Image description: NAAFA leaders and allies rally for size freedom at NYC City Hall. Photo courtesy of NAAFA.

In the first of many victories to come, discrimination based on size is now banned in New York City, thanks to new legislation passed last spring that went into effect November 22, 2023.

New York City is now one of just a few places in the U.S. that have a policy that prohibits size discrimination; others include the cities of San Francisco and Madison, Wisconsin, as well as the states of Michigan and Washington. But these locales are still in the minority—almost everywhere else, there are no legal protections for size.

That’s why NAAFA—along with FLARE and with support from Dove—co-founded the Campaign for Size Freedom. Having secured this pivotal victory in New York, its focus now extends to ensuring that more places implement explicit anti-discrimination safeguards based on body size. 

As the chair of NAAFA’s board and a long-time communicator, LightBox Senior Partner Amanda Cooper has worked with NAAFA to not just promote legislation but to actively establish a new narrative frame in which to discuss the impact of body size on people’s quality of life.

The Problem

Fat people face a myriad of injustices, but the media only talks about our “health.” How do we reframe the narrative on body size?

Despite the natural diversity in human body size, generations of prejudice, questionable science, and discrimination have created stereotypes about people with larger bodies that harm fat people, particularly fat people who have multiple marginalized identities. 

Most of the day-to-day problems fat people face are the result of unjust treatment. Fat people can face dehumanizing biases and assumptions about their abilities in nearly every sphere of life, including employment, housing, and public spaces. Studies show that fat people are hired less, promoted less, and paid less than others.

As with many social justice issues, the problem is not just the lack of good policy. We are also operating in a narrative landscape that makes a lot of false assumptions about fat people, which contributes to bad treatment and discrimination. 

The Solution

Fat rights are civil rights

We need less talk of weight loss and “health” and more about how fat people deserve to live full and happy lives at the size they are today, whatever it is.

The Campaign for Size Freedom in NYC provides a compelling example of reframing the narrative on body size, which was a big part of how we won this historic legislation. 

Here’s How We Did It: 

  • Focus on discrimination: We were able to introduce a new narrative that shifted the focus from weight as related to health, to weight as related to freedom and opportunity.  By emphasizing that fat rights are civil rights, the campaign broadened the conversation and connected it to fundamental principles of equality and non-discrimination. 
  • Collaboration: By collaborating with labor unions, civil rights organizations, and corporations, we effectively demonstrated how body size discrimination impacts various aspects of people’s lives, including work. This collaboration not only strengthened our message but also expanded our reach and support base.
  • Legislative advocacy: Recognizing the limitations of existing laws, the campaign advocated for legislative changes. By highlighting that current laws make it too easy to discriminate against fat people, we not only identified a specific problem but also proposed tangible solutions. 
  • Media outreach: The New York City legislation has generated more than 700 media stories in 2023 so far – more than 4 times the number of stories about weight discrimination or fat liberation from all of 2022. These stories are introducing new ways to talk about body size: as a civil rights issue, as an example of widespread, unchecked discrimination, and as an opportunity for us to rethink our views on weight and health.
  • Easy engagement for supporters: There were clear and simple ways for individuals to support the campaign. Whether signing a petition, including body size in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) considerations, or sharing a media report, these actions made it easy for supporters to get involved.

What can other campaigns learn from this example? 

3 takeaways that you can apply to your own campaign:

  1. Fresh conversations beat old battles: It’s easier to start a new discussion in a new frame than to fight against a harmful dominant narrative. 
  1. Add complexity to the main narrative: Shifting the frame complicates the dominant narrative and makes room for your message without creating back and forth between the current narrative.
  1. Fresh ideas get noticed: New concepts and frames pique interest and gain media coverage. 

Inspired? We invite you to join the campaign:

A version of this content was shared at ComNet23, the Communications Network’s annual conference, with the hope it can be of use to people promoting fat rights and size freedom and to communicators facing negative stereotypes throughout our movements.

Photo of Amanda Cooper

Amanda Cooper is the Chair of the Board at NAAFA and Senior Partner at LightBox Collaborative.