Monday, May 16, 2011

The Last Legal Form of Descrimination

In this country it is illegal to discriminate against someone based on their race, religion, sex, age, disability, or sexual orientation.  However, it is still perfectly legal to discriminate against someone because of their weight.  How is this possible?  Why are overweight people excluded from the protection of the law? 

I was reading a blog post last week from Shrinking Kenz where she discussed how she and her mother were publicly humiliated by Southwest Airlines employees because of their weight. 

Nothing will tear down an overweight person like publicly making fun of or drawing attention to our weight.  A Southwest Airlines employee in Phoenix, Arizona publicly humiliated me in front of hundreds of other passengers.  I was so mortified by the experience that I never reported it or even discussed it with anyone.  After reading Kenz's post about her experience, I think its time I talked about my experience.

A few years ago, my husband and I traveled via Southwest Airlines from Louisville, Kentucky to Phoenix, Arizona.  We travel to Arizona every year to visit family in Tucson.  Before travelling, I looked up Southwest Airlines policy about overweight passengers.  Their policy essentially states that if your hips will fit in the seat with the armrests down, then you don't need to purchase another seat.  My hips fit in the seat, but the seat belts don't always fit and I sometimes need a seat belt extension.  I had flown from Louisville to Phoenix with no problems.  However, while we were waiting for our return flight from Phoenix to Louisville, the end of my vacation turned into a nightmare.

I was sitting in a crowded area at the boarding gate in Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport.  My husband and I were chatting about our vacation when a thin blond woman approached me.  She was a Southwest employee.  She stood over me and then bent over and peered down at me like I was a child.  Then she announced in front of everyone "You will probably have to buy another seat because you won't fit in just one seat."  I WAS MORTIFIED!  I tried to be calm and I said, "I fit in the seat.  I flew out here a week ago on Southwest and I didn't have a problem."  This didn't appease her.  Her response was, "That doesn't matter.  It is MY determination on whether or not you will fit in the seat.  I get to decide if you need another seat or not."  Then she began telling me that I would have to pre-board so that she could see if I fit in the seat or not.  I told her again that I didn't have a problem when I flew out the previous week and I knew I fit in the seat, but she kept telling me it was "her decision" on whether or not I could fit in the seat.  It didn't matter what had happened the previous week.  At this point I was crying because I was so embarrassed.  She just kept lecturing me about how "she" had to make the decision if I needed another seat and it didn't matter what had happened the previous week.  The she made me get up in front of everyone and walk on the plane with her so she could "see for herself" if I fit in the seat.  After meeting HER requirements, she didn't even apologize for humiliating me in front of all of the other passengers.  I cried the entire flight home.  All 4 hours of it.  I was so humiliated.  I was just devastated.  (Also, it turns out after reading a follow up post by Kenz, a Southwest representative told her that if you were allowed to fly without purchasing a second seat on a flight, then they couldn't require you to purchase an additional seat on a return flight.  Apparently, the employees at Southwest aren't even familiar with the company policies and they make their own determinations based on their own biases about overweight people.) 

What made the situation even worse is that everyone looked at me as they got on the plane.  There was a very large man sitting at the gate with us and she NEVER SAID A WORD TO HIM.  He was much taller than me and much rounder than me, but she never approached him about having to purchase another seat. 

It wouldn't have been so devastating if she had approached me quietly and asked me to come to the ticket counter or to step aside somewhere to discuss the situation.  Instead, she leered over me like she was disciplining a child and her voice got louder every time I tried to explain that I had flown out the week before with no problems.  It was the most humiliating experience of my life.  I was so upset by the ordeal that I couldn't even work up the nerve to call and report her behavior.  I just wanted to forget about it.  The only problem is I HAVE NEVER FORGOTTEN ABOUT IT.

I'm not trying to get anything from Southwest by posting this.  I'm just trying to bring awareness to the last legal form of discrimination in this country: weight discrimination.  It happens every day in this country and its time for it to stop.  Obese people have feelings too. 

I know that there are jobs that I didn't get because people made assumptions about my work ethic based on my weight.  Or maybe they just don't like fat people.  You can see the look on their face and know that no matter how qualified you are for the position, YOU WILL NEVER GET THE JOB.  And unless they say "You aren't going to get this job because you are fat", there is no way to prove they are disciriminating against you.  And even if they did say that to you, technically the law doesn't cover weight-based discrimination.  You can only hope to get it covered under the disability discrimination law, and that is probably unlikely to happen.  

I know this happens to people every day in this country.  Its not okay to discriminate against people because they have a disability.  Its not okay to make fun of people who have an alcohol or drug addiction.  Why is it still okay to make fun of someone who has an endocrine disorder or a food addiction?  Food addiction is the same as a drug or alcohol addiction.  People overeat to soothe emotional pain.  If you make fun of an overweight person or lecture them about their weight, all that happens is that they turn to eating to soothe the emotional pain they are feeling.  It is my opinion that a food addiction may be worse than a drug or alcohol addiction.  With drugs and alcohol, you can quit them completely.  You can't just quit eating.  Imagine being a drug addict and someone telling you to only take 3 hits a day.  Could you stop at 3?  Well, that is what a compulsive over eater has to deal with.  A compulsive over eater can't just stop eating completely.  They have to try and limit themselves to 3 small meals a day.  If you factor in a thyroid disease like hypothyroidism, which slows down your metabolism (which I have), and an endocrine disorder like polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) which makes your metabolism almost non-existent and turns food directly into fat (which I also have), and then you add in someone who eats to soothe pain, then you have an obese person.  As an adult, I've learned to eat healthier foods in small portions, but because of my thyroid disease and PCOS, it still makes losing weight very difficult for me.  Please take a moment and click on the links above about these diseases and educate yourself about what other conditions may factor into keeping someone obese. 

Please stop making fun of or telling jokes about overweight or obese people.  It is hurtful and humiliating to them.  It is just another form of bullying and discrimination.  We are people too.  We deserve the respect that everyone else is afforded. 

I know that there are people who are discriminated against because of their race or sexual orientation despite the existing laws to protect them, but it is generally not socially acceptable to do these types of things.  People frown on it and therefore it doesn't happen as often.  However, it seems that it is still socially acceptable to make fun of fat people because its their own fault, right?  Well, it isn't always their fault.  And even if they are overweight because of a food addiction, you don't know what has happened in their lives to cause them to turn to food to soothe the emotional pain they feel.  Don't just assume that obese people are lazy and eat all day.  That may not be the case at all.  And even if it is, they may be depressed or emotionally hurting and that is the reason why they eat.  Help them, don't hurt them by making fun of them, cracking jokes about fat people, or singling them out in front of hundreds of people in a crowded room.


Butterfly Feeding on a Flower

Somewhere inside the cocoon of weight there is a butterfly waiting to emerge in every obese person.  Please help them to find that butterfly. 

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this subject.  Please leave a comment.


  1. Melissa, I feel your pain. I have hypothyroidism and my daughter has PCOS. People just don't understand that the hypothyroidism also causes extreme fatigue. Work all day, try to come home to make a healthy meal and then exercise?!??! It just isn't gonna happen when all your energy is all used up for that day! Add FMS and lung disease to the equation. You are in my prayers and you can vent to me anytime!

  2. How awful! I wish I had the words to comfort you, but I cannot imagine the needless anxiety you felt because of that ignorant employee. My daughter has an eating disorder and she is quite obese. With news of some rules related to the size of passengers certain airlines had been making, she was almost fearful of flying here for Christmas. I cannot imagine how she might feel if she were similarly "attacked" but I can certainly imagine my anger and response were I there to see it. She purchased a seatbelt extension of her own and takes it on the plane so that she doesn't have to ask the flight attendant for one. I cringe that she feels the need to do that, but I suspect the flight attendants do tend to look strangely at someone who requests an extension.

    The discrimination against obese people does indeed exist and I do so wish we could end it. For your sake, and the sake of my daughter and all the other butterflies out there.

  3. Anonymous11:09 AM

    Melissa, I admire your courage for telling your story. My wife has had a weight problem since she was 17. After we married and her weight continued to increase, my father-in-law would say things to me about getting her to lose weight. He would tell her that a day would come when I would no longer see her beauty and I would leave her. Well, I'm proud to say we will celebrate 40 years of marriage in August. I resented him thinking that I was so shallow that I only saw beauty in her physical appearance. I did not marry my wife because she had the body of a super model. I married her because I loved everything about her and I knew she was the woman God intended me to marry. I was so in love with her that I was was unable to see her pimples. It's is blind. But God tells us to love everyone. while I may not love my neighbor with the same passion as my wife, I should love him and her enough not to make any judgements about their character, even after I get to know them. I think it was Abraham Lincoln who said that God chooses not to judge man until the end of his days so why should you or I? It's a character-flawed individual who sees fat and assumes inferiority! I look forward to meeting you one day and hopefully working with you.

  4. Anonymous10:28 PM

    Melissa, you're awesome!! That's absolutely shocking about Southwest. I think I would have asked to see that horrible woman's manager or called customer service in front of her and given them an earful. It's disgusting how people treat overweight people these days. I myself am not excessively overweight (no questions about fitting into seats), but I'm larger than other women -- and I'm extremely qualified and experienced in my career. But I've been applying to jobs for over two years without any luck. I have an ex-coworker who runs marathons, and he got a new job immediately after three interviews (where he claimed all three offered him the job). This guy is the laziest person I know when he's not running marathons... it's unbelievable how people judge solely based on appearance, and it should absolutely be illegal.

  5. I agree with mostly everything you've written, apart from your comments relating to PCOS. I have PCOS too. Having PCOS does *not* turn food directly into fat, and does *not* stop your metabolism. While losing weight with PCOS can be difficult (we tend to burn a few hundred calories less per day than the average person) it is not impossible. In the past couple of months I've lost 30 lbs. It's incredibly difficult, I won't lie, but like I said: not impossible.

    PCOS is definitely a pain in the a*s, and can certainly contribute to weight gain, but women with PCOS can and DO successfully lose weight -- in fact, losing weight is one of the best natural treatments for PCOS that there is, including frequent exercise.

    I relate to all of your thoughts here (I was 307 lbs and know exactly how harsh the world can be for an overweight person) but I don't think it's helpful to spread misinformation about PCOS, particularly in the scenario of a woman who is seeking help finding this post and growing discouraged.

    1. Not everyone with PCOS has the issue of turning food directly into fat, but I'm one of the unfortunate few that do have that problem (see below). I have excercised and eaten correctly for several years and I've had no significant weight loss. I have to almost starve myself in order to lose weight. I've recently lost about 40 pounds, but I have to eat very little food to achieve that loss.

      This text was taken from :

      "Approximately 60% of women with PCOS have weight management issues which can lead to obesity with only normal caloric intake. Energy in the form of glucose (food) is stored right away as fat, instead of being made available for other functions within the body. This can lead to chronic fatigue and undernourishment, despite the fact that there is adequate food intake and even an appearance of overnourishment. However, it's important to note that 40% of women with PCOS are of normal weight, or even fall under a normal weight range."

      They are finding more and more information about PCOS every day. I try to stay up-to-date so that I can learn new techniques to help myself stay healthy.

  6. Anonymous5:15 AM

    Hi, I just thought I would comment to say that I'm pretty sure your first sentence is flawed - it is not illegal to discriminate against someone because of sexual orientation, at a federal level .... however some states have incorporated that into their discrimination laws. I agree with you that what that woman did to you is a form of bullying and should not be tolerated. Very unprofessional.

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