“Dress the part” — employer to overweight employee asking how she could advance
“Well, when the test comes back normal, will you admit that you’re just a fat ass?” — doctor to obese female patient
“You don’t have the right look for our front desk — your weight makes you look sloppy and unprofessional” — employer to male employee
Chances are, if you’re not overweight, you’ve never experienced the hurt and discrimination that people with obesity encounter when language like this is directed at them. These real statements from real people are just a few anecdotes that illustrate the emphasis on personal appearance in our world today.
Since the 1960s, it has been illegal under federal law to discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, sex and national origin. Federal protections for people with disabilities were added in 1990.
But in recent years, obesity has emerged as a new protected class. And just last month, New York City became the latest American municipality to make it illegal to discriminate on the basis of weight. “Science has shown that body type is not a connection to if you’re healthy or unhealthy. I think that’s a misnomer that we’re really dispelling,” Mayor Eric Adams said in signing the law, reported the New York Times.
Other cities with similar bans are Madison, Wis.; Urbana, Ill.; Binghamton, N.Y.; and Santa Cruz and San Francisco, in California. While not specifying weight, Washington, D.C. bans discrimination based on appearance. It has been illegal to discriminate on the basis of weight in Michigan since 1976 and Washington state since 2019, while Massachusetts, New Jersey and the state of New York are currently considering bans on body size discrimination.
The Americans With Disabilities Act federally bans discrimination based on real or perceived physical impairments that substantially limit major life activities. But in court cases across the country, judges “have been hesitant to rule that weight should be considered one of them,” according to a recent report in Bloomberg news pointing out that discrimination based on weight remains legal across most of the U.S.
How we talk about obesity matters because nationally and worldwide, obesity rates are rising — dramatically. Nearly 42% of Americans are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. By 2035, it’s estimated that 4 billion people — more than half the world’s population — will be obese, according to UCLA Health news. This growth in body size comes at a time when, as New York’s Mayor Adams noted, the science is expanding, and showing that some overweight people (though not all) can show signs of good metabolic health.
Words have power — to help, or to harm. At Alphy, we’ve developed Reflect AI to help provide people with an objective view of what they’re saying and how it might be interpreted by others. This tool gives them an opportunity to adjust their tone and content in real time.
Here are three statements related to body weight, and the responses you’d receive if you typed them in an email using Reflect AI:
"Lazy slacker, no wonder you’re so fat."
"It looks like she's not going to be able to squeeze herself behind that desk, she's so overweight - can we hire someone like that?"
"I know he's obese, but he's doing a great job and that's what matters most."
Unkind words can have a negative effect on a person’s well-being. Harboring prejudice or bias against people on the basis of weight denies them equal opportunities. That, in turn, can lead to lack of varied perspectives, innovation and creativity within organizations. People who are taunted or made to feel bad about themselves are less likely to be happy or productive, which can hurt a company’s success and expose it to legal risks, too.
Few of us set out to intentionally hurt our fellow humans. Becoming more aware of the words we use, especially with new protected classes, is the first step toward better communication, more positivity, and greater success in our dealing with others. Just as some people carry more weight than others, some words do, too.
Carolyne Zinko is the editorial director of Alphy.
Reflect AI by Alphy is a SaaS platform that flags harmful language, including topic, tone, “isms,” confidence, mindset and appropriateness. Our AI language classifier detects risks in emails prior to send, flags conversational missteps (and successes) in video meetings in real-time, and upskills individual communication with targeted and personalized microlearning.