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  • Writer's pictureSasha Borissenko

EPISODE 7: Enter the discrimination void

It’s legal to discriminate against someone for their size in almost every setting in New Zealand and there’s no political will to change it.

Kylie* interviewed for a disability assistant role only to be told she wasn’t the right fit, as they needed someone who could go up and down the stairs with ease.

Stairs have never been an issue for her, she told Chewing the Facts.

“Seriously, in a lot of interviews I found that I was qualified for the position but not right-sized. They would never actually say it, but they talk around it.

“You get used to hearing code words for things, especially if you are wanting a customer-facing position. There’s a lot of talk about, you know, we need a presentable, energetic-looking, well-presented person up front.”

Kylie wishes employers would frankly tell her she won’t be considered because of her size, she said.

“I kind of wish they would just say it. Like, it’s quite painful to sit through that sort of thing.”

For Fern*, work colleagues have assumed that because of her size, she lacked intelligence.

“I’ll be working with someone for six months and they won’t even say hello to me.”

“Then they’ll find out that I’m someone who’s a little bit important [and] suddenly they want to be networking with me.

“Well, hold on a second, when you thought I was just a silly dumb girl who’s fat, you didn’t want a bar of me.”

A Massey University study in 2005 asked fifty human resources people to rank fictitious CVs on the suitability of a role. Fat women applicants were ranked as having the poorest CV, despite no difference in qualifications or experience.

Thirty years worth of research has suggested fat people are perceived as lazy, and lacking self-discipline, self-control, and competency in the workplace.

As size increases, weight penalties increase, for example. A US study in 2010 found ‘very thin’ women earned US$22,283 more a year than women classified as having an ‘average’ weight. ‘Very fat’ women on the other hand earned $18,902.45 less than women with an ‘average’ weight.

Weight stigma expert and University of Connecticut professor Rebecca Puhl said people “absolutely face prejudice and unfair treatment because of their weight”.

Whether through the recruitment process, salary compensation, promotions, job termination, or among colleagues, “people are essentially vulnerable to weight stigma at really every stage of the employment process, from being hired to being fired”.

Size discrimination is not a prohibited ground under the Human Rights Act. It means fat people can be legally discriminated against in employment, education, health, and public settings.

In a statement, justice minister Ginny Andersen said other protections could be sought via the Code of Health and Disability Services Consumers’ Rights, which provides a general right to be free from discrimination.

Any review of the Human Rights Act would require significant policy work, which wasn’t part of the Government’s work programme, she said.

Office of Human Rights Proceedings deputy director Greg Robins said including weight in the Human Rights Act could provide people with a clear pathway to stand up for their rights.

It can also help shape the public discourse, he said.

In May, New York City mayor Eric Adams signed an ordinance banning discrimination on the grounds of weight and height.

San Francisco, Washington State, Michigan, Victoria in Australia, and Reykjavik in Iceland are among the few jurisdictions that prohibit size discrimination.

*Names and identifying details changed on request

Chewing the Facts - new episodes every Sunday. Produced with the NZ Herald, with support from NZ On Air.

You can follow the podcast at iHeartRadio, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

This post originally featured on the NZHerald, here.


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- Weight bias: Nature, consequences, and remedies

- Big fat inequalities, thin privilege: An intersectional perspective on ‘body size’

- Support for weight-related anti-discrimination laws and policies: Modelling the role of attitudes toward poverty alongside weight stigma, causal attributions about weight, and prejudice

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- Need for legal protection against weight discrimination in the United States

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- Disability discrimination and obesity: The big questions?

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