The Skinny on Job Discrimination

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Imagine showing up to work only to have your boss tell you that maybe tonight you should skip dinner and read a good book — and it wasn’t because he wanted you to relax with a good novel.

Meet Annette McConnell, a successful, award-winning employee at an Arizona company, who also happens to weigh 300 pounds. Yes, Annette’s manager told her to curl up with a good book and fast for the night, and soon her worst fear came true: “I was told by my manager that they were going to lay me off because people don’t like buying from fat people.”

Now, if I told you that a supervisor instructed an employee to leave because “people don’t like buying from Asians” or “people don’t like buying from pregnant women” it would be a no brainer discrimination suit.

Ellen Frankel understands McConnell’s frustration firsthand, from a different vantage point. Frankel, who stands four feet eight inches, endures remarks and behavior from co-workers that someone of average height would never encounter. “People in authority will very easily make comments about height and weight that they would never make about race and gender.” Frankel recalls larger colleagues playfully scooping her up and patting her on the head — not exactly professional or acceptable behavior towards an accomplished author and mother of two. When it comes to “weightism,” the “rotund” among us have very few rights (if any) when it comes to hiring and firing, and the same holds true for “heightism.”

One state representative decided it's time to combat this type of lookism discrimination. The “short and fat” bill (as dubbed by the media), sponsored by Massachusetts representative Byron Rushing applies primarily to the workforce but also covers landlords and real estate transactions. Discrimination based on appearance, at least regarding weight isn’t going away anytime soon ... and unfortunately it's not just perception. Federal government statistics show that United States obesity rates are at an all time high with nearly one-third of adult Americans considered obese, even at a time when we all seem so health conscious. Rep. Rushing says it’s a question of civil rights. “This is one of the last physical aspects of people that you can acceptably laugh at,” remarks Rushing, who incidentally is black, slender and of average height. “You can be a shock jock on the radio and talk about fat people for a solid week and no one would ever think of having you lose your job. It's still acceptable.”

The proposed bill, though in its infancy, would serve as a trailblazer for the country but is not the first of its kind. Ever heard of the “purple hair” also known as the “ugly” ordinance? I promise, I am not making that up, it really exists. In 1992, a Santa Cruz group called the Body Image Task Force ignited the idea behind the ordinance, provoking an intense and “raucous” controversy on the merits of anti-lookism. City Council initially drafted the ordinance to render appearances invisible. The author said, “people ought to be judged on the basis of real criteria, their ability to perform the job or pay the rent,” aiming at equal opportunity not equality.

Eventually the ordinance passed and prohibited discrimination on the basis of “physical characteristics” defined as a “bodily condition … or characteristic of any person which is from birth, accident or disease, or from any natural physical development, or any other outside event outside the control of that person including physical mannerisms.” In other words, the ordinance proscribed discrimination based only on the aspects of bodily appearances beyond a person’s control. Michigan, the District of Columbia and San Francisco also prohibit discrimination based on height and weight.

But not everyone supports this idea of these appearance discrimination bills. Critics of Santa Cruz’s “ugly” ordinance prompted cries of outrage. “If someone has 14 earrings in their ears — and spiky green hair and smells like a skunk,” quipped Kathy Manoff, owner of a small restaurant, “I don’t know why I have to hire them.”

Critics of the Massachusetts bill (and I assume they are svelte, tall critics), declare that obesity is not an immutable characteristic deserving of special protection akin to that of race and gender. “People can lose weight,” retorts David Yas, publisher of Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly. “As that line of argument goes, why receive special treatment? There is some of that attitude in the courts — that this should not rise to the level of race and gender — the rights of which are so important.” Interesting, isn’t that for a jury to decide?

After all, the statistics (and wallets) don’t lie. A study in the American Economic Review demonstrated that “lookism,” exerts a powerful force on the labor market, so that for both men and women “wages of people with below average looks are lower than those of average looking workers and there is a premium in wages for good looking people. The wage differential between attractive and ugly people is about 10 percent for both sexes.” Just ask Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards. I’m sure his $400 haircut was designed to enhance and not detract from his image.

The bill remains controversial as to where we draw the line. Opposing Mr. Yas’s statement, a columnist for the New Republic once said, “Appearance, like race and sex and physical handicap is an immutable character and should be outlawed.” Yet, he was troubled by the logic spinning out of control. “What about prejudice on the basis of a whiny voice? Or what about ‘grouch liberation?” Good point, but this bill has merit and doesn’t come close to spinning out of control. It merely requires that employers base their judgments upon a fundamental premise of individual merit and intrinsic worth.

“I spent 25 years of my life trying to get thin,” says Jeanne Toombs, a piano teacher weighing in at 300 pounds. “All I ever got was fatter and I felt like a failure. I thought it was my fault and it wasn’t. People come in different sizes, they always have and they always will … I haven’t robbed a bank. I work with children.”

When applying for a job, are we applying for best dressed/best looking or employment? If we’re going to be judgmental, let it be for ability, not disability. Quite simply, we shouldn’t be forced to take a “hunk” or “babe” test to get a job. Let us present our IQ, not our waist size.


Legislation would expand law to protect short, fat people
Fat chance: It's not easy for obese workers
A Memoir on Short Stature & Inner Growth
The Logic Of American Antidiscrimination Law
Santa Cruz Ordinance: 92-11, §§ 9.83.01; 9.83.02(13)
TRB, The Tyranny of Beauty, 197 , Oct. 12, 1987, at 4
• Richard C. Paddock, California Album; Santa Cruz Grants Anti-Bias Protection to the Ugly, Editorial, Santa Cruz’ Weirdocracy, Jan. 21, 1992, at F2.

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Lis Wiehl joined FOX News Channel as a legal analyst in October 2001. She is currently a professor of law at the New York Law School. Wiehl received her undergraduate degree from Barnard College in 1983 and received her Master of Arts in Literature from the University of Queensland in 1985. In addition, she earned her Juris Doctor from Harvard Law School in 1987. Lis is also the author of The 51% Minority — How Women Still Are Not Equal and What You Can Do About It. (Watch the Video) To read the rest of Lis's bio, click here.