Stop the Stigma: The Effects of Weight-Based Bias

Despite the fact that nearly 38% of adults in the United States are considered to be obese and many of us struggle with our body image, weight-based bias is still an acceptable form of discrimination that affects thousands of Americans every day.

Studies have shown that these negative attitudes about weight can be found in children as young as three years old. People who society deems as overweight are frequently discriminated against in the realms of education, employment, medical care, the media, and personal relationships. But because excess weight is considered to be unhealthy, whether that is true of the individual or not, this discrimination goes unchecked.

What is Weight-Based Bias?

Weight-based bias is a term used to describe the pervasive negative attitudes, prejudices, and stereotypes surrounding people who are overweight. Weight-based bias can come in many different forms and can be demonstrated through words, actions, obstacles, or in extreme cases, outright discriminatory policies or actions against overweight people.

Oftentimes weight-based bias is built on the stereotype that overeating is the sole cause of obesity, when in fact illness, medication, genetics, economic class, environmental changes, and upbringing are all factors that can contribute to the issue.

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Verbal and Physical Weight Bias

Verbally, weight-based bias can come in the form of jokes, insults, teasing, harassment, and name calling which exists not just in childhood but into adulthood. This can be especially pervasive on the Internet through targeted bullying, trolling, and harassment campaigns that happens on a daily basis for some.

In 2015, journalist Lindy West wrote an article called “What Happened When I Confronted My Cruelest Troll” for The Guardian about her years of experience with fat-shaming Internet commenters. “For the past three years or so, at least one stranger has sought me out pretty much every day to call me … fat (or some pithy variation thereof) … I’m a writer a woman and a feminist … I’m told, a constant barrage of abuse is just part of my job. Shrug. Nothing we can do.”

Physical bias can include unwanted touching, grabbing, pushing, and even assault because of an individual’s weight.

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Barrier Weight Bias

In their day-to-day lives, overweight people experience bias in the form of physical barriers that can make it difficult for them to use restroom facilities, public seating, or use medical equipment. Some airlines require people they deem to be “passengers of size” to purchase two seats. Some have even started charging passengers based on their weight, as Samoa Air started doing in 2013.

In 2017, a Colorado man made headlines when Spirit Airlines humiliated him in front of other passengers over his weight despite the fact that he followed their “passenger of size” policy to the letter. Jose Cordova purchased the required two seats on a flight to Las Vegas, but was told that the flight was overbooked and that he’d have to give one of his purchased seats up.

Even when people of size are proactive about getting around the various physical barriers that await them, they still often end up being shamed and embarrassed despite their best efforts.

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Discrimination Weight Bias

At its very worst, weight-based bias can lead to flat out discrimination against people who are seeking employment or trying to advance their career. Research has shown that overweight people have a harder time finding work and tend to earn between 2.3% and 4.5% less annually than their thinner counterparts. This is partly because many Americans falsely believe in negative stereotypes that have long been associated with overweight people – namely they are lazy, messy, lacking discipline, and self-control.

One hospital in Victoria, Texas became involved in a discrimination suit when they announced that they would not be employing hospital workers with a BMI that exceeds 35 – a measurement that does not reflect ability or health. While it’s illegal to discriminate on the basis of religion, race, or age, weight is still a loophole for overt discrimination. Almost 52% of obese Americans feel they have been discriminated against in the workplace because of their weight at some point in their lives.

Belief in the aforementioned stereotypes is also the reason why so many overweight Americans experience discrimination in the health care system from doctors, nurses, and medical professionals. A 2003 study surveyed 620 doctors about their feelings towards overweight people and found that more than half of the participants characterized them as “unattractive,” “awkward,” and “noncompliant.” A similar study of nurses found that almost one quarter of nurses felt “repulsed” by their overweight patients.

These negative attitudes from medical professionals regarding obesity, which is a medical condition, can have very real consequences for people of size. Oftentimes, overweight people report that their weight is constantly cited as the source of all their health problems, whether it’s true or not.

Nashville resident Anna Guest-Jelley once went to her doctor with a twisted ankle. She was told that it was “probably swollen” because of the extra weight she was carrying and was instructed to ice it. After spending several weeks in pain, it was finally discovered that her ankle was broken, an option her doctor hadn’t considered because she was so focused on her weight. The break never healed properly due to the delay in diagnosis.

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What Problems are Caused by Weight Bias?

Aside from the issue of overt discrimination, which can unfairly affect the health and livelihoods of overweight people, weight-based bias can cause deep emotional and psychological pain in both children and adults. Overweight people experience high rates of depression, anxiety, and isolation. They often internalize the verbal/physical barriers and discrimination biases they face, leaving them with feelings of shame and self-hate that can be psychologically damaging.

Many defend weight-based bias as an attempt to “help” overweight people and motivate them to be “healthier.” But it’s been shown that fat shaming actually has the opposite effect and can make an individual’s health worse. Research has shown that these types of negative attitudes and the emotional damage they cause can drive people towards unhealthy practices rather than away from them, and can even increase that person’s chance of cardiovascular disease.

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How Can We End Weight-Based Bias?

Weight-based bias is pervasive and deeply ingrained in our society. Every day we are given the message that “fat is bad” whether it is through the media, people’s attitudes and behaviors, or through our own negative thought patterns. However, there are some steps that we can take to begin to eliminate these negative stereotypes and biases.

Be Your Own Advocate

One of the best ways people who experience weight stigma on a regular basis can spread awareness is by becoming their own advocate. This can be easier said than done; the emotional damage caused by weight-based discrimination and the way it’s so widely accepted can make you feel as though you’re not worth fighting for, but you are. By pointing out bias when it arises you are seizing the opportunity to educate others about these issues.

American plus size model Natalie Hage made headlines in 2017 when she became her own advocate. Hage shared a video on her social media in which she confronts a man seated next to her on an airplane who was texting insults about her prior to the flight. Hage told the man, “you have no idea who you hurt with those kinds of things … you know nothing about me by the size of my body.” Hage’s story went viral and thousands applauded her boldnessness, showing just how powerful it can be when you advocate for yourself.

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Be Understanding

Even if you don’t experience weight-based bias, be a proponent for kindness and understanding. Recognize that there are many factors that contribute to being overweight and don’t assume anything about someone’s health or abilities based on their weight.

If you work in a field like health care, it’s especially important for you to take steps to check your weight-based bias, and provide a safe and comfortable environment for people of size. Explore all the possible causes of a person’s symptoms rather than assuming it’s caused by weight. Recognize the importance of them making small changes and setting small goals as they can later lead to greater ones. Don’t just tell them to “lose weight,” give concrete and constructive advice that they can use to do so. Do what you can to accommodate people of size by having the right seating, equipment, and medical gowns available for their use.

Weight-based bias has been called “the last acceptable form of discrimination” and it’s time that we as a society stopped to consider the unjustness of it as well as the detrimental effects it has on mental and physical health. Whether you experience weight-based bias yourself or not, we all need to stop the negative thought process surrounding weight and replace it with positive thoughts that emphasize what truly matters: the inside, not the outside.

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Dec 1, 2017