by Anna Kirkland. New York: NYU Press. 2008. 224pp. Cloth. $65.00. ISBN: 9780814748077. Paper $21.00. ISBN: 9780814748138.

Reviewed by Michele Morrone, Environmental Health Science, Ohio University. Email: morrone [at] ohio.edu.


When you see an obese or overweight person, what thoughts come into your head? Do you think that he or she must eat too much and not exercise? Do you consider being overweight a medical condition? Do you have compassion or revulsion? As I was reading FAT RIGHTS, I surveyed numerous friends and colleagues about their perceptions of fat people, and everyone had a different opinion. Even though their opinions were different, most everyone believed that obese and overweight individuals are a group of people with differences, and these differences could affect how they are treated in society in general and in the workplace specifically.

Now consider, if you were an employer and a well-qualified, obese person wanted a promotion in your office, would you be able to overlook the person’s appearance and make the promotion? Your answer to this question is at the heart of how you view fat people specifically, and may be an indicator of how you view other groups, such as African Americans and women as well. If you answered something like, “if this person could do the job, then the weight wouldn’t matter,” you likely believe that some people can function perfectly well despite their differences. You may have answered along the lines of, “I would encourage the fat person to enroll in a program to lose some weight because fat people cost the company money in lost productivity and healthcare.” With this type of answer you are exposing a sort of bias against fat people by placing a monetary value, or actualizing, their condition.

If you did not promote your fat employee, but promoted a thinner person instead, would you be prepared to fight a discrimination lawsuit? Your reaction to this question might be even more telling of your views about people with weight problems. Maybe you think that fat people have no grounds to file a discrimination lawsuit because being fat is not a disability. You would be correct if you thought this, because according to current US law, fat people are not a protected class, and they have not been very successful in winning discrimination lawsuits. The big question that this book asks the reader to think about is what it would take for overweight people to become a protected class, one that would be viewed by the legal system similar to the way in which it views race, religion, gender, and disability.

Anna Kirkland asks many questions in her book, FAT RIGHTS, and all of the questions eventually lead one to examine his or her own personal biases about several groups of people, including those who are full-bodied. If you pick up this book with the notion that it will be an essay advocating rights for fat people, [*707] you will soon find that the author is very clear that this was not her motivation for writing the book. As she explains in the very beginning, her purpose is to examine the way that we develop our opinions and biases about different groups of people. The process that we go through is somewhat logical in that we may come to a conclusion about certain groups of people, such as heavy people, only to have this conclusion challenged and lead us to change our view. This is why she focuses on describing what she calls “logics of personhood.”

Personhood is the term that is used to explain why people are the way they are, including what makes them different and how they are similar. There is no one “personhood;” rather there are numerous ways or “logics” of thinking about how people live and work in communities. Kirkland uses antidiscrimination law to frame her explanation of these logics of personhood. She identifies six different logics that could contribute to how certain groups of people are sometimes discriminated against in society. These six logics include: 1) functional personhood; 2) embedded personhood; 3) blame-shifting; 4) actuarial personhood; 5) diverse personhood; and 6) managerial individualism.

Kirkland does not organize the book according to the logics she originally identifies; she weaves these logics throughout the five chapters that are the heart of the book. This approach to organizing the discussion is one that I found a little confusing, because once she laid out the 6 logics, I expected to settle back and read an explanation of each one as it applies to fat people. This was not the case, and it becomes more confusing when apparent inconsistencies arise in the semantics of the logics. For example, functional personhood is also discussed as functional individualism. There were times that I had to re-read passages to be sure that I was understanding the points that the author was trying to make. On the other hand, a reader who enjoys legal theory, sociology, and cultural anthropology will probably cruise through the book in one sitting.

In the introductory chapter, Kirkland lays out 5 strategies, or options, for protecting different classes of people from being discriminated against. In her view, as the legal system considers granting new groups rights in antidiscrimination law, the first step involves the logics of personhood, and the second deals with the strategy that accompanies these logics. In other words, the decision about how to treat people is based on how we view and understand them. When it comes to an overweight person in the workplace, if we believe that s/he will contribute to diversity, then we may choose a strategy of embracing the difference and take steps to ensure that s/he fits in. On the other hand, if we view obesity as serious medical issue, we may choose a strategy of exclusion based on the healthcare cost that the person could represent.

The book does not seek to answer the question: Should fat people have rights? Indeed, Kirkland notes that, if you believe the answer to this question is “yes,” then the challenge is in finding a “politically appealing argument about why fat people should be protected from the negative consequences of being fat.” What the book offers is a rather philosophical discussion about discrimination based on a variety of [*708] factors, including weight, gender, and race. The author also mentions other groups, such as smokers and those infected with HIV, as parallels to the way in which some people may think about obesity.

Throughout the book, Kirkland integrates actual cases in which fat people have been discriminated against in the workplace. She tells stories of individuals losing out on promotions, not getting hired, and even being fired because of their weight. This aspect of the book is what I found the most compelling, because the author applies the philosophical discussion to real world accounts of discrimination. While reading these accounts, the reader will come to a better understanding of his or her own prejudices regarding fat people in the workplace.

Kirkland shares an insight about her own beliefs when she discusses the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). She argues that the ADA requires that the disabled employee shoulder most of the responsibility for an accommodating workplace, rather than the employer. She believes it should be the other way around, and that employers should bear more responsibility than they currently do under ADA. One of the biggest problems with ADA is that it does not adequately define what it means to be “disabled.” While this ambiguity is par for the course in American law, it generally makes it difficult for anyone to win an antidiscrimination lawsuit, including a fat person. Especially since, as the author explains, most people view obesity as a behavioral problem rather than a disability.

Kirkland argues that there is a “politics of fat” that includes a debate about why people are overweight and what this means to their productivity in the workplace. This implies that there is disagreement in society about what is means to be fat, and the logics of personhood are at the heart of these disagreements. The political nature of fat means that it will be some time before there is a conclusion about whether to include weight as a characteristic that should be offered protection in antidiscrimination law. Nevertheless, the author convincingly argues that it does not really matter if laws are changed to include obese people. What matters is that society should not stigmatize entire groups of people on the basis of appearance, be it weight, color, disability, gender, or whatever.

This book should contribute to the scholarly discussion about the legal meaning of fatness. Since it provides both philosophy and actual cases, it could serve as a resource for students of both law and theory. Regardless, it does make you think about your own prejudices and perceptions of fat people and leaves you wondering whether weight will ever be a factor in antidiscrimination cases, especially since, according to public health experts, more and more Americans are entering this class every year.

© Copyright 2008 by the author, Michele Morrone.