Support for weight discrimination laws increases

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Photo by Ken Yanagisawa.

Public support for legislation protecting Americans against weight discrimination has steadily increased over the past three years, according to a recent study from the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.

The study, which is the first ever to look at changing attitudes towards weight discrimination laws, found that support for disability protection rose from 62 percent to 69 percent between 2011 and 2013, and civil rights statutes for overweight individuals rose from 70 percent to 76 percent. Currently, only Michigan and several cities across the United States, including San Francisco, Calif., and Washington, D.C., have laws in place to prohibit weight bias. The broad support for these types of protections suggest that policy-makers should consider expanding these across the country, said Rebecca Puhl, deputy director of the Rudd Center and study co-author.

“This study shows consistent and increasing support for laws against discrimination and that this is an issue that the public is aware of and expressing support for,” Puhl said. “You can’t discriminate against gender or race, and in our study, we see there is a lot of support to add body weight to that list.”

Young Suh, a research associate at the Rudd Center and study lead author, said the media and public health campaigns stigmatize obesity to motivate people to change their eating and exercise habits. According to Suh, while lifestyle and personal choices do play a role, there are other factors contributing to obesity, including high prices of healthy food and easy access to junk food. When the American Medical Association decided in June 2013 to call obesity a disease, the public became more supportive of legal protections for the obese.

“People think we can change [how we look] if we eat less and lose more,” said Peggy Howell, public relations director of National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA). “That’s not reality. That’s someone’s idealistic thinking.”

Puhl added that $60 billion diet industry promotes misleading ideas that a person’s body weight is modifiable to extremes, placing widespread blame on individuals for their heavy body weight. The challenge is to shift societal attitudes, Puhl said.

Founded in 1969, NAAFA works to improve the quality of life for overweight people through public education and advocacy through conferences, workshops and campaigns. Howell said historically weight discrimination bills have trouble reaching public vote because few have been willing to include fighting weight bias on his or her agenda. Studies revealing increasing public support for weight discrimination legislation are “ammunition” for social change, Howell said.

“Governor Chris Christie, a man of large body size, is trashed by media all the time about his body size,” Howell said. “A person’s ability to serve in the office as governor or senator or president should not be based on body size, but rather on their political view and track record. With the current climate of fat hatred, I don’t know what it’ll take to turn things around.”

Jeannette DePatie, a fitness expert and member of the Association for Size Diversity and Health (ASDAH), started a website and blog called “The Fat Chick” to advocate for the acceptance of one’s body size. According to DePatie, American society doles out hundreds of negative messages everyday telling people they should be dissatisfied with their bodies. The level of vitriol directed at people advocating self-acceptance is intense, she said, adding that the public would not guess how much hate mail and threats body-image advocates receive.

According to Roberta Friedman, director of public policy at the Rudd Center, people are more systemically discriminated against in the medical system, in education and in employment opportunities when they are obese.

“Rudd’s mission is doing research that illuminates those problems and proposing changes that can be made in policy to reduce those problems,” she said.

The Rudd Center, which is located on behind Science Hill on Edwards Street, was founded in 2005.

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