The New York City Mayor has recently introduced a new regulation, in terms of which discrimination based on the height and weight of an individual is prohibited in areas of employment, housing, and public accommodations. Violations of this law include acts like refusing employment based on height, weight, or body size, using offensive language related to these characteristics or providing different lease terms, employment conditions, or access to facilities depending on these attributes.
Individuals seeking employment frequently encounter discrimination based on height or weight expectations, even when these criteria bear no relevance to the job at hand. According to a 2023 survey, more than 5 in 10 employees in the U.S. who identify as overweight reported instances of weight discrimination, highlighting the prevalence of this issue in contemporary workplaces. A 2020 Harvard University study revealed that while unconscious biases related to race and sexual orientation improved over a 14-year period, biases against height and weight remained consistent. This law was introduced to rectify instances of unfair treatment, aiming to ensure equal opportunities and foster a workplace culture that values individuals based on their skills, qualifications, and merits, promoting fairness, inclusivity, and diversity.
However, while this law does represent a positive change towards addressing discrimination, the question now arises as to how this law would impact sectors where height and weight are primary considerations, for example, the fashion industry, where models are typically expected to have slim bodies or beauty pageants where contestants are selected based on their height, weight, and overall physical appearance.
The fashion industry perpetuates discrimination by establishing unrealistic beauty standards, which have a significant impact on society’s thoughts and perceptions, actively promoting discrimination against individuals who do not conform to these ideals, instilling feelings of inadequacy and discomfort in their own bodies discouraging them from pursuing careers in the fashion industry. Models driven by pressure, resort to unhealthy practices, leading to eating disorders and dangerously low body weights that jeopardize their wellbeing. A tragic example is the untimely death of the Brazilian model Ana Carolina Reston, who succumbed to anorexia. Fashion models also struggle with fashion imposter syndrome, a mental condition marked by feelings of self-doubt when embracing new trends outside their comfort zones, making them feel inauthentic in their own skin and lacking confidence. In the fashion industry, individuals are 25% more likely to experience mental illness compared to other industries, as reported by The International Conference on Addiction and Associated Disorders. The fashion industry should be criticized for its current practices, and there is a need for change to welcome models of all sizes, promoting diversity and body positivity. The recently enacted law is a positive step towards protecting people from discrimination in this industry and making it more inclusive for individuals of all sizes.
In my view this legislation stands as an important initiative in defending the right to work of individuals who have been victims of this kind of discrimination. By establishing a legal framework, the law actively confronts and opposes discriminatory practices, indicating a significant turning point. It’s crucial to note that the law currently protects against discrimination happening in public places and in employment. Discrimination however also extends beyond formal environments, and biases linked to physical attributes such as weight and height can impact individuals in their personal relationships, potentially affecting their mental well-being, including instances within families, between spouses, parents and children, or among friends. How can such forms of discrimination be addressed?
The NYC law is a great example for the need for extending weight and height as protected grounds for discrimination. However, the law alone is insufficient to go about the necessary change. Employers must take additional steps to update their regulations, explicitly stating that such discrimination will not be tolerated. Furthermore, efforts should be made to raise awareness about the serious issues caused by this kind of discrimination. Encouraging body positivity and acceptance for everyone, regardless of their appearance, is crucial in driving meaningful change.
This blog has been written by our intern Shakti Manian, a 1st Year BA LLB student at O.P. Jindal Global University, Jindal Global Law School.