Pies and prejudice: should obesity discrimination be illegal?

For a country that is getting increasingly large around the middle, we seem to have terrible trouble with fat people. How is it that almost two thirds of British adults are now either overweight or obese, a proportion forecast to increase, and yet a new report finds that one in five people had been victimised because of their body weight and that most of us are dissatisfied with our body image?

Setting aside the health issues, which must surely by now be obvious, what is it about fat people that we find so objectionable and yet endlessly fascinating?  When a Daily Mail headline yells that the NHS is ‘spending £16m a year on 200 who are too fat to leave home’ it is pretty obvious that their concern is not with the fat people.

A report, by an all-party group of MPs and the Central YMCA, concluded the problem of obesity bashing has become so acute that ‘appearance-based discrimination’ should be put on the same legal basis as race and sexual discrimination.  This could mean, as the Telegraph helpfully points out, people could be prosecuted for calling someone ‘fatty’.

I'm ashamed to say, my instant reaction was a bit Daily Mail-ish, 'surely this is politcal correctness gone mad?'.  But once I had regained my reason, I wondered if  the MPs had a point.  A quick Google search unearthed hundreds, probably thousands, of examples of children and adults whose lives have been made a misery because of continuous bullying about their weight.

A study led by the University of Manchester and Monash University in Melbourne found that obese women are more likely to be discriminated against when applying for jobs and receive lower starting salaries than their more slender colleagues.  Perhaps not surprisingly, the study also found the higher people rated their own physical attractiveness and its importance, the greater the prejudice and discrimination.

Under the Equalities Act 2010, it is unlawful to harass, victimise or discriminate against anyone because of their race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, age, or disability.  The law does not outlaw discrimination on the grounds of weight, height or hair colour, although if obesity is the result of a disability, such as depression or diabetes, it could be covered.

There are probably a multitude of reasons why people might discriminate against fat people, many of them I expect related to their own fears of inadequacy or rejection.  The overweight are often portrayed as lazy, lacking in self control and with little drive as well as more likely to have serious health problems.  This may well be true for some of them, but it’s also true for an awful lot of skinny people.

That said, just because there is a group in society potentially being discriminated against does not necessarily mean the government should rush to make it illegal.  Indeed, the Liberal Democrat chair of the group producing the report, Jo Swinson MP, concedes that, even though there is evidence that overweight people can be discriminated against and are less likely to be employed, she is ‘not convinced yet that bringing this into the Equalities Act is necessarily the best response’.

As with all prejudice, discriminating against or insulting fat people is irrational and stupid and ultimately says more about the perpetrator than the victim.  Sadly, as a society it seems we always need to scapegoat one group or another.  Banishing it through legislation, however, is a tricky thing.

For a start, how on earth would you define obesity?  This is particularly problematic because the clinical definition does not necessarily correlate with our perception of who is obese.  The most frequently used method, the body mass index (BMI), doesn’t take into account sex, the proportion of body fat to muscle or how fat is distributed around the body.  This leads to unhelpful anomalies whereby the actors George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon are classed as overweight.  I suspect none of them suffers much in the way of discrimination, at least not of the negative kind.

Even if legislators did manage to come up with a broadly acceptable definition, obesity is not like race, gender or even age.  An individual’s weight fluctuates, meaning they may dip in and out of the 'official' range of obesity, or they may even try to gain weight so as to get legal protection.  This would surely be the most bizarre example of the law of unintended consequences, thwarting what may seem at first glance like a good idea.

Without wanting to belittle the experience of anyone who has been bullied for their weight, or otherwise, where do you draw the line?  Obviously it is tragic if, as they claimed, a Newcastle family were driven from their home because of abuse about their red hair, but is the next step to provide legal protection for ginger people?  Or short people?  Or Goths?

Of course, we all have a right to be treated with dignity at work or, indeed, in any public space.  But we all have something that makes us stand out and we’ve all, probably, at some point felt we have been teased, insulted or even discriminated against because we are fatter, taller, cleverer, quieter, uglier or stupider than everyone else, whether or not it was true in fact.

That doesn’t mean we should all have special protection under the law, we can’t all be a persecuted minority.  More importantly, covering any and every conceivable difference could undermine the very vital protection legislation affords those groups that do suffer concerted, systematic and damaging discrimination.

I have every sympathy with someone who feels they have suffered unfairly for being overweight. But I am not yet convinced that they need special protection under the law.  If I am honest, I am far more concerned that girls as young as five worry about their size and appearance and what that means for their future mental health and relationship with food.

Tackling obesity is important, but we have to find a balance between ensuring our kids grow up healthy and demonising anyone who is over a size 8.  And I am not sure the law is the best way to do it.

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