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Is Body Shaming Barred By Law?

By Viviana Torres, Staff Writer

On Behalf of | Jul 31, 2023 | Firm News

Is Body Shaming Barred By Law? By Viviana Torres, Staff Writer
What is Fat Shaming?

“Fat shaming” or also known as body shaming, is the act of humiliating someone by making inappropriate or negative comments about their weight, body size or shape. Fat shaming can occur in all types of relationships, from personal relationships with significant others and family to even employer-employee relations.

Fat Shaming in the Employment Context:

Under NJ’s Law against Discrimination (“NJLAD”), body-shaming of obesity is not a protected category unless it is a disability caused by a bodily injury, defect, or illness. Moreover, there is a three-prong test in claiming this as disability-discrimination under NJLAD. The employee must show that (1) she/he are disabled or have a perceived disability; (2) she/he were qualified to perform the essential functions of the job; and (3) she/he suffered an adverse employment action because of their disability or perceived disability.

It is imperative in the employment context that the person establish a condition that falls under the statutory definition of disability. As defined by NJLAD, someone one with a physical disability is “suffering from physical disability, infirmity, malformation or disfigurement which is caused by bodily injury, birth defect or illness including epilepsy, any degree of paralysis, amputation, lack of physical coordination, blindness or visual impediment pr physical reliance on a service or guide dog, wheelchair, or other remedial appliance or device.” Meanwhile, a non-physical disability is defined as “suffering from any mental, psychological or developmental disability resulting from anatomical, psychological, or neurological conditions which either (a) prevent the normal exercise of any bodily or mental functions or (b) is demonstratable, medically or psychologically, by accepted clinical or laboratory diagnostic techniques.” Once a disability or perceived disability is established, the first prong is completed.

For the second part, the employee must show that she/he could perform the essential or fundamental functions of the job. You cannot be excluded or be deemed less qualified than other individuals who have the same or relevant work experience, training, certifications you do. An employer also cannot make hiring decisions based on an employee’s excess weight. However, it may be permissible if the employee cannot perform the job’s essential functions and providing reasonable accommodations would become an undue burden on the employer. Lastly, the third part is established when the person can demonstrate she/he suffered an adverse employment action such as being fired or demoted, because of their disability or perceived disability.

In sum, to bring a claim of body shaming of obesity under NJ LAD, the obesity must be the basis of a medical causation such as a birth defect, illness or other recognized disability that prohibits a normal bodily or mental function. It must be associated with an underlying physical or mental condition that contributes to the obesity or prevents the normal exercise of any bodily or mental functions. So you’ll need specific written support from a medical provider.

Remedies under NJ LAD generally can include:

  • injunctive relief
  • job reinstatement
  • back pay
  • compensatory damages related to pain and suffering or emotional distress
  • punitive damages
  • interest on lost wages
  • and reasonable attorney’s fees.

Also, body shaming can be classified as sexual harassment in the workplace or hostile work environment harassment. For instance, sexual harassment can be found if accompanied by gender-based remarks, comments and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. Meanwhile, hostile work environment harassment consists of verbal and nonverbal insults, comments and other unwelcomed behavior that can be intentionally or unintentionally offensive or degrading.

Fat Shaming in Personal Relationships:

Domestic violence includes patterns of physical, emotional, verbal, and sexual abuse. It includes threats, isolation, intimidation and/or financial control where someone attempts to gain power over another to control them. In the area of domestic violence, body shaming can be emotional abuse. Emotional abuse is a form of manipulation that involves controlling an individual’s emotions by shaming, embarrassing, criticizing, or isolating the victim. So body shaming is a type of emotional abuse because is the act of criticizing your partner’s weight or body size.

Since body shaming is a form of emotional abuse, it can leave the victim feeling insecure and having poor mental health. Body shaming can lead the victim to develop eating disorders, low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, body dysmorphia, etc. In today’s world where social media sets “ideal” beauty standards while distorting an individual’s self-image, the act of body shaming a significant other can be even more impactful. For instance, the recent emergence of Ozempic, a weight-loss drug created for Type 2 diabetics is now being used by non-diabetics. As a result, non-diabetics use Ozempic and other weight-loss drugs like Wegovy to lose weight fast, even if awful side-effects can occur. A victim of body-shaming can feel pressured to partake in these potentially unhealthy practices to put a stop to fat stigma and the emotional abuse experienced at the hands of their partner.

Under the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act of 1991, you have the right to file a civil – as well as a criminal – complaint if you believe you are a victim of domestic violence. Domestic violence includes emotional abuse which is exactly what body shaming is. Putting a stop to emotional abuse early on can save a person from suffering long term physical and mental health consequences.

Viviana Torres is a rising third-year law student at Seton Hall University School of Law, where she works as an interpreter for the Center for Social Justice. Viviana is also treasurer of LALSA at Seton Hall Law.

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