The Limits Of Sizism

I sometimes have trouble looking for shoes. I’m about a size 12 or 13, depending, which is the traditional cusp of what many stores carry. And on occasion, I’ll have some trouble finding a jacket that fits just right, but it’s rare. Then again, I almost never go shopping, so it’s not a big deal.

A lot of people don’t have it so easy. My brother, who is a six-foot four-inch brick shithouse with a shoe size of 17, jokes about “sizism” a lot, which seems tongue-in-cheek until it becomes apparent what extra lengths and costs he has to endure to find shoes that fit, clothes that fit, etc. without getting cobblers and tailors involved.

(An aside: I’m going with “sizism” instead of “sizeism” on this one. You could make the case for either spelling, but I argue that it’s not “raceist,” it’s “racist,” and you still hear that “ce” sound in the pronunciation of “racist.” prefers “sizeism,” and Merriam-Webster hasn’t weighed in yet.)

Still, that’s a function of capitalism that, while an inconvenience, isn’t necessarily a discrimination issue. There are more socially embarrassing examples which border on discrimination. The long-cited example of airplane seating is one; people have been asked to purchase a second seat or asked to leave the plane based on their weight. Local Jersey hero and filmmaker Kevin Smith, who is a big guy and doesn’t necessarily look like he couldn’t make it into an airplane seat (though I admit I never saw the sequel to Clerks), was taken off a Southwest Airlines flight recently for being too big. I guess he didn’t look famous enough to the flight attendant, because if it were Marlon Brando circa Apocalypse Now, they wouldn’t have said a damn thing. And watch out, Kevin’s got a Twitter account.

Then again, I would like to know what he was doing in coach. The man directed Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back; he should have honorary first-class seats wherever he roams.

While any airline can hide behind “safety” for such a policy, trickier examples abound. Whole Foods recently announced a tiered employee discount program that Arnold Schwarzenegger on the set of Conan The Barbarian couldn’t qualify for. It uses four metrics—tobacco use, BMI, cholesterol and blood pressure—to determine whether an employee is eligible for an additional discount beyond what Whole Foods already provides, up to 30 percent. You can’t smoke, your BMI has to be under a certain metric, good and bad cholesterol within certain ranges, and blood pressure below a certain metric. The worst metric you have, that’s the tier you’re in. So if you have a genetic blood pressure or cholesterol condition but otherwise good health, sorry, no employee discount. And if an employee is overweight, wouldn’t the wise approach be to incentivize that person to buy healthier food so they can lose weight, rather than encourage the people who are already in statistically “healthy” condition to stay there?

Or you could just keep your nose out of their business and respect their individual liberty.

The grocer out of Austin, TX, openly stated that the purpose of the program was to bring health care costs down for the company, the reasoning being that those who eat healthier cost less to insure. And the policy underscores the elitist attitude that the company consistently tries to simultaneously embrace and deny.

Unlike race or gender, no federal laws against weight discrimination exist. Legislation is being drafted on some local levels, but it’s unlikely that health insurers and other industries will let a bill like that get through their lobbyists. Some individual instances of size discrimination are sensible—I can’t be an astronaut because I’m too tall. And that’s a bummer, but that’s something I suppose I can’t change. Some jobs have size restrictions. But most don’t. Librarians, for instance, should be allowed to be as fat as they want, but there are reports of employees of libraries being told they have to lose weight or lose their jobs.

The predominant approach to size issues is the childish one (for example, the Wikipedia article for “fat acceptance movement” was vandalized at the time of this article’s printing), portrayed as being a self-inflicted problem. It ignores a variety of genetic, child-rearing, environmental and health issues.

Universally stating that people should lose weight is obnoxious and it interferes with their individual liberty, just as stating that no one should smoke cigarettes or drink alcohol (or a host of other things). Encourage people to eat healthier, absolutely, but don’t admonish and don’t change the rules.