Victoria Abraham graduated from New York University last year, ready to enter the job market. She is a self-proclaimed “fat activist” who has found her voice as a content creator online, but has concerns about applying for new job.
“Walking into a job interview as a fat person, I’m already at a disadvantage,” said Victoria Abraham. “I know that whatever my qualifications are, my weight is a con.”
But on Thursday, the New York City council passed a bill that would make it illegal to discriminate against height and weight in housing, employment, and public accommodations.
“I know that at least when I get a job, if I’m experiencing this discrimination, I have someone supporting me. I have the support of the government; I have legal protection where there wasn’t any before,” said Abraham.
Only six other cities and one state have similar laws protecting Americans against height and weight discrimination: Binghamton, New York; Madison, Wisconsin; Urbana, Illinois; Washington, DC; San Francisco and Santa Cruz, California; and Michigan.
Weight discrimination is widespread, but hits women the hardest – particularly women of color.
Women considered obese earned $5.25 less per hour than women considered normal weight, according to a Vanderbilt University study. Discrimination based on weight is also comparable to the levels of racial discrimination in the United States, according to the American Journal of Public Health.
“It’s not only protecting people in the workplace from this or in getting apartments, but it’s also about changing culture,” said Shaun Abreu, a New York City Councilman, and the lead sponsor of the bill.
Abreu said a version of the bill existed before he came on board. But after facing his own weight discrimination, he took the lead.
“Just recently someone who I considered to be a friend came up to me and touched my stomach and said, ‘we’re getting bigger there buddy.’ And it just speaks to the toxic culture that exists in the United States when it comes to people that are above their average peers weight,” said Abreu.
22 years in the making
Jennifer Portnick is a veteran fitness instructor, teaching 17 fitness classes a week. But she still remembers the time she applied for her first job at Jazzercize in San Francisco 22 years ago.
“I was invited to go to tryouts where the regional manager is kind of behind you watching you dance. And after class she told me, you are going be fantastic,” recalls Portnick.
She just needed to do one more thing: Take a photo holding out her arms, parallel to the floor, which was then sent to the corporate office.
What came back wasn’t a job offer, but a letter that read, in part, “you have all the all the qualifications for a potential trainee except for the fitness level required… Consequently, a Jazzercize applicant must have a higher muscle to fat ratio and look leaner than the public,” the letter continued.
Portnick, who was stunned, wanted to make a change. She got that chance thanks to a law in San Francisco banning discrimination in housing and employment based on height and weight, with the help of the San Francisco Human Rights Commission.
After six months of negotiations with Portnick, Jazzercize changed their policy, ending the requirement that an instructor has to look “leaner than the public.”
“If it hadn’t been for the law, I’m sure that I wouldn’t have had the outcome that I did,” Portnick said.
More than 20 years later, similar laws have been slow to be adopted nationwide. New Jersey, New York state, and Massachusetts are currently looking at similar legislation. Fat activists are hopeful this New York City bill will be a catalyst for other cities and states to follow suit.
“San Francisco is often a cultural lead in the country, and it’s really too bad that didn’t spread wider than it has. But I am super excited about New York City’s efforts. I would love to see it ripple out through the rest of the country as more of a standard than as a one-off,” said Portnick.
Discrimination is hard to prove in any class, whether it be race, age, sexual orientation, gender, and now, weight and height.
As part of the bill, job descriptions that require a certain height or weight to perform a job would be considered in any discrimination case.
“If there’s a job requirement where weight is related to the essential function of the job, then that’s an affirmative defense that an employer will have,” said Abreu.
The Partnership of New York City, which represents the interests of small businesses in New York City, argues the bill is overly broad, opening businesses up to costly litigation.
“The extent of the impact and cost of this legislation has not been fully considered,” said Kathy Wylde, President and CEO of the Partnership for New York City, in a statement.
Several leaders in the fat activism community spoke at a hearing on the bill last month about their personal encounters with weight discrimination.
“Testimony at the hearing talked about the problems overweight people face sitting in restaurant and theater seats, bikes having a weight limit, taxi cabs requiring seat belt extenders. All of these things could be considered discrimination under this bill and require costly modifications to avoid fines and lawsuits,” said Wylde.