Civil Rights

Weight Discrimination, Public Places and Services

Fitness, health and weight loss are now a year-round focus for more people, and not just a New Year's resolution. Obesity, and the health problems that come with it are on the rise. Struggling with weight issues is challenging, but what happens if you face discrimination because of it? Does the law offer any help?

What Is Discrimination?

A simple definition of discrimination is to treat someone in a different way, often negatively, based on some quality about them.

Instances of alleged weight discrimination may be increasing. Every so often, there's a news story about a business charging more based on someone's weight, or maybe even denying someone service or refusing to do business with them.

A common example is airline policies requiring a larger person to buy two seats or a more costly and roomier business or first-class seat. One nail salon charged overweight clients more to help cover repair costs for broken chairs.

Not All Discrimination Is Illegal

There are many laws protecting against a wide array of types of discrimination. Generally, the law protects you from negative treatment based on specific qualities and in specific settings. Classes of protection include race, national origin, color, religion, sex, age and disability. Protected settings and situations include employment, education and access to public places and services. So, not every type of discrimination is illegal.

A law is needed to make discrimination illegal, and to give someone harmed by it relief. Sources of laws range from the US Constitution down to local ordinances. Federal laws are a main source of protection. State laws often cover similar topics, and may even give broader protection and solutions. Some examples are the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA).

The Law and Weight Bias

Current laws don't give much, if any, real protection against weight discrimination. There isn't much success in cases where obesity is claimed as a type of disability, say, under the ADA. Part of the challenge is for most people, being overweight, or even obese, doesn't rise to the level of disability under the law. It's also largely viewed as a characteristic someone has some control over, unlike race.

Exceptions and defenses are part of many discrimination laws. For example, a claim may fail because there's a valid reason for different treatment, such as a true business need. So even if someone could show possible illegal treatment due to weight, isn't doesn't mean a winning case.

Weight bias is also about aesthetics and society's values on appearance. Usually the law doesn't regulate these values and decisions. Only a few state and local laws protect against discrimination based on qualities such as someone's weight, height or appearance, and lawsuits aren't common.

Some people ask why there aren't such laws. Controlling subjective values and behavior can be difficult, and there are monetary costs in passing and enforcing laws. Specific to weight, some argue laws shouldn't protect "body diversity" and unhealthy choices contributing to obesity.

Consumer, Not Court Action

While the courts may not give protection to those faced with weight discrimination, consumer action may offer relief.

Some policies related to weight, size or appearance are simply bad press and lead to lost profits for a business. Bad press and displeased customers can prompt a business to make its policies as fair as possible. For example, an airline might waive its two seat-two ticket policy for a larger person when a flight isn't full. On the other hand, policies may be a response to what the public demands, such as sole use of an airline seat you've paid for.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Is is possible to show alleged treatment isn't really about weight, but is illegal based on another quality such as sex or race?
  • Could a business sue someone, say for defamation, in response to negative publicity on a policy related to weight?
  • When does a business have the duty to tell customers about pricing differences based on weight?
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