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Obesity and Discrimination in the Work Place


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Tracy Pariseau

What prompted me to suggest this topic to the members of my group was the recent proposal by Mississippi lawmakers to ban restaurants from serving overweight people. While that law was subsequently defeated, the entire issue began to generate thoughts about weight bias. I am an overweight American and, as such, I feel I have personally experienced this firsthand. I have been fat, yes fat, since I was 16 years old. I do not have a problem with it, but apparently many others do.

The first time I flew on an airplane, I did not worry that it would crash, or that my luggage would be lost . . . no what bothered me was the possibility that Southwest Airlines might ask me to purchase another seat because of my size. I worried about that until I successfully passed through the gate to the airplane and buckled myself in. I can understand the point of passengers who do not want large people smothering them during their flights, but with the majority of Americans suffering from weight issues why do airlines insist on such small seats?

I have been employed since I was 16 years old. I have never had a "no call, no show" or been written up. I have rarely taken a sick day, and I have always had excellent evaluations by my supervisors. Yet, there have been times when I have gone to apply for a new job and I have felt discriminated against, not because of my lack of skills but because a fat woman walked into the interview room. Can I prove it? Well, that depends, once I applied for a position in a courthouse and I know I met their basic qualifications. In fact, I know my references and my academic background exceeded that of the woman they hired. I know that because she and I were in school together. She was a young, thin, blond woman who barely passed her Constitutional Law, Adjudication, and Criminal Law classes. She was actually placed on academic review during her first and third semesters. We took many of the same classes and she often came to me for help with her papers and speeches we were required to do. Neither of us had prior work history in the criminal justice field. Both of us had held jobs in customer service that were comparable. I know that I performed well on the interview because one of the men who interviewed me made a point of writing me a personal note later, aside from the usual form letter, to tell me so (I think he was motivated by guilt). But, Jen got the job and I did not. I was actually floored when I walked into the courthouse and realized who had beaten me out of the job. When I left the courthouse I was devastated and honestly felt that it was because she presented as a much more attractive clerk than I would have. No, I cannot prove it beyond a reasonable doubt, but the inference is there.

I would like to say that this was the only time I have been turned down for positions because of my size, but I truly believe there have been others. Does that mean that it always happens? Obviously it does not because I have been gainfully employed for years. And in the end the jobs I have held have been wonderful and perhaps better than the ones that "got away." That being said, however, I am convinced that weight bias is alive and well in this country.

Other issues that I have encountered have been comments by co-workers who have been insensitive. When they tease or make negative comments about fat people they see on television or in the halls, do they not realize that I am the same size or perhaps even larger than the person they have just attacked? Or when students or clients I have worked with have been angry with me, the first words out of their mouths always include the word "fat" and an expletive. And when administrators address that, they never hold them accountable for the word fat, only the swearwords. But if I were Black, or Hispanic, or Jewish, etc., I cannot imagine they would let that go. Now, I understand that I was not born fat and that to some degree I am responsible for the way I am shaped. But I do not think it is appropriate to tease or discriminate against anyone. I should be judged not on the size of my body but the size of my heart. I should be evaluated by potential employers, not on the shape of my figure but the content of my mind.

Nicole Camire

This topic of obesity is important to me. I have always been considered a "thin" girl and believe it or not, I have experienced my share of discrimination. Apparently when your thin you are not supposed to be insecure about anything, you shouldn't worry about eating healthy because "your so skinny you don't have to worry about what you eat" (despite the fact that stroke and heart attack looms in your family and you have been told by your doctor to eat healthy) and you have no imperfections. If you do have imperfections you better not express concerns about them because they mean nothing compared to that of what obese people encounter! You are thin, so therefore life is easy for you. I am not saying that I am subject to discrimination similar to that of overweight people, I am merely stating that it is not fun to have others assume certain characteristics about you because of a number - your weight.

I lived in California several years ago and was employed at an all girls public relations firm. Should I say I was employed at an all "thin" girls public relations firm? That would be more accurate. I worked alongside 14 girls for over two years who were all thin and hip. The two owners of the company were in their mid 40's but appeared to be 30 at the most. Did they say in the job description that you must be thin? Of course not, as they would have had a lawsuit filed in a matter of days. Being thin at this particular public relations firm was implied. Upon interview (which by the way was conducted by a panel of three to four thin publicists) you became aware of the weight requirements of the office. All you had to do was look around at all of the thin girls scrambling.

I took this job, as public relations is a difficult field to be involved with if you don't have experience, which I did not. The firm was respectable and good paying and hey, I got to meet celebrities! Needless to say, after some time had passed I started to feel the burden and guilt of being employed at a place that made me somehow feel so badly about myself. What would they say about my mom if she ever walked into the office to visit? The thought of whispers or laughter sickened me then, and still does to this day. I have shared this work experience as it is I have experience weight discrimination first hand and regardless of who the discrimination is directed towards or where it is coming from, it is unwarranted and unacceptable.

Katharina Hartman

Based on my medical background I could not overlook the fact that obesity (as well as anorexia) poses severe health problems for an individual. Many diseases, due to obesity, have been identified as a leading cause for decreased life quality and life expectancy. Therefore, my goal has always been to focus on prevention and a healthy life style, for myself as well as for others.

However, I recently discovered that my concerns related to obesity did not take into account or recognize the fact that obese people are discriminated against. When this topic was raised by one of our group members I was very much surprised about her concerns. My ignorance was quickly overcome after statistics and reliable reports provided overwhelming evidence supporting her claims. It has been upsetting to me to realize that even though racism is an identified discrimination, other forms of discrimination still exist in our world and are overlooked so easily. This group process helped me to gain insights and compassion toward those among us, who are exposed to discrimination solely based upon their appearance.