Statistically, fat people don't get hired, they don't get promoted, they're publicly shamed and don't access healthcare as a result, so is it time to take weight discrimination seriously?
In 2016, researchers at the University of Exeter found that a woman who was a stone heavier (~6 kg) would on average earn UK£1500 (NZ$3052) less a year than a comparable woman of the same height.
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One US survey found 25 per cent of participants reported job discrimination because of weight, such as being the target of derogatory humour and pejoratives, being denied promotions or not being hired. Another New Zealand study looked at photographs attached to CVs.
More than 50 human resources consultants ranked fictitious CVs on the suitability for a role. Overweight applicants were ranked as having the poorest quality CV, despite there being no difference in qualifications or experience.
In a health setting, evidence suggests health professionals are just as capable of possessing conscious and unconscious bias - despite having an ethical obligation to combat fat stigma. In a US study, of audio-recorded encounters from 39 physicians it was found that physicians made fewer statements of empathy, legitimisation, concern, and reassurance to obese patients.
Auckland doctor and obesity specialist Robyn Toomath says the flow-on effect of this stigma leads to adverse consequences.
"People who are obese don't turn up to routine screening, they don't turn up to outpatient clinics, they don't go to doctors because they are likely to have negative comments made about their weight. That in itself is a problem.
"It's very much legal to discriminate against someone based on their weight in New Zealand. Neither weight, size or physical appearance are protected categories."
And then there's other forms of indirect discrimination. The issue of tight spaces and constructed environments that exclude fat people is something Massey University fat studies senior lecturer Cat Pause has spent her career trying to combat.
"Fat people don't have the same access. What types of bodies are we creating urban spaces for? Everything in our lived environment is a social construction. Doors could weigh 500 pounds, but they don't, because most people can't open a 500-pound door.
"Most people tend to think that environments are neutral places; if they're not accessible or accommodate different kinds of bodies, those bodies are assumed to be deviant rather than the environment."
Take airplanes, for example. Pause says airplane seats have gotten significantly smaller over the last 30 years. "You know that's of course in juxtaposition to the fact people's bodies have been getting larger. It's capitalism that's driving the size of those seats.
Manufacturers are more concerned with fitting in as many bodies as possible, rather than making something that's comfortable and accessible".
So where do fat people legally stand? Otago University Associate Professor Selene Mize thinks there may be relief within the current legal framework as the Human Rights Act prohibits discrimination on the grounds of disability.
"Not everybody agrees but I think obesity fits within the definition - 'disability includes any loss or abnormality of physiological or anatomical structure or function'. I think it could fit - not as an illness or epidemic, but as an abnormality of physiological
structure. It's not the default structure to be obese.
"I'm of the opinion that if the current law gives you an avenue, why not take it?"
But it appears that no-one has, so far. A Human Rights Commission spokesperson says no case has gone before the New Zealand courts.
Weight and body size are not prohibited grounds of discrimination under the Human Rights Act.
Unfair practices based on weight or body size might give rise to discrimination on an unlawful ground. In these cases people might seek redress through the Human
Rights Commission's enquiries and complaints service.
The Human Rights Commission received 25 weight-related complaints between October 2013 and October 2018. The complainants cited obesity, weight and being overweight in their complaint. Out of the 25 complaints, 10 of them were related to employment and seven were related to access to healthcare.
"Weight as a potential human rights issue or unlawful ground of discrimination has not been a focus for the Human Rights Commission."
Mize says the probable reason there are no cases is that discrimination is an inherently difficult area because it often deals with motivations. "In hiring, if you pick person a, over person b, why did you do that? The manager will seldom say 'I picked person a
because that person is thin'. This is a big evidentiary hurdle."
There may also be arguments that the different result was based on a factor that is not protected in the Human Rights Act, she says.
For example, say a person is denied surgery in favour of a thin person. The medical community could say: "Instead of saying, 'we're discriminating against you or treating you differently because you're obese', they'll say 'we're treating you differently because
the prognosis for this surgery is not as positive as it is for other people".
A specific weight clause could eliminate doubt and set a powerful precedent for eliminating stigma, and it's been done in the US. But Justice Minister Andrew Little says weight discrimination is not a priority area. "However there is a potential for a wider review of our Human Rights Act to come out of the hate speech review."
Why is weight the last in the discrimination pecking order? Mize says one reason may be because people genuinely believe fat people are an enormous drain on the healthcare system, which ultimately falls on the taxpayer.
"Well, I'm obese, but I haven't been to a doctor for year-long periods at a time. I haven't had any publicly funded surgery at all other than having a caesarean section during childbirth. I'm a taxpayer and I make a good wage. But you can't shake this perception. People feel 'because you're overweight this is my business because you're costing me money, you're costing me tax dollars'. They seldom take issue with rugby players or sportspeople who get injured a lot, and have big healthcare costs, but rugby players are typically much more popular than fat people."
One in three people in New Zealand are considered to be 'obese' - which begs the question: if stigma and discrimination is rife, why is it not a priority? We have few politicians who are fat, and those who have been, many - Paula Bennett, David Lange, and Marama Fox, for example - have had bariatric surgery.
In my view, it's because of the stigma, and because of its pervasiveness, that we're dealing with a silent and voiceless population, which needs to change.