One Woman’s Fight To End Size Discrimination In Canada

By Amanda Scriver

Society purports to teach us that we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but sometimes it feels like that doesn’t apply to fat people. We encounter near-constant discussion about our bodies and the bodies of those who look like us, and what they mean about our health, worth, and morality. Often, people are openly insulting. It’s hard to live as a fat person in the world when you’re dealing with harmful and hurtful comments on a day-to-day basis. Worse, in most places it’s legal to go beyond insults, and actually deny fat people jobs, housing, or education.

Jill Andrew is a Toronto-based fat activist who is taking on the fight against size discrimination head-first. In May 2016, she launched a petition that garnered just over 600 signatures, which challenged the Ontario’s human rights commissioner to add size discrimination to the Ontario human rights code, making it illegal to discriminate against someone for the size of their body (whether fat or thin). In July, Andrew opened the petition to Canadian supporters outside of Ontario, in hopes of bringing her case to the Canadian Human Rights Commission. On the petition page, Andrew describes her campaign:

“Every person’s human right — children and adults — to not be undermined because of their body. By signing this petition today, you are adding your voice to a movement — one demanding that people not be verbally, physically, spatially, economically, or emotionally discriminated against via discriminatory actions, beliefs, or policies in any of the Ontario Human Rights Code protected areas.”
“Help get size included as a protected ground in the Ontario Human Rights Code. Fat people are not the issue. Violent and discriminatory treatment based on unfounded perceptions are.”

Andrew’s petition is the first effort to address size discrimination systemically in Canada, but she joins activists working to fight size discrimination across the globe. Peggy Howell, vice chairman and public relations director of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, explains: “Discrimination against people of large body size continues to increase. We are inundated by media and information telling us that WE are wrong if we are fat.” To date, Michigan is the only state that prohibits discrimination against overweight people, along with six U.S. cities: Washington, D.C.; San Francisco; Santa Cruz; Binghamton, N.Y.; Urbana, Ill.; and Madison, Wisc.

In Michigan, the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of “religion, race, color, national origin, age, sex, height, weight, familial status, or marital status” in employment, housing, education, and public accommodations. The law has been amended many times, most recently to add protections for pregnant women; the weight discrimination amendment was one of the earliest, added by then-state representative Thomas Mathieu before the bill became law in 1977. (The law still does not protect LGBT rights.) There’s also a bill awaiting action in Nevada that would add “physical characteristics” to the list of qualities protected from discrimination, and Howell shared that Massachusetts representative Byron Rushing has introduced bills against weight discrimination several times, which have yet to pass. Florida and Rhode Island, she says, have also recently made inquiries to NAAFA about potential statutes in the future. But aside from grassroots movements have taken place asking clothing retailers to stop size discrimination, there hasn’t been much political action beyond the local level since Elliott-Larsen. “We need to find a champion for our cause, someone who believes it’s important and will work to push a bill through Congress,” says Howell.

Anti-discrimination laws alone won’t end harassment of fat people, points out Amanda Levitt, a graduate student at Wayne State University in Detroit and writer of the blog Fat Body Politics. “Many of these laws require a significant burden on individuals to prove they have been discriminated against,” she says.“Most of my experiences with size discrimination has dealt with interpersonal fat hatred and the institutional problems have been hard to fully show as discrimination due to my weight.”

Still, protection under law would be a step forward for fat people — and for anti-discrimination efforts in general. “Fat-shaming and size discrimination often does not act alone. It is often intertwined with sexism, racism and ableism among other things,” Andrew explains. Fat people who are already dealing with racism, homophobia, transphobia, and sexism are more likely to be discriminated against because of their size, and legal size discrimination may offer a loophole that allows employers, landlords, and others to discriminate against people from groups with legal protection. Irene Gomes, a Toronto-based fat fashion blogger who writes at Petite Plus, Meow, notes, “Being a woman of color, whenever I do notice or experience any forms of discrimination, it has something to do with my size.”

While size discrimination isn’t currently listed in the Ontario Human Rights Code, it has been considered in cases linked to employment medical disability. Ned Nolan, an employment and human rights lawyer, explains “currently, employers, landlords and service providers (in Ontario) are perfectly entitled to discriminate on the basis of non-protected grounds such as hair color, tattoos, or tone of voice. Certainly ‘size’ could be added to the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination were the provincial legislature inclined to do so.” Nolan believes that Andrew’s petition fits in with many of the kinds of prohibited grounds we already find in the Ontario human rights code, adding, “It is strange to wonder how we as a society determine which grounds of discrimination are acceptable, and which grounds are not.”

While Andrew’s petition and work is currently centered in Canada, her hope is that petitions like hers will give others hope and inspiration to work towards addressing size discrimination — at the legal level, but also at the interpersonal level. Andrew explains, “Being fat is not mutable and being fat isn’t a calling card for discrimination. Appearance-based discrimination, size discrimination based on size, weight AND shape needs to be challenged via a whole system approach. When we end size discrimination we make the world better for people of all body sizes.”


Lead image: Laura Lewis/flickr