SALT LAKE CITY — Karen Clark gets asked how tall she is all the time, and she responds the same way each time: "Not very tall."
At 4 feet 11¾ inches, Clark said she often requires assistance reaching items on tall shelves, and she can rarely drive a car without a booster seat. Her height, or lack thereof, she said, has always been a social issue — but it isn't a big enough issue to hassle potential employers about.
"My whole life I've been short. There's nothing I can do about that," she said.
Clark testified in the House Business and Labor Committee, where a bill that would have added height and weight to Utah's anti-discrimination laws was heard and defeated Tuesday.
Lawmakers had trouble with how employers would be held accountable for such discrimination and therefore voted down HB132 after a lengthy discussion.
"At first blush, to think of height and weight as an issue of discrimination is almost laughable," said bill sponsor Rep. Larry Wiley, D-West Valley City. "But we as a society put a high premium on height."
Unfair judgment on height and weight issues, he said, have led to wage discrepancies and differences in social power among such populations.
People tend to believe that those who are overweight and obese are "also lazy, greedy, addicted to food, lack self-discipline," among other things, which registered dietitian Kelsey Eller said are detrimental stereotypes.
Eller focused on weight discrimination during her final year of studies at Utah State University and found that individuals are dramatically affected by how they are perceived in society.
"Thinness is not equal to living a healthy lifestyle," she said. "And neither is being overweight equal with an unhealthy lifestyle."
Eller said the health and size of a person shouldn't be judged based on the number on a scale or a metric used to determine fat percentage, both of which are only useful when comparing groups of people.
"I always wanted to be a flight attendant, but it would be ridiculous for an airline to hire me when I can hardly reach the overhead bins or lift a suitcase to put in those bins," she said, adding that she'd never expect an employer to modify its practices to meet her needs. "The person who gets hired ought to know the conditions and be OK with that."
On the other hand, Rebecca Batty told the committee she has plenty of experience where her weight played an issue in decision-making processes at work.
"I'm female. I'm in my 40s. I'm Hispanic. And I'm fat, and that's the only one of these items that has ever caused me an issue in a discriminatory way, and it's the only one I cannot hide," she said. "This is a form of bullying that is more harmful as an adult than it ever was as a child."3 comments on this story
While the committee turned down the bill, Wiley said he wants people to know it is an issue. The Americans with Disabilities Act, he said, was founded on principles that began in discussion format and is entirely enforceable today.
"There are individuals out there with the same qualifications as you and I, and probably even better, but we're fearful that because of their height and weight, they could be a burden to the company," Wiley said. "I just don't think that is fair. We owe it to them to say we don't discriminate."
Michigan is the only state that includes height and weight in statewide anti-discrimination laws; however, many cities across the country have adopted the principle in their own hiring practices.