Should Making Fun Of A Co-Worker's Weight Be Illegal?

Deborah Marks was a New York telemarketer, and a damn good one. She received outstanding reviews, a series of prizes, and was named "Telemarketer of the Year." Marks hoped to move into a sales rep position, but when promotion time came, another woman got the job. "Deb, I've told you," her boss allegedly said to her, "outside sales, presentation is extremely important. Lose the weight and you will get promoted." Marks weighed 270 pounds.

Marks filed a lawsuit alleging sex discrimination, because the other woman was chosen for being "thin" and "cute," in her boss' supposed words, and men weren't judged in the same way. She lost her case because she couldn't point to an overweight male salesperson as an example.

Both women and men who are fired, or refused a job or promotion because of their weight, are left in murky legal terrain. There are no laws banning discrimination against fat people, so women can either sue for sex discrimination, claiming beauty standards aren't applied equally, or obese individuals can sue for disability discrimination, claiming that their weight is a significant enough problem to be protected under the Americans With Disabilities Act.

But there's no recourse if an employer discriminates against applicants or employees for being overweight, if men and women are equal victims. And this kind of discrimination happens all the time.
Consider this:

  • "Very thin" women earn $22,000 more than their average-bodied counterparts, according to a study published last year in the Journal of Applied Psychology.
  • If a very thin woman gains 25 pounds, she suffers an average salary drop of $15,500, that study found.
  • If an obese woman loses weight, she shouldn't expect a pay raise. According to a new study from University of Hawaii at Manoa, the University of Manchester and Monash University, people are also prejudiced against women who slim up.

The researchers, reports, had young men and women read stories about three different women: one who was thin, one who was obese, and one who was now thin having just lost around 70 pounds. Afterward, the participants rated the woman's attractiveness, and their views on fat people. The result: People disliked the woman who lost the weight the most.

"The strength of obesity stigma is so powerful, pervasive and persistent," lead researcher Janet Latner told "[Our results show] just how strong and harmful it can be. Many people are seeking weight loss to shake off the sting of obesity, and they may not necessarily achieve that.

"We really need public policies that combat obesity stigma," Latner concluded.

The call for government intervention on this issue is getting louder, with almost 70 percent of the American people over age 20 now overweight or obese. A parliamentary group and charity in the United Kingdom just drafted a report, which proposed amending the country's anti-discrimination law to add weight or appearance as a protected class, alongside race, gender, age, religion, disability and sexual orientation.

The report found that 1 in 5 people had been victimized because of their weight, reports Britain's The Telegraph newspaper, but it added that more research needs to be done to assess the scale of the problem. If weight became protected like race or gender, then taunting someone as "fat" could become illegal harassment.

Silence about a person's weight could be dangerous, however, if individuals "don't know the medical consequences that result from their fatness," according to Tam Fry, of the U.K.'s National Obesity Forum. "Doctors must be able to give them 'tough love' and tell them they are overweight or obese."

Most people could probably tell the difference, though, between a doctor cautioning you on your BMI and your boss saying you're not "cute" enough for a promotion.

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