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By: Emese Sykes

I know first-hand that body shape, size and even standardized charts can’t tell you whether or not someone is treating their body with the respect it needs. I also know that none of those same measurements should have any bearing on the level of respect a person receives from others.

As a person with a relatively tiny body, I find myself on the receiving end of quite a few awkward, challenging and even insulting comments about my body and eating practices. Everything from “That’s all you’re eating?” to “Where are you putting all that food?” and even “You’re too skinny. Eat some dumplings!”

I get “compliments” in the form of thinly veiled complaints about the speaker’s own body (Um, thanks for making me feel awkward, I think you’re beautiful, by the way). Yet when I go through seasons of overeating and avoiding exercise, I start getting the real compliments: “Wow! You look so healthy now!” I end up being approximately the right size, and even the perfect BMI to match someone else’s prototype of a young healthy woman when I’m treating my body poorly.

I’ve had to learn and re-learn that not everyone is going to accept that my body’s natural size is a result of genetics, rather than dieting, discipline, or an unhealthy body image. It says nothing about my character or my lifestyle, and nothing about anyone else’s either. As such, I’ve had to learn and re-learn to take care of it properly, and not force it to change into an unhealthy imitation of someone else’s healthy body.

While the size of my body has at many times apparently qualified it for public debate and appraisal, I can usually laugh awkwardly and run away. Yet I know there are many men and women who find themselves in much more detrimental situations because of discrimination against their body’s size or shape.

As it stands today in Canada, protection against sizeism is not included in human rights codes. In other words, you can’t lose your job because of your religion, your disability, or your gender. But if your employer considers your weight to be an issue, you don’t have much legal support to fight getting laid off, or getting passed over for a promotion, or even not getting hired in the first place. Sizeism seems largely overlooked by Canadian law, with only one noteworthy exception: the Supreme Court’s 2008 ruling that any large persons in need of two seats on an airplane must only be charged for the one.

Even in the most recent update of McMaster’s Discrimination, Harassment & Sexual Harassment: Prevention and Response policy, body shape and weight discrimination are missing from an extensive list of individuals and groups protected by the university’s policy (which, thankfully, includes an “other” catch-all).

These and other examples of institutional blind spots, coupled with a very profitable weight loss industry can contribute, first of all, to a lot of pressure for Canadians to change their bodies (whether their weight poses a medical problem or not). Moreover, the omission of protection against sizeism gives permission to employers, teachers, doctors, and the general public to treat any adult or child they perceive as underweight or overweight with less respect than they deserve. This culture cultivates a judgmental, comparative and even competitive attitude towards body weight and shape, in which individuals must answer to strangers’ assumptions of character, choices and lifestyle based on how our bodies are perceived.

Shape, size, tests, charts and numbers are completely unrelated to the amount of respect that you owe yourself, the respect that anyone else owes you, and the respect that you owe others.

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