Last Friday, May 26, 2023, New York city’s governor, Eric Adams, signed the city’s first anti-height-and-weight-discrimination law. New York joins a few other places, including the state of Michigan and the cities of San Francisco, California, Washington D.C., Madison, Wisconsin, Urbana, Illinois, and a few others in this slowly-progressing forward-looking legislation.
City Councilman Shaun Abreu said weight discrimination was “a silent burden people have had to carry”.
During public hearings, supporters cited difficulty navigating seating at restaurants and theatres, getting turned away by landlords, and butting up against weight limits on the city’s bike sharing programme.
Councilman Abreu, who sponsored the bill, said he became more aware of the issue when he gained more than 40lb (18.1kg) during lockdown and saw a shift in how he was treated. He said the lack of protections had amplified the problems people face.
Of course, this kind of change always represents dozens or hundreds of activists putting in thousands of hours of work. Laurie was in San Francisco when that city’s law was passed (over 20 years ago!). We wrote about that experience here in 2008, when Massachusetts was trying to get a similar law passed. Here’s Laurie:
I attended all of the meetings with the board of supervisors in San Francisco in 1999 and 2000, before San Francisco passed its size acceptance law. My role was to talk as a mother about the effect of this kind of prejudice has on kids. Lots of other people spoke brilliantly on other aspects of the issue including Marilyn Wann and Sandra Solovay. Others folks spoke on the issues of height discrimination. Interestingly, one of the supervisors, Bevan Dufty spoke eloquently about the pain of a fat kid.
In 2000 San Francisco became the third city after Washington, D.C., and Santa Cruz, Cal., to legally forbid weight discrimination. Tom Ammiano, president of San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors at the time, said that the anti-discrimination measure passed because “many San Franciscans were being denied employment, housing and bank loans merely because they were perceived as being overweight.” I was thrilled when it passed here and it has been an effective ban.
In the intervening years, between San Francisco’s passage of the law, and Massachusetts’ failure, so much has happened to change the landscape of “legal” discrimination against people of color and other marginalized groups, and to feed the backlash against all kinds of protections for various protected or “suspect” classes.
Long before the first laws of this kind were passed, the extraordinary Dr. Arline Geronimus was developing and writing about her concept of “weathering,” as “the corrosive effects of systemic oppression on marginalized people’s bodies.” Dr. Geronimus, appropriately, applies her work generally to health outcomes for Black people and other POC. I believe it also applies, very directly, to health outcomes for fat people (and, of course, is multiplied when Black people and other POC are also fat). Check out Dr. Geronimus’s new book, WEATHERING: The Extraordinary Stress of Ordinary Life in an Unjust Society, the first book on this subject.
So this is a taste of encouragement and possibility, in a moment when we finally have publicly accessible language to discuss why and how oppression affects health outcomes. Kudos to New York City for taking this leap, and may many cities and states follow.
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