Photo: Smit Erdem
Imagine this: you live with a condition that puts you at physical risk for diabetes, joint and heart disease, hypertension, dementia and some cancers. But on top of that, you’re stigmatized as lazy, willful, sloppy and self-destructive, not to mention the antithesis of current norms of acceptable appearance. You’re passed over for employment or promotion. Jokes are openly made at your expense, and you’re treated as a second-class citizen-in the media, on the streets, in health care facilities-even in your own family. The first thing people notice about you-and often comment on-is your weight. You’re at psychosocial risk for everything from eating disorders to depression and suicidal thoughts.
According to recent estimates, weight discrimination has increased by 66 per cent over the past decade and now stands on a par with racial discrimination. “Weight stigmatization is socially acceptable. It is rarely challenged and often ignored,” says Dr. Rebecca Puhl, director of research at Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity. Her goal is to place weight discrimination and stigmatization squarely on the radar of social justice issues.
The costs of obesity bias in human productivity and quality of life are high, says Puhl. And weight bias is particularly hard on the young, says Dr. Wendy Craig, a psychology professor at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. “These children suffer from low self-esteem, bullying, eating disorders, suicidal thoughts, poor social interaction and poor academic performance.”
In the electronic media, it’s open season on the overweight, with many a joke and snide comment made-to canned laughter-at their expense.
David Dolomont, a 48-year-old Hamilton, Ont., father of two sons knows all about weight prejudice. A former paramedic and now a corporate CPR and first aid instructor, he recalls the lifelong comments made at his expense-from the ubiquitous “Hey, big guy” greeting to gales of laughter when he asked about joining a paramedic bike squad. “We don’t make Spandex that big,” he was told.” This treatment starts very early,” he says. “You get labelled as something that does not quite fit the norm.”
In high school, he weathered the usual taunts, which he now brushes off as “the unthinking and innate meanness of kids.” The worst time for him was early adulthood when he entered the workforce and realized his treatment stemmed from the bias of adults. “It wasn’t about ‘Fatty, Fatty, two by four’ anymore,’ ” he recalls. “It was about one of my first managers making a weight-related remark every time he saw me.” At an employees’ breakfast, for example, the manager loudly announced, “We saw you coming, so we got an extra cook.”
“You start to wonder if you’re ever taken for who you really are,” says Dolomont. A few months ago, he heard a human resources specialist on the radio saying that, when faced with a thin applicant and an equally qualified overweight applicant, she would hire the former because the overweight person would call in sick more often and overtax the benefits system. “I started out working in Toronto with young men who had just finished four-year phys-ed programs, and six to eight months later, some of them were gone on permanent disability with blown-out backs or knees,” he fumes. “But 20 years later, the fat guy is still working every day and has never filled out a worker’s comp report.”
Obesity bias victims and obesity advocates are beginning to challenge the status quo, in some cases successfully, according to Dr. Shaheen Azmi, acting director of the Policy, Education, Monitoring and Outreach Branch of the Ontario Human Rights Commission in Toronto. “Obesity is increasingly being interpreted as a type of disability,” he says. And under provincial and federal rights legislation, disabilities require accommodation.
In 2008, for example, the Supreme Court of Canada upheld a ruling that Air Canada had to provide an obese woman with two airline seats for the price of one. In the same year, a B.C. court ruled against a 270-pound man who complained that his provincial emergency health services had not given him safe and appropriate ambulance transport because of his weight, forcing him to walk part of the way to the hospital. The court noted, however, that in the ambulance context, obesity could be deemed a disability in some cases.
In the workplace setting, women have successfully lodged complaints against employers for obesity-related comments using the gender discrimination or sexual harassment provisions in human rights codes. “Pejorative remarks about weight are more often directed at overweight females as not conforming to the norm of what is feminine, attractive and appealing,” says Azmi.
Fortunately, the prospects for fairer treatment are getting brighter. Although disabilities in human rights codes are still interpreted as conditions that are present congenitally from birth or due to accidents or illness, “There is a growing potential to have obesity included as a disability in legislation. The doors are open,” says Azmi.
He notes, however, that advocates for the obese have not pushed as forcefully as other advocacy groups such as those of the transgendered. “People do not yet recognize that obesity bias is a social issue.” Fortunately, social justice-minded Canadians may soon change that. Ω