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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