Can the UK Tackle Weight-Based Stigma by Making Obesity a Protected Characteristic?

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Weight-based stigma continues to become a challenge in Britain’s workplaces despite advancements in equality legislation. 

Based on a report by the IES, it was discovered that women living with obesity bear the brunt of this prejudice, with a quarter experiencing job discrimination and over half facing derogatory humour or differential treatment from colleagues. 

While progress has been made in safeguarding against discrimination based on race, gender, and other protected characteristics, a crucial question remains: should obesity be added to the list, offering individuals a shield against workplace prejudice?

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Protected Characteristics and Weight-Based Stigma in the UK

Understanding this debate requires familiarity with the current landscape of protected characteristics. In the UK, the Equality Act 2010 prohibits discrimination based on nine categories: age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage or civil partnership, pregnancy or maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, and sexual orientation. These characteristics are considered intrinsic aspects of one’s identity and merit protection from unfair treatment.

However, the current legal framework often falls short for those facing weight-based stigma. Proving discrimination based on weight is typically complex and relies on demonstrating intent, which can be challenging. This ambiguity fuels the pervasiveness of weight-based prejudice, leading many to suffer in silence.

Proponents of making obesity a protected characteristic argue that it would provide essential legal standing for those facing discrimination. It would shift the burden of proof onto employers, requiring them to demonstrate a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for any adverse treatment based on weight. This could significantly deter weight-based prejudice and foster a more inclusive workplace culture.

Opponents, however, raise concerns about potential unintended consequences. Some argue that protecting obesity could discourage individuals from taking steps towards a healthier lifestyle or incentivise employers to prioritise aesthetics over qualifications. Additionally, concerns exist about potential burdens placed on smaller businesses due to increased administrative obligations.

Taking Legal Action Against Discrimination

Taking legal action against workplace discrimination can be a daunting but necessary step. Individuals who believe they have been unfairly treated based on their weight can follow specific procedures:

  • Gathering evidence: Documenting incidents of weight-based stigmas, such as emails, witness statements, or recordings (as legally permissible), strengthens your case.
  • Contacting an advisor: Seeking guidance from organisations like trade unions can provide invaluable support and advice. Additionally, you could also seek comprehensive legal advice from our employment lawyers at Redmans Solicitors.
  • Pre-action steps: Attempting mediation or raising concerns internally with your employer can sometimes resolve the issue without recourse to legal action.
  • Filing a claim: If necessary, you can file a discrimination claim in the County Court within six months of the discriminatory act. Legal aid may be available depending on your financial circumstances.

If you require guidance on taking legal action against workplace discrimination, get in touch with our expert employment lawyers at Redmans Solicitors here.

Tackling Weight-Based Stigma: Should It Become a Protected Characteristic?

Navigating this debate requires delicate consideration. Recognising the harmful effects of weight-based stigma is crucial, yet ensuring a balanced approach that fosters both inclusivity and individual responsibility is equally important. 

One potential solution could be to expand the definition of disability to encompass certain cases of obesity with demonstrably limiting effects on an individual’s ability to perform daily activities. This could offer necessary legal protection without creating overly broad categories.

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Ultimately, tackling weight-based stigma demands a multifaceted approach. While making obesity a protected characteristic could be a powerful step in the right direction, it should be considered within a broader framework of initiatives. 

Public education campaigns to challenge weight-based stereotypes, workplace diversity and inclusion training, and promoting healthy lifestyles without resorting to stigmatising tactics are all crucial components in fostering a fair and equitable environment for all.

Only by addressing weight-based stigma with comprehensive strategies can we ensure that workplaces become truly inclusive spaces where individuals are valued for their skills and contributions, not unfairly judged for their physique. This pursuit demands open dialogue, informed policy-making, and a collective commitment to dismantling the harmful walls of prejudice.

If you require advice or guidance on workplace discrimination, head to the Redmans website. To get in touch with our team of expert employment lawyers, click here.


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