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Mass. weighs extending discrimination law

Lawmakers are reviewing a bill that would make Massachusetts just the second state to bar discrimination based on height or weight.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Ellen Frankel stands just 4-foot-8½ inches tall, a size that allowed larger co-workers to playfully scoop her up at the office and make remarks about her height. Some even patted her on the head.

Lawmakers are considering complaints such as hers as they review a bill that would make Massachusetts just the second state to bar discrimination based on height or weight.

“People in authority will very easily make comments about height that they wouldn’t make about race or gender,” said Frankel, a Marblehead author.

Jeanne Toombs understands the frustration. She says overweight people routinely are discriminated against because of their size.

“It’s not fair. No matter what you think of fat people, they deserve to be treated like human beings,” said Toombs, 59, a piano teacher who weighs 300 pounds and is on the board of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance.

The proposed law does not define short or fat. It would apply mainly to the workplace but also to landlords and real estate transactions.

Laws in other states
Most states have laws prohibiting discrimination based on race, religion, age, gender and disability. A handful offer protection for gays and lesbians. But only Michigan includes weight and height in its anti-discrimination law.

The District of Columbia also bans discrimination based on appearance, and San Francisco and Santa Cruz, Calif., prohibit weight and height discrimination.

Rep. Byron Rushing, a Boston Democrat who is sponsoring the Massachusetts bill, said the issue is a question of civil rights.

“This is one of the last physical aspects of people that you can acceptably laugh about,” said Rushing, who is black, slim and of average height. “You can be a shock jock on the radio and talk about fat people for a solid week and no one would ever think of having you lose your job. It’s still acceptable.”

Republican analyst Todd Domke is concerned that lawmakers will scare off businesses if they expand protection to include short and overweight workers.

“We might as well add colorblind, left-handed, allergic-to-cashews, and get it over with,” Domke said.

Disability argument
Under current state law, people claiming discrimination in the workplace or for housing must prove in court that their weight problem is a disability. But Massachusetts courts usually reject such arguments.

“People can lose weight,” said David Yas, publisher of Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly. “As that line of argument goes, why receive special treatment? There is some of that attitude in the courts, that this should not rise to the level of race and gender, the rights of which are so important to protect.”

Rushing proposed a similar bill 10 years ago, but he’s more confident of passage now because of an increased awareness of the issues. He expects a hearing this fall.

“Fatter people and shorter people get promoted less. Shorter people make less than their taller counterparts,” said Frankel, who published a memoir last fall titled “Beyond Measure.”

Toombs does not buy the argument she can simply diet and lose weight.

“I spent 25 years of my life trying to get thin,” she said. “All I ever got was fatter, and I felt like a failure. I thought it was my fault, and it wasn’t. People come in different sizes, they always have and they always will.

“I haven’t robbed a bank. I work with children. I’m doing good in the world.”