Nanny State

The Case of the Overlooked Cook

A fat guy's discrimination suit highlights ambivalence in the anti-obesity movement.


Joseph Connor is still waiting for his pants. In September 2000, Connor was offered a job as a cook at a McDonald's in Hamden, Connecticut. The manager took his measurements and told him he could start work in a few days, after his uniform arrived. In mid-October the manager said the shirt had arrived, but the pants had not. Months went by, and Connor noticed that people hired by McDonald's the day he applied and afterward had started working there. He began to suspect the issue was not so much the pants as the pants size: 54. Naturally, he sued.

Connor, who is six feet, one inch tall and weighs about 420 pounds, is a hard man to overlook. But McDonald's says he got lost in the shuffle when the company sold the Hamden restaurant to a franchisee. Applicants hired at the same time did not suffer the same fate, a company lawyer recently told The New York Times, because they did not need special-order pants. Either way, then, Connor's girth cost him the job.

It's not hard to sympathize with Connor. After working as a cook for six years, the Times reports, he was laid off from a job in a shopping mall's food court. The McDonald's opening was his chance to get off welfare and "help support his five children." The Times story is accompanied by a picture of Connor standing outside the restaurant, grimly looking through the golden arches painted on the plate-glass window.

You can feel bad for Connor, of course, without endorsing his legal claims. He argues that McDonald's violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by refusing to hire him because it perceived his obesity as a disability, which he says it is not. At the same time, Connor maintains that McDonald's violated Connecticut's Fair Employment Practices Act by refusing to hire him because it perceived his obesity as a disability, which he says it is. Last spring a federal judge rejected a motion by McDonald's to dismiss the suit, noting that Connor's seemingly contradictory claims could be reconciled given the different definitions of disability in the state and federal laws.

In addition to the confusing state of disability law, cases like this one highlight the ambivalence of the burgeoning anti-obesity movement, which views fat people with a combination of pity and impatience that recalls the anti-tobacco movement's attitude toward smokers. On the one hand, fat people are victims, seduced by sinister corporations like McDonald's into eating more than they should. From this perspective, the chain's shabby treatment of Connor added insult to injury, rejecting him for practicing the gluttony on which the company depends.

On the other hand, fat people are leeches, costing taxpayers tens of billions of dollars a year in health care subsidies. They are raiding our wallets as well as the pantry. That charge, which is based on calculations that do not take into account long-term savings on health care and Social Security, may turn out to be just as specious in the case of obesity as it is in the case of smoking. But even if it does, it will no doubt remain a conspicuous theme in arguments for a government-led war on obesity.

If fat people are perceived as victims, helpless in the face of what the obesity expert Kelly Brownell calls the "toxic food environment," lawsuits like Connor's will seem legitimate to everyone but the few reactionaries who still believe in freedom of contract. If fat people are perceived as leeches, willfully burdening us with the consequences of their irresponsible behavior, any difficulty they have in finding employment may be seen as just punishment.

Although these two perspectives suggest different moral judgments, they do not necessarily dictate different policies. Anti-smoking activists portray cigarette taxes not only as a way of compensating the rest of us for the habit's alleged social cost but as a way of "helping" smokers who want to quit. "Junk food" taxes likewise can be defended both as a charge for unhealthy habits and as an added incentive to shape up.

Brownell, who supports such taxes as a way of making the food environment less toxic, nevertheless rejects the idea of taxing people based on how fat they are, a more precise and efficient way of tackling the problem. By his reckoning, a weight tax puts too much emphasis on individual responsibility. Yet it makes no sense to say that the prices people pay for food are part of the environment that encourages obesity while insisting that the price they pay for being fat is not.

Whether or not fat people "deserve" to be discriminated against, making life difficult for them should enhance their odds of losing weight. If it's hard for a 420-pound man to get a job, he will have another reason to eat less and exercise more. Other things being equal, raising the cost of being overweight ought to reduce the incidence of obesity, which suggests that fat people should be treated as shabbily as possible—for their sake as well as the sake of those who might otherwise be inclined to follow their example.

This is the logic that has been applied to smokers, who are taxed, vilified, and ostracized for their own good. The reluctance to take the same tough-love approach with fatties may have something to do with the fact that, unlike smokers, overweight Americans represent a majority of the population—a majority that includes Kelly Brownell.