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More than a decade after the first size bill was introduced in the Massachusetts Legislature, residents may finally gain workplace protection for discrimination against height and weight — if a current bill passes.
Sen. Becca Raush, D-Needham, and Rep. Tram Nguyen, D-Andover, introduced the current bill, which could make Massachusetts the second-ever state to have such protections against size discrimination in areas including the workplace and housing. There are exclusions for health risks, such as at amusement parks.
Amanda Raffoul, a faculty member with the Strategic Training Initiative for the Prevention of Eating Disorders, or STRIPES, said “there’s a lot of momentum right now for this sort of legislation.” She added that weight discrimination in particular is an issue of public health and equity.
Currently, Michigan is the only state with a law in place to protect people from height and weight prejudices, but three other states — New Jersey, New York, and Vermont — have introduced bills this session.
Municipalities such as New York City also have had success in passing anti-discrimination regulations, and Washington state outlines some protections against obesity discrimination under its disability legislation.
Rausch said she isn’t aware of any opposition to the bill this session. She said she was not in office when Rep. Byron Rushing introduced his version of the bill in the late 1990s, but she thinks it’s the right time for this bill to succeed.
“I think people are becoming just socially more aware of body size discrimination, of the fact that it’s not a direct connection between body size and health,” she said. “There are certainly plenty of smaller body size people who are unhealthy and there are people in larger bodies who are very healthy.”
Someone who has dealt “personally and professionally with body size issues,” Rausch said she was “excited” to pick up the bill when she entered the office.
Size discrimination can factor into many parts of a person’s life.
“People that experience weight discrimination are more likely to have poor mental and physical health outcomes,” Raffoul said. “In terms of the mental health outcomes, folks that experience weight discrimination are more likely to develop eating disorders, have disordered eating, as well as anxiety, depression, and social isolation.”
She added that a person who faces weight discrimination at a doctor’s office might be less likely to seek medical care in the future when they need it.
Rachel Estapa, of Arlington, said this has happened to her, but she has since found health care providers she is comfortable with and will share with others.
“There’s this whole network of practitioners that get shared around, sort of little underground medical stuff,” she said. “If I can help foster that and make it easier for people to get access to care without the shame and stigma pushing us away, then I’m gonna do that.”
Creator of More to Love Yoga, Estapa said she takes this approach in her business as well.
The reason she got into the business, she added, was to help people. She said businesses’ jobs are to “serve a real need for someone.”
“That’s like the definition of a business. It’s solving a problem, and folks that are in larger bodies have faced so much discrimination — and not only just in our heads and experiences — but just going into a yoga studio, going into a gym, finding clothing, feeling like you can actually take a step outside without people criticizing you,” Estapa said.
Some national businesses have also taken stands against body shaming. Dove has publicly decided to support the “body size movement” and links to a petition on its website that is pushing for federal size discrimination-related measures.
Tigress Osborn, chair of the National Association for the Advancement of Fat People, said statewide legislation is the “feasible” goal right now, but a national law is “the ultimate dream.”
“We don’t think the political climate at this time is right for pursuing a federal law, but we are interested in supporting this work across the country,” she said.
In the meantime, there are certain aspects of body shaming that can slip through the cracks without federal regulations. Osborn said one of these slippages that is ingrained in some workplace cultures is diet culture and programming.
She pointed to programs that offer health care incentives to lose weight.
“We consider it discriminatory,” she said. “That means that people who are not, or cannot or choose not to lose weight, are actually being penalized in their compensation.”
Raffoul said that weight discrimination can be easy for people to brush off.
“I think a lot of people think body size is something that can be easily changed or easily modified,” Raffoul said. “But one of the things we always stress to folks is that body size discrimination has so many impacts for not only individuals but for our society broadly.”
For those without personal experience, Estapa said she can understand how some may find it hard to see why enforcement — such as the legislation — is important, but removing this barrier for those with different body types can help them “show up to their life.”
“I think it’s a win for everyone even if … people are like, ‘Well, how are you gonna enforce this? Meter people? Ticketing yourself?’ Like, no,” she said. “This is about stepping up to what’s possible for citizens.”
A hearing has not yet been scheduled for the bill.
The goal, Osborn said, is not to eliminate all size discrimination, but to “at least give us some tools for recourse when it happens and some incentive for our communities to prevent it from happening.”
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