Lawmakers hear testimony on push to prohibit size discrimination

The Massachusetts State House in Boston

The Massachusetts State House in Boston FILE PHOTO

By STELLA TANNENBAUM

For the Gazette

Published: 12-12-2023 12:10 PM

BOSTON — Massachusetts would become the second state in the nation to ban discrimination based on body size under a proposal aired at a recent hearing of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee.

During a seven-hour hearing in which over 230 people registered to testify on a plethora of bills related to protected classes, state legislators heard testimony on a bill sponsored by Sen. Rebecca Rausch, D-Needham, and Rep. Tram Nguyen, D-Andover, that would add height and weight to the list of aspects of identity for which discrimination is illegal, like sex, gender, race, religion and sexual orientation.

“People whose bodies do not meet Western beauty standards are often denied basic empathy in their daily lives, let alone equity or inclusion,” Rausch said. “Fat people face particularly stark discrimination, including wage penalties, barriers to housing, eating disorders and even lack of access to life saving medical treatment.”

Rausch said health care is one of the major areas in which people experience size discrimination, as doctors may overlook serious medical concerns, instead attributing all health concerns to the patient’s weight and prescribing “weight loss as a prerequisite for other treatments.”

Samantha Powers, of Bigger Bodies Boston, said she experienced a year of unnecessary limited mobility and pain after a back surgery three years ago because doctors insisted she try “everything under the sun” before providing her the outpatient procedure a smaller person would have received right away.

Powers said stories like hers establish that anti-fat bias and size discrimination exist, and that the question before the committee is whether or not it should be prohibited by law.

“I wonder why it’s even a question, really,” she said. “I ask that you, as my government, protect both large and small people from the discrimination many of us face on a daily basis.”

The bill has been put forward favorably by the committee before, in the exact form in which it appeared on Tuesday, Rausch said. Unfortunately, she said, it died in the Senate Ways and Means Committee at the end of the session.

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Rachel “Rae” Estapa, who testified in support of the bill this time and over a year ago, said she was put on her first diet at age 5 when she weighed two pounds over what would be considered appropriate for her age based on the body mass index — a measure of body fat based on height and weight.

“That set off a whole lifetime of feeling that my body was something to apologize for, to amend for, to change in order to have the prerequisite of dignity,” Estapa said.

The BMI’s effectiveness as a representation has been called into question in recent years, with organizations like the American Medical Association cautioning against its use as a sole diagnostic tool due to its failure to account for differences across races and ethnic groups, sexes, genders and age groups.

But the feeling followed her throughout her life, Estapa said. When she contracted COVID-19 in March 2020 — the very early days of its presence in the United States — she delayed going to the hospital because of it.

“I couldn’t deal with that level of just fear and trauma and feeling that my body, again, in a time of crisis, was something that I had to apologize for,” she said.

Penelope Popken and her mother Helene Leeds testified against the bill, citing the health risks obesity poses. Popken shared her own story of weight loss, and Leeds shared that her mother — Popken’s grandmother — died at age 59 “with severe obesity on her death certificate.”

Leeds said the obesity epidemic is a “societal and economic time bomb” and said she is concerned by the bill’s “support of obese victimization.”

“It’s not reversing the public crisis but enabling the advancement of the problem,” she said. “While it’s critical to respect and accept individuals affected by obesity, we must acknowledge the reality of its risks and burdens.”

Following this testimony, committee chair Sen. James Eldridge, D-Marlboro, asked Leeds if she believes employers or the government should be able to discriminate based on a person’s body size, requesting a simple “yes or no.”

“No,” Leeds replied, after a brief pause.

Tigriss Osborn, executive director of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, followed, testifying in support of the bill and saying Leeds’ testimony points to a unique challenge that is all too familiar.

“We’re expected to solve the problems ourself by changing our bodies,” she said. “We are told that weight loss is the obvious solution to size discrimination, but is it? Do we hope to solve injustice by telling the people who are experiencing injustice to change?”

Rausch called body size discrimination “an issue of intersectional justice.”

“Body size discrimination is intertwined with systemic racism, sexism and ableism,” she said.

Powers also mentioned body size discrimination’s disparate intersectional impact and acknowledged her privilege in that she was able to take time off work to testify at the hearing.

“There are many people that this law would protect that cannot be here to represent themselves today,” Powers said. “Please consider not just my story, but many stories you and I can never know.”

Stella Tannenbaum writes for the Gazette from the Boston University Statehouse Program.