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Should We Have Legal Protection Against Fat Discimination?

Two sociologists make a compelling case for eradicating fat stigma. Even with legal protection, it's going to be a formidable task.

In 2002, Jennifer Portnic tried to start a Jazzercise franchise, but the company worried that a 240-pound woman might jeopardize the company’s reputation. Portnick argued that she was a perfectly capable aerobics instructor and brought a complaint before the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, which ruled in her favor.


Americans aren't just increasingly overweight, we're also getting less and less tolerant of overweight people. We attack people for gaining weight as if it's the result of a character flaw or a lack of personal responsibility. But no individual consumer can be blamed for the web of social factors that contribute to obesity—like health care, the environment, and the cost and availability of healthy food.

In an article in Contexts [PDF], sociologists Samantha Kwan and Mary Nell Trautner argue for an official stance on fighting fat stigma. What if we made weight a protected legal category and banned discrimination based on size­­ After all, they write:

the public health crisis of obesity might be better labeled a moral panic. [Scholarly] researchers argue that one can be both overweight and healthy. As such, they downplay waistline measurements, weight preoccupation, and fat reduction, moving to emphasize specific behavioral patterns and healthy lifestyles, not simple dieting.

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Given our culture's overriding preoccupation with thinness as both a moral and physical ideal, it's going to be tough to get people to extricate the issue of weight from the issue of health, even if we make it law. Consider the extreme reaction to Michelle Obama eating a hamburger for lunch—just once—while trumpeting her "Let's Move" initiative. Imagine the backlash if she paired "Let's Move" with "Let's Accept Fat," too.

Photo (cc) by Flickr user sylvar

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