In New York City, new legislation was passed on May 11: Bill INT 0209, which will prohibit discrimination against individuals for their height and weight. Its effects will reach across numerous industries in New York City. But how will it impact Broadway?
The New York City Council has passed the bill 44-5, and the bill now heads to Mayor Eric Adams for his signature, after which it will become law—making NYC the largest city in the country to ban discrimination based on height and weight. Adams had previously expressed his support for the bill, saying last month at a news conference, "We should never treat people differently because of their weight." Five cities around the country (including San Francisco and Washington, D.C.) and Michigan also have similar laws banning height and weight discrimination.
Bill INT 0209 specifically applies to discrimination within three sectors: employment, housing, and public accommodations. In relation to the theatre industry, it will most directly impact matters of employment: casting, workplace environments (including backstage and rehearsal rooms), and even standard office jobs within the theatre industry—like public relations or theatre administration. Simply put, the bill prohibits any discrimination against employees on the basis of their size.
The bill does so by adding height and weight as a protected class—alongside age, race, sexual orientation, citizenship status, and other identified traits that are given legal protections from discrimination.
In terms of protection against height and weight discrimination, the most likely and prevalent scenarios one could imagine this manifesting within the theatre industry are instances of verbal (or written) preferences for certain body types. For example, it can be considered discrimination for a director to advise their cast members to lose 10 pounds prior to opening night. Choreographers may not be able to tell dancers that they are not thin enough for the specific form of dance they are performing. And according to Broadway Body Positivity activist Stephanie Lexis, who was one of many people to testify at City Hall in favor of the bill, even costuming could no longer require actors entering previously inhabited roles (think long-running shows or touring casts) to fit into the previous actor's costumes.
Yet, the most pressing question is: how can Bill INT 0209 apply to casting?
The answer is complicated. Considering that casting as a hiring process is inherently subjective, should an individual auditioning feel discriminated for not making the cut, it would be difficult to prove any grounds of exclusionary or discriminatory casting. However, this bill could prohibit casting notices and calls from utilizing specific language to exclude certain body types: potentially even barring height/weight requirements on casting notices—similar to how preferences for certain races is banned on casting breakdowns.
According to the bill, the only acceptable scenario in which specific height/weight can be requested is if a particular height or weight "may prevent a person from performing essential requirements of a job and no alternative is available or this criteria is reasonably necessary for the normal operation of the business." That applies to fields with physical fitness requirements such as policing or firefighting, but arguably less so when it comes to acting onstage—which does not require a fitness test.
There have been countless industry-wide conversations over the past several years surrounding body diversity—and several of those conversations focusing specifically on fatphobia and sizeism (which some studies have reported is as prevalent as racial discrimination). This bill, regardless of how much legal gravity it has within the theatre industry, is sure to cause some conversation for Broadway.
There are plenty of works in the theatrical canon where weight is not part of the plot-line. It is then arguable that those roles should then be open to performers of different sizes. In an interview earlier this year with Playbill, Kimberly Akimbo star Bonnie Milligan expressed her frustration with stereotypes for plus-sized characters on stage. "So many times, a plus-size character is there because they are fat, or there’s usually something in the script that is telling the world why a fat body is on stage or on film. It’s like, ‘Can I just be here? Can I just be a human?”
Though the impact Bill INT 0209 will have on Broadway, and casting practices, remains to be seen, for supporters of size diversity, the bill's passage is no doubt a valuable first step. Similar to how protected classes in race eventually led to more racial diversity on stage, the ongoing awareness of weight discrimination indicates that a more body positive future is in the cards for Broadway.
If Adams signs the bill into law, then anyone who experiences weight and height discrimination will be able to file a complaint to NYC's Commission on Human Rights.