sort of visceral reaction to the overweight—that somehow we don’t want to be around them because you might catch it from them, which is obviously ridiculous. But I think maybe there’s some of that going on.

I did my homework well enough to learn that the EEOC considers morbid obesity to be a protected disability. So I asked Ballman whether it’s the case that if I’m moderately obese and my employer discriminates against me, there’s nothing I can do, but if I gain a ton of weight and become morbidly obese, I’m protected. Ballman said she wouldn’t go that far:

I would say you have to look at the nature of your particular circumstances. If the obesity is such that it affects a major life activity, which would include work, then it could possibly be protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act. If it was caused by some sort of disability, then it could be protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act. A lot of times people have an illness that causes them to become overweight, or certain medications cause them to be overweight. That could be protected. It’s a difficult line to draw. The courts and the EEOC are trying to draw that line, because discrimination against the overweight really starts in elementary school. So it’s something that’s really ingrained in us.

Still, the fact remains that you have to be morbidly obese, as opposed to just overweight, in order to be protected. So I asked Ballman what her response would be to someone who says that under federal employment law, overweight people are incentivized to keep gaining weight. She said she would hope not:

First of all, I would hope that nobody would live their life around the potential of a lawsuit. So please don’t become morbidly obese so you can potentially sue your employer—that would be just incredibly stupid. I would hope that it would not incentivize anyone, because it’s your health and your life vs. a stupid job. By that logic, maybe somebody would be incentivized to become pregnant, or convert to Judaism. I mean, there are things you could do to become in a protected class, but why would you do that? Why would you live your life that way?

OK, so to get back to the realm of the practical, I asked Ballman what her advice would be for someone who feels he or she is being treated unfairly at work because of a weight issue. Her response:

I would say try to figure out if you may be in a protected category. Is it related to a disability? Are you being singled out due to gender? Does your state law offer some protection? If you have legal protection, then your next step would be to go to human resources and report it. If you feel you’re being harassed or singled out, you should follow the company’s harassment reporting policy. I suggest you report it in writing, and call it a formal complaint of discrimination based on disability, or gender, or whatever it is, and give them the opportunity to fix it. Now, if you’ve been fired or demoted due to your weight, you need to go straight to the agency that handles it. If it’s discrimination, for instance, it’s the EEOC. If it’s weight discrimination, you’d have to go to the state agency that handles it, or you can talk to an employment lawyer at that point.

I asked her what her advice would be for someone who’s experiencing bullying at work because of a weight issue, and she said it’s basically the same thing:

Look, bullies pick on people who are weak or different, and a lot of times those weaknesses and differences are in a protected legal category. Bullying is not illegal in any state, so if you report it as bullying, you’re not legally protected against retaliation. So look for a legally protected category—if you’re going to report it, report it as something that’s legally protected, such as disability or gender discrimination.

Finally, I asked Ballman whether federal law adequately protects overweight people, or if something needs to change. She said something definitely needs to change:

I think in this society we do stigmatize the overweight, and yet we are a nation that’s getting heavier and heavier. So at some point we need to look at weight as a protected category, unless there’s some business reason why somebody needs to be thin—there can be a legitimate reason. But I think we need to protect people, because shouldn’t it really be about their ability to do the job? Shouldn’t all discrimination laws be focused on, can this person do the job or not? So anything based on appearance and on misconceptions about what it means to be overweight, I think is wrong. And I think it’s time for the laws to catch up.

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Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Nov 30, 2012 2:45 AM Wakjob Wakjob  says:
I had a 400 lbs friend who was a software engineer at Apple with me DIE because he was fat and H-1Bs stole his career. He went homeless and died because of this illegal nonsense. Reply
Nov 30, 2012 5:59 PM Skinny Person Skinny Person  says:
We discriminate against fat people because fat people choose an unhealthy lifestyle that the rest of us must pay for it. We pay their high health care costs, we pay for all their food stamps, we pay so they can have 'special access' to buildings because they are too fat to walk up stairs, we pay for their 'scooters' because some of them are even too fat to walk down the street! I believe every fat person should have a micro chip implanted and each time they go to buy food a message is sent to the IRS. These messages will come back to the fat person in the form of a large tax. If we tax smokers, we NEED to tax fatsos. Reply
Dec 1, 2012 8:18 AM es es  says: in response to Skinny Person
You have an opinion...it is an ignorant one, but it is yours. I am fat-- a morbidly obese person that is 42 years of age and weighs 450 pounds. I am also apparently the object of your extreme hatred. I have never in my life been of average weight...not even as a small child. I have worked my entire life, obeyed the law, and have never intentionally harmed anyone. I rarely go to the Dr. anymore because they are not equipped to help me in any way though I pay for insurance just like my co-workers. They cannot accurately check my blood pressure, weight, nor can I even sit on the exam table due to the weight limit. I cannot be medically monitored accurately by the physician I am charged every month for--to address safely embarking on a weight loss plan. Oh well, I guess I can do it anyway. Recently, I tried to access funds in my 401(k) to address the problem by going to residential weight loss treatment facility (in lieu or bariatric surgery). With a BMI of over 80, I was denied using my own money for this purpose. The reason--I was told that my request was for a cosmetic problem and not a serious health issue. Wake up and open your mind idiot. Reply
Dec 3, 2012 7:02 AM Fat person Fat person  says:
I cannot understand people who think they know what i do and don't do or what health problems I have simply by the fact that I am not thin. I have not been a patient in a hospital for 27 years and then it was to have a baby. I am not lazy as I have a full time job, keep a house and garden, go out socialising and even go white water rafting in exotic locations and also trekking up mountains and all at the age of 57! So stop imagining things about other people just by the way they look! I know heaps of thinner people who are bone lazy and also eat like pigs and do nothing to contribute to society. I don't smoke or drink but have a liking for chocolate and hot chips! So what? Take a look at the really ugly people in this world...the criminals and murderers and child abusers and wife bashers. They come in all shapes and sizes. Please don't equate overweight people with being somehow evil and costing society money. I know that I overwhelmingly have and will continue to contribute and have raised two beautiful daughters who are doing the same by being kind, compassionate and giving human beings. Reply
Dec 17, 2012 7:41 PM I lost 100 lbs I lost 100 lbs  says: in response to es
Hey, you don't need to go to a doctor or spend your 401k to lose weight. Just cut your calories significantly and you will lose weight. I was always fat and I lost 100 pounds after eating right. Excuses are ruining your chances! Don't rely on other people, do it yourself :) Reply
Apr 8, 2013 11:07 PM Morbidly obese and active Morbidly obese and active  says:
I know I'm late but I'm just hoping you'll see this "skinny person" - you are a complete stereotyping presumptuous idiot. I am "Morbidly obese" and just started a weight loss plan. I came across this site because I have interviews coming up, and am nervous about it. I'm 5'6 and 340 lbs. I have NEVER relied on any government assistance - disability, food stamps or health insurance. When I'm insured I pay for it through my job just like any skinny person. I pay for my own groceries. I don't need a scooter or special access to buildings. I walk up and down steps, I exercise, I do everything you skinny people do, but maybe not as easily. It is really sad how quickly you judge others and put them down when you have absolutely no idea why they may be heavy or what they do in their spare time. Sorry you seem to think all overweight and obese people are lazy slobs sitting on dirty couches all day stuffing their faces with food you paid for. Think again, because a person is a person and should be judged individually for their personality traits and characteristics, not judged by the cover you bigot. Reply
Apr 22, 2013 8:06 PM Fat and NOT lazy Fat and NOT lazy  says: in response to Morbidly obese and active
THANK YOU! Im so glad someone posted exactly what I was thinking! Reply
Mar 18, 2014 9:04 PM rpmth rpmth  says:
De-stigmatizing and creating a legally protected category for the overweight removes social incentives to attain a healthy weight. Unfortunately, some people have gland problems and will always be obese. There is nothing they can do about that. The immense majority of overweight and obese adults in America CAN do something about it, and there is no excuse for not doing so. For cryin' out loud, skip the French fries and eat a salad once in a while. Turn off the TV and go sprinting a couple times a week. Reply

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