When Kimmie Singh started her rotations as a dietitian-in-training, she knew her schooling, grades and references wouldn’t be a problem to land the best opportunities. But her weight would be.
She said her body size drew contention throughout graduate school: Mentors warned her that securing work experience may be difficult. She would sign up to volunteer, but would never receive calls back after showing up in person. When she was placed in a hospital to gain clinical experience, supervisors looked “taken aback” after meeting her, she told The Washington Post. And the people she worked with would openly ridicule anyone with a higher weight, she added.
New York City, where Singh lives, is trying to change this, and lawmakers and advocates hope their efforts will inspire other cities and states to do the same.
The New York City Council is poised to pass legislation that would prohibit discrimination based on height and weight in the workplace, housing and public accommodations. The bill advanced through its final hearing in late February and is expected to go up for a vote in the coming weeks.
State legislatures in New York, Massachusetts, Vermont and New Jersey could follow suit, with all four bodies currently considering similar policies. That would extend size-based discrimination protections to millions of Americans, marking a major shift in the country, where such protections currently only exist in two states, Michigan and Washington.
The New York City bill, with 33 co-sponsors on a council that requires 26 yes votes to pass legislation, would add height and weight as protected classes under the city’s human rights law, alongside gender, race, age, national origin and more. Mayor Eric Adams has indicated support for the bill as well, said councilman and bill sponsor Shaun Abreu. The National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, an advocacy group, backs it as well.
“This was long overdue as a civil rights issue,” Abreu told The Post. “It’s super important that we treat everyone with the dignity and respect they deserve. At the end of the day, this is about job security, this is about housing security. If someone looks a certain way, if someone is of a different body size or has higher weight, who cares?”
More than 40 percent of adults in the United States report experiencing weight stigma at some point in their lives, and studies show that its impacts could go far beyond self-esteem, like lower wages and fewer workplace opportunities. Women are particularly impacted, with some data stating that a woman’s hourly pay can drop by almost 2 percent for every one-unit increase in BMI.
In most places in the country, there are no laws explicitly prohibiting this kind of discrimination. If someone feels they’ve been treated unfairly based on their size, little legal recourse exists, said Rebecca Puhl, a clinical psychologist who teaches at the University of Connecticut and whose research addresses weight-based bullying, bias and discrimination.
In 2013 for instance, a New Jersey judge ruled that an Atlantic City casino was allowed to fire its “Borgata babe” waitresses if they didn’t maintain what the businesses deemed an acceptable weight. Only the state of Michigan and a handful of U.S. cities, such as San Francisco; Madison, Wis.; and Urbana, Ill., ban weight-based discrimination. The state of Washington considers obesity a disability, which means anyone labeled obese is protected under the Washington Law Against Discrimination.
According to Abreu, there’s a “cultural groundswell now that is really forcing this to its moment.” Researchers and advocates agree.
Puhl, who has tracked public support for laws to prohibit weight discrimination for more than a decade, said momentum is “increasing” to adopt such policies.
“What that’s attributable to, it’s hard to say. It could be issues like increased awareness of weight stigma,” Puhl said. “We’re seeing a more vocal body positivity movement, which is helping to raise awareness of this as well. There is an increasing awareness that this is a legitimate issue that policy remedies are appropriate for.”
In San Francisco, the law, in place since 2000, forced a fitness studio to stop requiring its teachers to “look leaner than the public.”
And in Michigan, the first state to pass the law in 1976, “rates of weight discrimination, particularly for women, have gone down,” Puhl said. “That legislation is a very important preventive strategy because it tells employers that they have to ensure that they are not treating their employees differently because of their body size.”
If the bill becomes law in New York City, complaints regarding size-based discrimination would be filed with the city’s Commission on Human Rights. A lawyer would review the case, and there would be an investigation. “And this is how any other protected class is handled, just like other characteristics are protected. Those height and weight discrimination cases will be adjudicated similarly,” Abreu said.
Both Abreu and Puhl acknowledge that the law has limitations. Discrimination based on characteristics such as race and gender have been illegal for decades now, yet such issues remain pervasive.
Civil rights statutes are not a panacea, but they have helped other stigmatized groups and curbed inequities, Puhl said.
“Has it eliminated them entirely? No, but it has contributed in very important ways,” Puhl added. “If New York City passes this bill, that will be a meaningful step forward. And it will provide a model and example for not just other cities but other states to follow.”
For Singh, the law offers a future with less uncertainty and distress.
“It’s going to take some time between the law being passed and the world just being a bit safer,” Singh said. “But it’s hard for me to describe in words how painful it is to know that right now, it’s legal to discriminate in that way.”