Canada’s first ever conference on weight-based discrimination

Yesterday in Toronto, doctors, public health policymakers, government representatives, educators and activists gathered for Canada’s first ever conference on weight discrimination. The First Annual Canadian Conference on Weight Bias and Discrimination calls it “the last socially acceptable form of discrimination,” which I do not agree with in the slightest – there are many remaining socially acceptable forms of discrimination – but I do agree that weight-based discrimination is a serious problem, and not just in Canada.

Overweight and obese people are discriminated against in myriad ways, the most notable being in employment and in healthcare. There is no legal statute in Canada that prohibits discrimination based on weight, and as far as I know, there isn’t one in the US, either.

Dr. Arya Sharma, scientific director of the Canadian Obesity Network, says that health professionals regularly discriminate against obese patients. She told the Vancouver Sun:

You have a patient who goes to see the orthopedic surgeon and says, ‘I need help with my hips or knees’ and all they hear is, ‘Go lose 100 pounds and maybe we’ll talk again.’ You have this completely unprofessional behaviour because there is no way that someone who is in constant pain is in any way going to be able to lose that amount of weight, let alone that there is almost no evidence in the literature that shows that it would have a huge impact on the outcome of surgery.

Rebecca Puhl is director of research at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University and was a speaker at the conference. In a recent survey by Puhl, 65% of American men and 81% of American women supported making weight-based discrimination illegal, particularly in the workplace.

Despite this, weight-based discrimination is common in the workplace, Puhl says. Obese people are less likely to be hired that non-obese people, even when they have identical resumes, according to Puhl’s research. And when they are hired, they’re paid less, receive harsher discipline, are more less likely to be promoted and more likely to be unfairly terminated.

The conference was to end with recommendations, collected during the event by an advisory committee, on how to change negative attitudes about overweight people. I look forward to reading what they came up with.

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6 Comments

  1. Posted January 18, 2011 at 9:49 am | Permalink

    Being that we are in the middle of an obesity epidemic, one would think that attitudes towards being overweight would be changing. If they are not, then we will see more shaming, more misplaced guilt, and less overall empathy from others.

    There’s still something repulsive to many people about being overweight or even observing those who are overweight. One sees this in gross-out humor all the time. And we all must feel some need to vent our own feelings of dissatisfaction or distress, else we would not find the overweight such a handy target. Unless those change, we’ll always want to transfer or project our own feelings onto someone else.

  2. Posted January 18, 2011 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    It would be difficult to broaden the scope of such a conference to include all types of discrimination, but I think an underlying issue is whether people are discriminated against because they don’t look healthy/attractive. Employers are not looking at your weight precisely (they aren’t putting people on scales to measure it) — but they may look at your size/build (which is related to weight, but the interpretation is less structured — and this category allows for someone not just being obese, but someone having too small/big boobs for their tastes, etc), or your hair (someone may judge it for being too exotic, messy, bald, etc), or your eyes (they could be red because your interests or other work may put you in front of a computer screen… and/or you are overworked… and/or it may be genetic), or many visual factors. Some of these may be under a person’s reasonable control to a degree, but they generally aren’t BFOQs. The moral argument is more or less the same across these categories, so it is worth putting these kinds of ideas under an umbrella to increase impact and guide people to the underlying reason of *why* weight-based discrimination is bad.

    In terms of health specifically, it is probably damaging to joints in general to have more weight rather than less. Reducing unhealthy weight may be enough to deal with the issue by itself, and it can be a less risky alternative to replacing joints. It’s reasonable to want to explore this option, and doctors need a way to professional address it. A particular problem is that doctors are GPs or specialists, and while they are usually professional in their own area, they tend to be out of their element regarding other issues — so a doctor who specializes in joints may not give good advice concerning nutrition, and they need to be professional enough to refer someone to the proper doctors rather than offer their own opinions.

  3. Posted January 18, 2011 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

    The First Annual Canadian Conference on Weight Bias and Discrimination calls it “the last socially acceptable form of discrimination,” which I do not agree with in the slightest – there are many remaining socially acceptable forms of discrimination – but I do agree that weight-based discrimination is a serious problem, and not just in Canada.

    Maybe they meant that it was the last form of discrimination that a lot of people feel no compunction about espousing, don’t deny possessing and refuse to apologize for?

  4. Posted January 18, 2011 at 7:43 pm | Permalink

    The latest study seems to show that employers’ responses are driven more by gender stereotypes than by beliefs about what’s healthy. How else to explain why both thinner-than-average women and heavier-than-average men tend to be paid more than their average counterparts?

    • Posted January 19, 2011 at 1:27 am | Permalink

      The article seems to say that average-built men tend to be better paid than thin men, but it does not seem to discuss how obese men (and when we get to significantly heavier-than-average in America, we are generally talking about *obese* men) compare to the other two size groups. It would not surprise me if “thin” women and “average” men fared the best in their respective groups — which would make the “ideals” different yet not diametrically opposed.

      • Posted January 19, 2011 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

        Yes, the Star Tribune article is not clear on that point. The study actually states that “men are rewarded for gaining weight until the point of obesity.”

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