Can the Accessible Canada Act Contribute to Fight Weight Stigma & Discrimination in the Workplace?

Over the past decades, numerous forms of discrimination went from a “socially acceptable” status to more of a “how was that even legal” situation: discrimination against women, people from different religious, ethnic/cultural backgrounds, members of the LGBTQIA2+ communities or living with a disability are some of the first that come to mind.

We are now living in an environment in which being different is generally accepted. Where difference is sometimes even celebrated. There are laws and regulations to protect from the most common forms of discrimination, whether these forms of discrimination happen in the workplace or the public space.

But none of these laws and regulations protect people with larger bodies. Since the 1990’s, expressions like “obesity epidemic” and “war on obesity” have become mainstream. And we forgot that, beyond these hostile terms are, first and foremost, millions of human beings, living under the fire of that “war on obesity”.

The recent enactment, on June 21, of the Act to ensure a barrier-free Canada (short title: Accessible Canada Act)1 crystallized the government’s desire to adapt and be more inclusive of people who traditionally face numerous challenges in their daily lives in general, including in their participation in the workforce.

The Act was created in order to enhance the full and equal participation of all persons, especially persons with disabilities, in society. This is to be achieved through the realization, within the purview of matters coming within the legislative authority of Parliament, of a Canada without barriers, particularly by the identification, removal and prevention of barriers.2

Though there is an emphasis made on people living with disabilities – the Act precisely defines the term “disability” – it is quintessential to realize that, though it can be the case, a person’s larger size isn’t automatically a disability. In fact, many – if not most –people of size are leading active lives, contributing to society, just like their thinner counterparts, despite the social burden of weight stigma.

It is in the definition of “barrier” (“anything — including anything physical, architectural, technological or attitudinal, anything that is based on information or communications or anything that is the result of a policy or a practice — that hinders the full and equal participation in society of persons with an impairment, including a physical, mental, intellectual, cognitive, learning, communication or sensory impairment or a functional limitation.” 3) that we could find a glimpse of hope for a better adaptation of the work environment to the reality of people of size.

The idea that race, sexual orientation, disability, gender, etc. is not the result of a choice is a well-assimilated concept by a large part of the population. Yet, a never demonstrated idea remains: the widely believed concept that being – or remaining – fat4 is the result of a choice is well-rooted in popular culture.

On the other hand, while the latter was never proven, it has been demonstrated that one’s size is not the result of a choice5 6 7. That diets are ineffective among obese patients. (A study showed that 83% of obese participants to a study gained more weight than they had lost after two [2] years.8) It’s also been proved that weight-related stigma’s consequences are not only frequent, but harmful 9 10 and even contributes to driving the “obesity epidemic”11.

Nowadays, it is well understood that joking about one’s sexual orientation or his/her belonging to an ethnic or cultural group is not an acceptable practice and, furthermore, discriminating on these motives (and many others) is a legal offense. This is not the case when it comes to people of size who, unless they are protected under a motif of illegal discrimination included in the current legislation, remain exposed and unprotected in a variety of situations, from unconscious, yet potentially devastating, lunchroom chatter 12 to overall maladapted infrastructures. In order to fix the issues, we first have to recognize that a majority of work places can foster the clichés related to higher weight and/or larger size, without most people even realizing it. For example, by providing t‑shirts that stop at a size XL for a group activity. Or using “regular-sized” armed chairs in waiting areas and meeting rooms.

By allowing the presence on the premises of diet-related meetings or weight loss-oriented activities during work hours13. By reducing working station sizes to a minimum, rather than considering work and body-based installations and the use of properly adapted chairs and office furniture. (These are usually available only following a medically requested ergonomic evaluation. And the medical profession is far from being exempted14 15 of fat‑phobia 16, which can complicate, if not render impossible, getting a medical note requesting an ergonomic evaluation for an employee of size.)

Due to the social stigma associated with being fat, most people affected in such a manner might not fight to claim proper resources to accomplish their work. This could result in many negative impacts: injury, absenteeism (and consequently, diminished team morale), disability costs, etc.

Even unintentionally, the policies, discourses and events held in the workplace can rapidly create and encourage a thin-praising, fat-phobic environment, an easily avoidable form of harm for all its employees, since diet culture can also be triggering for “standard-sized” people living with eating disorders, for example, and many others.

The diet culture and industry being in constant evolution to better, it’s important to know and remember that many so-called “wellness” initiatives and/or programs often reveal, upon examination, a strong subtext of weight-loss, weight-loss praising, and even orthorexia 17.

With over 60% of the Canadian population medically considered “overweight” or “obese” in 2016-201718, the presence of people of size is an undeniable part of today’s and tomorrow’s workforce reality. With some place of work recent and renewed emphasis on wellness in the workplace, fighting weight stigma would be one of the logical next steps of that initiative.

In the fat/size acceptance spheres, “obese” and “overweight” are often considered derogatory as they are medical terms that infer the presence of a health issue and that contribute to the idea that being of a larger size equals the absence of health, a “dogma” that hasn’t been scientifically proved.

We can only win by creating size-friendly work spaces and by contributing to fight the negative stigma associated with being a person of size. In the spirit of the Act, this is a chance to create “a Canada without barriers […], particularly by the identification and removal of barriers, and the prevention of new barriers”19 for all Canadians.

Respecting difference(s) shouldn’t be based on the sole fear of legal retaliation; it should arise from a genuine desire to provide a fair and safe work environment for all.

  1. LegisInfo (Parliament of Canada)
  2. Accessible Canada Act, under “Summary”
  3. Accessible Canada Act, Chapter 10, Section 2, under “barrier”
  4. For many actors in the fat/size acceptance spheres, reclaiming the word “fat” is an essential part of the fat/size acceptance movement and is not considered a derogatory term.
  5. “Fat by Choice?”, Psychology Today (Oct. 2012)
  6. “Obesity is not a choice”, Dr. Sharma’s Obesity Notes
  7. Appelhans, Bradley M., et al. “Time to Abandon the Notion of Personal Choice in Dietary Counseling for Obesity?” Journal of the American Dietetic Association, vol. 111, no. 8, Elsevier BV, Aug. 2011, pp. 1130–36. Crossref, doi:10.1016/j.jada.2011.05.014.
  8. Mann, Traci, et al. “Medicare’s Search for Effective Obesity Treatments: Diets Are Not the Answer.” American Psychologist, vol. 62, no. 3, American Psychological Association (APA), 2007, pp. 220–33. Crossref, doi:10.1037/0003-066x.62.3.220.
  9. “Fatphobia in the workplace can be career limiting and psychologically harmful”, CBC News
  10. Puhl, Rebecca M., and Chelsea A. Heuer. “Obesity Stigma: Important Considerations for Public Health.” American Journal of Public Health, vol. 100, no. 6, American Public Health Association, June 2010, pp. 1019–28. Crossref, doi:10.2105/ajph.2009.159491.
  11. Tomiyama, A.Janet, et al. “How and Why Weight Stigma Drives the Obesity ‘epidemic’ and Harms Health.” BMC Medicine, vol. 16, no. 1, Springer Science and Business Media LLC, Aug. 2018. Crossref, doi:10.1186/s12916-018-1116-5.
  12. “One type of diversity we don’t talk about at work: Body size”, CNN Business
  13. I worked in three (3) different departments where such practices existed, since 2010; a WW-Weight Watchers group (with an official WW rep. coming every week) and two (2) “Biggest Loser” weight loss groups organized by employees with weekly lunch meetings and a pool-type cash prize for the person who lost the highest percentage of weight in a given time.
  14. “Weight Bias in Health Care.” AMA Journal of Ethics, vol. 12, no. 4, American Medical Association (AMA), Apr. 2010, pp. 287–91. Crossref, doi:10.1001/virtualmentor.2010.12.4.jdsc1-1004.
  15. “Addressing weight bias in medicine”, Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School
  16. Robinson, Beatrice “Bean” E., et al. “Fat Phobia: Measuring, Understanding, and Changing Anti-Fat Attitudes.” International Journal of Eating Disorders, vol. 14, no. 4, Wiley, Dec. 1993, pp. 467–80. Crossref, doi:10.1002/1098-108x(199312)14:4<467::aid-eat2260140410>;2-j.
  17. Orthorexia: An obsession with eating foods that one considers healthy. A medical condition in which the sufferer systematically avoids specific foods that they believe to be harmful. (source)
  18. “Obesity in Canadian adults, 2016-2017”, Statistics Canada
  19. Accessible Canada Act, Chapter 10, Section 5, under “Purpose”

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