Evolving Our Definition of Discrimination: An Exploration of “Weightism”

Although we like to think that discrimination based on prejudice is something we only do unintentionally, when we’re on autopilot, I think we should be cautious lest we think that conscious discrimination has been eliminated from mainstream culture.

What do I mean by that?

For example, thankfully, it is no longer socially acceptable for someone to (openly) question my ability to be an engineer because I am female.

However, let’s consider another physical attribute:  body weight.  The way I see it, maintaining a healthy BMI is a lot like the diversity buckets we talked about in class — everyone starts in a different place.  For example, metabolism depends on things like age, gender, and genetics.  Social and economic factors also play a huge role here, as we saw in this article about the availability of healthful food options in Ramona Gardens.  That being said, the perception exists that anyone can reach a healthy weight with enough determination and self-discipline, leading to attitudes of weightism, or weight bias.

As a high-profile example, does anyone remember back in 2009 when President Obama named Regina Benjamin as Surgeon General?  Despite her superb medical qualifications, many cited her weight as evidence that she was not a good choice to lead the nation in the battle against obesity (ABC News; Telegraph).  Some believed she should release her BMI to the public to show that she was “healthy” despite the fact that she “appeared overweight.”

Personally, I find this a little scary.  How would you feel if your BMI was used as a job qualification, like your GPA or GRE score?  I’m interested in hearing your thoughts on this issue.

3 thoughts on “Evolving Our Definition of Discrimination: An Exploration of “Weightism”

  1. Thanks for posting, this is a tricky issue for sure and it constantly comes up in my field because a lot of the field work requires that you are fit. A typical job description is that you have to be able to hike 10 miles while carrying 50 lbs, and must be able to stand or walk for 8-10 hours a day. It is really difficult to sidestep the issue of weight when it comes to field work, especially if the applicant’s are on equal footing when it comes to previous experience or skills. What would you do?

  2. This is a touch one! I personally do not feel that people should be discriminated against because of their weight. It does happen, quite often, and is just as wrong as discriminating against someone based upon anyother marker. However, I also understand where companies are coming from in requiring tracking of employees BMIs/body weight (and other health parameters like blood pressure, blood glucose, triglycerides, etc). Obesity and its related comorbidities are EXPENSIVE to treat and end up costing companies a lot of $ – in health care reimbursement and missed work by those employees. Weight is certainly only one part of the puzzle and should not be used ALONE in determining employment status/benefits/etc, but I think it is reasonable for companies to focus on helping their employees become healthier.

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