Weight bias rivals race prejudice

Weight discrimination — unequal treatment or prejudice toward overweight or obese individuals — is as prevalent as racial discrimination, according to research published earlier this month by the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.

But despite its prevalence, weight discrimination continues to be socially acceptable and thus is not looked down on as severely as discrimination based on gender or race, said Rebecca Puhl, director of research at the Rudd Center and lead author of the study.

“These results show the need to treat weight discrimination as a legitimate form of prejudice,” she said. “It is comparable to other characteristics like race or gender that already receive legal protection.”

In the study, on average, 5 percent of men and 10 percent of women reported suffering from weight-based discrimination. But these averages obscure the true extent of the problem, the study concludes — the same statistic, for individuals of a BMI of 35 and above, skyrockets to 40 percent, the study found. BMI, or body mass index, measures an individual’s percentage of body fat, based on his weight and height.

Puhl said weight discrimination was found to occur both in institutional settings such as workplaces, where overweight individuals were at greater risk for being denied jobs and promotions and being fired, and in individuals’ interpersonal relationships, where such individuals were more likely to be insulted, mistreated and harassed.

The data also revealed a significant gender divide: Women are twice as likely to report weight discrimination than their male counterparts. While men do not begin experiencing a significant level of weight discrimination until they reach a BMI level of 35 of higher, women develop a high risk at a BMI level of 27 — evidence that the societally “acceptable” weight standards for women are more stringent than they are for men, the study found.

For highly overweight individuals, this gender gap in discrimination is exacerbated, the study showed. Women with a BMI of between 30 and 35 were up to three times more likely to report weight discrimination than their male peers of a comparable weight.

The study, conducted on nearly 3,000 adults ranging from age 25 to 74, used data from self-reported weight discrimination and compared it to discrimination based on race and gender. Participants were asked questions about the forms of, and reasons for, the discrimination they encountered in their everyday lives, Puhl said.

Tatiana Andreyeva, co-author on the study, said weight discrimination, particularly for women, is more prevalent than discrimination based on sexual orientation, nationality or ethnicity, physical disability and religious affiliation — but receives less public attention than many of these other biases.

Puhl’s study is among a slowly growing body of research on a phenomenon that has only just begun to enter the radar of policy — and lawmakers. Despite its high prevalence, research on the subject remains sparse, and limited data are available on the types and patterns of weight discrimination, Andreyeva said.

In addition, Puhl said, legal measures that protect overweight and obese people from discrimination do not currently exist, but they are desperately needed if change is to be had, she said. Currently, no federal legislation exists to outlaw weight-based discrimination, and Michigan is the only state that has enacted legislation at the state-level, she explained.

A bill that would make it unlawful to discriminate against a person based on weight or height received a public hearing in Massachusetts this month, but the results from that hearing have not yet been released, Adreyeva said.

“Without meaningful legislation, it is likely that weight bias will remain socially acceptable,” Puhl said.

While anti-weight-discrimination legislation might partially alleviate the problem, it alone cannot solve the problem, she said — understanding why weight stigma arises may also offer some long-term solutions.

Although there exists little research on the reasons for weight discrimination, Chelsea Heuer, research assistant at the Rudd Center, said the dominant model has to do with the psychological-attribution theory.

This theory hypothesizes that individuals tend to ascribe negative attributes to individuals who are overweight, which results in blame — a sort of “punishing-the-victim” tactic, she said. Conservative, North American ideals, such as individualism and self-determinism, exacerbate the prevalence of these attributions, she added.

“People in our culture believe that people get what they deserve,” she said. “So, since weight is seen as a controllable factor, people assume that [overweight individuals] have some sort of problem with them.”

Indeed, studies show that weight stigmatization is less severe in cases in which individuals’ weight is associated with factors outside their control, such as medical problems, instead of factors like overeating, Heuer said.

Other studies point to changing the dominant social environment as key: Data show that if a person perceives others around him to be more accepting of obesity, he is more likely to be similarly accepting. Hence — according to Mirian Berg, president of the Council on Size and Weight Discrimination — the next step is to challenge the pervasive cultural paradigm that thinness means good, while being overweight means bad.

“We have to first get to the point where people don’t look at an overweight person and assume they are lazy, unhealthy or any of the other stereotypes that exist,” she said.

Puhl said that education — both about the phenomenon of weight discrimination and the more deeply ingrained idealization of thinness — is key to changing how people think.

In a review published by the Rudd Center in 2001, weight discrimination and stigmatization was found to be prevalent in three areas of living: employment, education and health care. According to that review, 28 percent of teachers said becoming obese is the worst thing that can happen to a person, 24 percent of nurses reported being “repulsed” by obese patients and, controlling for income and grades, parents were found to invest fewer college funds in their overweight children than their thin children.


  • Jennifer

    While I personally don't discriminate based on weight, and understand that weight management is a very difficult issue for many people, this study raises a number of important questions.

    Compared to other traits that frequently attract discrimination (race, age, gender, sexual orientation), weight is something that is within the control of the individual and one side is (for the vast majority of instances) unquestionably better than the other.

    If we move to officially protect people from weight discrimination, does that give a tacit approval to being overweight? Shouldn't we, as a society, be encouraging peoplee to be healthy?

  • Anonymous

    " “People in our culture believe that people get what they deserve,” she said. “So, since weight is seen as a controllable factor, people assume that [overweight individuals] have some sort of problem with them.”

    Indeed, studies show that weight stigmatization is less severe in cases in which individuals’ weight is associated with factors outside their control, such as medical problems, instead of factors like overeating, Heuer said."

    What about cases where being overweight is not within the individual's control? How do we distinguish cases of overeating or an unhealthy lifestyle from uncontrollable issues like medical problems and genetic factors?

  • Anonymous

    in response to #1:

    Of course we should be encouraging people to become healthier. As #2 highlights, we are rarely aware of the complex factors which might be contributing to a person's unhealthy weight and should also make sure that that person's rights are protected just like any healthy person.

    We can 'encourage' those who could change their weight through lifestyle changes to do so in ways that are positive, supportive, and aware of the intrinsic difficulties of losing weight and maintaing weight loss. To protect against the discriminations listed in the article is not to encourage obesity but to prevent the situations where even more weight gain is likely due to adverse reactions to discrimination, prejudice, etc. and to make sure that our rights as human beings are being protected universally.

  • Anonymous

    @#1: Weight discrimination is also frequently far more based on aesthetic than health concerns. More and more studies have shown that to be overweight (which is a BMI between 25 and 30; over 30 is obese) is not necessarily unhealthy and may in some cases be MORE healthy.

    Unlike race or sexuality discrimination, furthermore, weight discrimination is virtually silent in the modern sphere. It is rare for a victim to speak up, because the fault for being fat is perceived as theirs (many times even by the victims themselves). Someone can go their whole life without realizing it's others' prejudice, rather than a personal failing.

  • Anonymous

    Genetics may make it harder to lose weight, or precondition you to look a certain way (not everyone is tall and skinny), but losing weight is still not complicated: eat less, move more.

  • Christine

    Weight is much less "under our control" than conventional wisdom would have you think. Also, it's perfectly possible to be fat and healthy, or thin and unhealthy; what DOES make a difference is a varied diet and exercise, but that does not necessarily make a naturally fat person thin, or vice versa (see 1-4 at this link for more info--hell, read the whole thing: http://kateharding.net/but-dont-you-realize-fat-is-unhealthy/).

    In short, you can't judge someone's health by how they look, but damn if we don't like to try (and then congratulate ourselves for "helping" the person we're shaming). I agree with commenter 4: most weight-based discrimination is about aesthetics and cultural norms rather than anything resembling concern for other people's well-being. You can't hate people for their own good.

  • Anonymous

    another thing to consider is that lifestyle choices such as overeating cannot be parsed out and isolated completely from genetic components of obesity. often severely obese individuals lack key hormones such as leptin that signal fullness to the brain, meaning that those individuals overeat because of biological qualities out of their control. but to the everyday witness, overeating seems like a completely voluntary action. as research on obesity continues to grow, we are finding out more and more that genetics influences thought and action in some very invisible ways.

  • Ronald

    I have been heavy for much of my life and for the last several years 'normal' weight. I am also 'unattractive' w/a large nose. Discrimination against unattractive people is prevalent but is not just limited to weight but also other physical characteristics. Are we going to pass laws to prevent that kind of discrimination?

  • Anonymous

    Everyone in my family is overweight, so one might say genetics are not in my favor. I was fat for most of my life, but decided to work out more and eat less. IT'S A MIRACLE, I LOST WEIGHT! I know I sound judgemental or mean, but I want to dispel this notion that some people are doomed. Ok, yes genetics plays a role in being overweight; yes, genetics will also be a large factor as to how difficult it will be to lose weight, but the equations is still the same: East less, excercise more = weight loss. It's not a matter of whether you still "feel" hungry or not. It takes discipline, which is why weight loss is hard. One may never look as skinny as Angelina Jolie or Brad Pitt, but one can certainly shed serious pounds. All you have to do is watch that TV show "The Biggest Loser" to see that EVERYONE can lose weight, despite genetics.

    The simple truth is that there is discrimination based on aesthetics in every form, not just with regards to weight. "Ugly" people will experience similar discimination. "Beautiful people" have an easier time with just about everything. We haven't had a President under 5'9 in how long? I can't even tell you how many times I've heard people joke about Bloomberg being short. Let's face it people, not everyone is treated equally. Welcome to life.