fatism next protected characteristic

Fatism – Are we Looking at the Next Protected Characteristic?

Fatism – Are we Looking at the Next Protected Characteristic?


The BBC has reported that New York City has now passed a bill to outlaw discrimination related to a person’s weight, also known as fatism. There has been intense campaigning within the USA to make size a protected characteristic akin to race New York City passes law barring weight discrimination – BBC News.

The report highlights that more than 40% of American adults are considered to be obese and therefore weight stigma is ‘pervasive.’  Those in support of the bill have cited examples of less favourable treatment because of their weight in that they have problems with seating in restaurants and theatres, are rejected by landlords and exceed the weight limits cited for the city’s bike sharing programme.

There are concerns by other people that the passing of the law could empower New Yorkers to ‘sue anyone and everything.’  

Unbeknownst to me, Michigan has already based workplace discrimination on weight since 1976 and other cities have legislation in place. The nationwide efforts to promote the issue and implement the protection comes from a dramatic increase in obesity rates over the last two decades.  

I have now learned that New York human rights law already prevents discrimination in housing/employment and public housing based on 27 characteristics which include age, marital status, disability and national origin. This bill adds both weight and height to that list with a recognition that there are exceptions where discrimination on the grounds of weight and height can be objectively justified where there are health and safety issues arising. 

For the first part I did not realise that there were so many characteristics that were afforded protection under New York human rights law and I wonder if weight protection is now on the cards where will this end and is there a proportionality issue here.  

We do not currently recognise weight as a protected characteristic in the UK and I cannot see it being championed for protection any time soon. From a practitioner perspective, there are other characteristics that would warrant protection over and above weight. Also, you have to bear in mind that those suffering with weight related issues (diabetes, heart disease, back problems) may already be afforded protection under the Equality Act 2010 by virtue of disability (section 6). This does not prevent stigma or abuse directly related to the weight or size itself but from an adjustment’s perspective these health related issues may be protected.  

It may seem harsh but in some senses the issue of excessive weight is often self-inflicted (save for medical related weight-gain) as with alcoholism (which is not protected under the Equality Act 2010) so I question how making it a protected characteristic facilitates a sense of personal responsibility. I am not advocating that people are entitled to work/live without stigma and abuse but legal protections are hard fought and, for the time being, I consider there are more worthy causes that would benefit from meaningful protection here in the UK (e.g. social class).  

This blog was written by Elizabeth McGlone, Partner at didlaw