Monday, February 05, 2007

At the Risk of Inciting Controversy

...let me proceed carefully and disclaim that these are my thoughts, not meant to injure or insult or discriminate or incite, but to raise questions that are floating inside my little brain and to work through my own ideas by typing them out.

The issue of discrimination by weight and appearance has become more prevalent in both the courts and the media as waistlines have continued to i
ncrease, and people have started to feel excluded based on their size. On the one side are arguments that obesity is not always a choice, but sometimes a medical condition. Within this "side" are some who sue because they feel they are NOT handicapped by their weight and should therefore not be discriminated against, while others sue because they feel that their morbid obesity IS a disability and should be protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The other side of the debate argues that obesity is not a disability or condition in isolation, and that individual choices contribute in such a way that it would be impossible to conclusively argue that one factor in particular could explain one's state of morbid obesity. As such, this side contends that there are jobs and opportunities that are not safe or appropriate for people beyond a particular size, and that people have a choice in getting themselves to that level of obesity as well as back to within "acceptable" ranges of weight that would qualify them for those jobs and opportunities from which they might be presently excluded. That people choose NOT to eat less and move more, and then sue for discrimination is argued as being ridiculous and unfair to professions and jobs and opportunities that require a certain level of physical fitness and mobility in order to do the work. This side would posit that it would not be unreasonable to refuse the hire of a 430-pound, morbidly obese man to be a personal trainer at a gym.

As an equality-for-all person, I think it is wrong to discriminate based on appearance as a general rule; I worked at one point for a restaurant chain that actually stated (in one of their training manuals only available for management to read) that the front-of-the-house staff had to be attractive in order to be hired. It was totally wrong to deny servers or hostesses the opportunity to work simply because they did not meet the managers' standards of attractiveness (which is in the eye of the beholder anyway, is it not?).

As a former anorexic, former chubbster, and present-day-semi-chubbster, I think on a personal level I would feel very offended if I was judged by my appearance or my weight. According to my most recent physical examination, I'm healthy and at zero risk of cardiac problems, high blood-pressure, diabetes, or any other risks normally associated with those who carry more weight. I'm not morbidly obese, however. Healthy as a horse (and getting healthier by the day), I would be rightfully outraged if I was denied opportunities simply because I did not fit a limited, social definition of "beauty" or "health."

That said, I am not sure where I lean on this controversial issue. Recently, while flying on a jet plane to Victoria, I noted that my seat wasn't very big. My legs felt cramped, my butt and lower back were sore from sitting, and generally I couldn't get comfortable, in spite of the fact that I fit just fine in the seat. The guy beside me, who I'm guessing to weigh at least 250 lbs, looked even less comfortable than I did, and I suspect that his discomfort was somehow linked to mine. He had to keep his arm tight against his body so as not to intrude on my space, but his stomach and butt inevitably spilled over into my seat area, even though he sat in the aisle seat and had presumably positioned himself so as to make maximum use of available space on that other side. The last woman to board (she was late) looked to be larger than this man, and as she made her way to her seat in a row behind ours, I couldn't help but wonder how comfortable she would be, strapped into the itsy bitsy seat like I was. I also wondered how comfortable the individual sitting beside her on this full flight would be.

So then I began to think about rights. We all paid the same price (well, nearly the same price) to be on that flight. We were all entitled to one seat. Is it fair for those who are obese or morbidly obese to be subjected to less-than-decent flying conditions based on their weight? Is it fair to other passengers to have to lose part of the space to their seats as a result of sitting beside someone who cannot adequately fit into their own without "spilling over?" Is it more fair to make wider seats for all commercial aircraft, and just charge more for airfare, so that everyone could be seated comfortably during a flight? Is it fair to all passengers to have to pay more money for wider seats, simply to accommodate those in a minority population who are severely overweight?

Obviously, I don't think there is a "right" answer to these questions, nor to the above-mentioned issue of discrimination based on weight and appearance. As with all ethical and moral debates, it seems that ensuring the rights of some will inevitably encroach on the rights of others, and it is usually left to the discretion of the court in individual rulings, and perhaps the demand of the democratic majority, to make the decisions that are deemed most lawful, ethical, and moral for everyone involved.

As the population continues to get more overweight and obese, however, I wonder how long it is before these particular issues really come to the fore?

All I know is that I would have welcomed a wider, more comfy seat on the plane, and would have been willing to pay an extra few bucks for it!


Natalie said...

Great post. It is fascinating because I find, in talking to some people, that body image can be one of the strangest things ever. I tend to think I am smaller than I am while most people I know tend to think they are bigger than they are. I have a friend who estimated her weight to be 180 when I am sure she couldn't possibly weigh more than a max of 160 probablt more like 150. It's very strange. Obviously there are some careers people who are morbidly obese can't have, and they may need special consideration at work even when it comes to buying furniture. They should also realize that it is possible to get back to a healthy weight, or at least a more healthy one, and suit seems rather extreme to me. I have heard of some airlines forcing large passengers to buy two tickets. I wouldn't mind paying a little more for extra room on a plane either and I fit in the seat just fine.