Obesity and Prejudice

Research shows that weight stigma casts a shadow over childhood and adolescence for many.

Laziness, lack of fighting spirit, lack of self-control, lack of willpower… These are the stereotypes that American society holds about people who are overweight or oversized. This stereotype, also known as “weight stigma,” is the culprit behind the blame, ridicule, bullying, discrimination, and even abuse of overweight people.

Weight stigma is everywhere. Decades of research has shown that weight stigma is unavoidable, whether in workplaces, schools, health care facilities, public facilities and the mass media, or in relationships with friends or family.

As a psychologist and researcher at the University of Connecticut’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, my team and I have been working on weight stigma for 20 years, including its origin and spread, and how it manifests in different social settings. , hazards to human health, and corresponding solutions.

Weight stigma is widespread, damaging and difficult to eradicate, according to our latest study. Many people from different countries, languages, and cultural backgrounds have experienced this social prejudice in real life. In the U.S., for example, as many as 40 percent of respondents said they had been teased, treated unfairly, and discriminated against because of their weight. This condition is most prevalent in people with high body mass index, obese people, and women. For young people, weight is one of the most common reasons for teasing and bullying.

Even though more than 40 percent of Americans are obese, that hasn’t softened public attitudes toward this group. While prejudice against other stigmatized groups has declined in American society in recent decades, prejudice against weight has barely changed, and in some cases has even increased.

Although there is ample scientific evidence that the causes of obesity are complex and diverse, people prefer to believe that individuals should be responsible for their own weight, which is one reason why weight stigma is difficult to eradicate. The reason why this mentality is difficult to change is due to the American culture’s respect for thinness, the negative portrayal of overweight people in the media, and the booming weight loss industry. These factors all amplify the false premise that weight is infinitely malleable, and it is on this false premise that laws protecting people from weight bias are hard to come by.

In fact, contrary to public perception, weight stigma does not motivate people to lose weight; instead, it leads to poorer health and lower quality of life. Its harmful effects are long-lasting, not only emotionally disturbing, leading to depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, but also disordered and unhealthy eating behaviors, more likely to result in decreased physical activity, further weight gain, increased physical stress, and avoidance of healthcare.

Weight stigma does not motivate people to lose weight; instead, it leads to worsening health and a lower quality of life.

Weight stigma is not unique to the United States, but is widespread around the world. For a long time, there have not been many experiments comparing people in different countries side-by-side with weight bias. In this study, we investigated weight biased populations in six countries: Australia, Canada, France, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States. These countries share similar social values ​​and tend to blame individuals for obesity, often turning a blind eye to the stigma and injustice faced by overweight people. Participants in the study included 13,996 adults (about 2,000 in each country) who had been actively working to control their weight.

The results showed that prejudice against people being overweight or larger was widespread across all six countries, with more than half (about 58%) of the study participants reporting that they had experienced weight bias. In relationships, the most common sources of weight stigma were family members (76%–87%), classmates (72%–76%), and doctors (58%–73%). Childhood and adolescence are the times when people experience weight prejudice most frequently, and they are also the most distressed.

In fact, many people’s perceptions of themselves are affected by weight stigma. In this subtle process, they impose negative social stereotypes on themselves and become self-pity, thinking that they are inferior and deserve to be humiliated by the social environment. We have found in previous research that this subtle process can be harmful to health, and this study confirms this again. Across the six countries, the more respondents were affected by weight stigma, the greater their weight gain and the more likely they were to turn stress into appetite and avoid the gym. Naturally, they looked less fit and reported more stress. In addition, across the six countries, people who were more affected by weight stigma tended to have poorer quality of health. They tended to be more excluded from health care, attended fewer check-ups and reported lower levels of health care than those who were less affected.

For those struggling to manage their weight, the pervasive weight stigma is often subconsciously internalized, interfering with their perception of themselves and leading to worsening health. In this sense, the fight against weight stigma appears to be more than a collective struggle, because in reality, everyone may be fighting it alone.

Eliminating weight stigma is a long way to go, but social attitudes are gradually changing. In recent years, on the one hand, the harm caused by “fat shaming” has attracted more and more public attention; on the other hand, the voice of “body self-love movement” has become more and more loud. These act as appeals and help reduce the injustices caused by weight stigma.

At the same time, the medical community has gradually realized that it is urgent to face up to the problem of weight stigma. In 2020, more than 100 medical and scientific organizations from nine countries signed an international consensus statement pledging continued attention to weight stigma and its harm. The move is designed to help change societal stereotypes and improve negative perceptions of overweight people in the media, the public and the health system.

Policies to address weight bias have also received strong public support. We found in our survey research that more than 70% of Americans support the inclusion of weight, along with race, age, etc., in existing state civil rights laws for legal protection. In addition, they supported legislation that would require employers not to discriminate against employees for being overweight.

I think we all need to come together and take broad action to address weight stigma, whether in the United States or elsewhere. While this may sound challenging, at its core, it’s actually quite simple: everyone deserves respect and equal treatment, regardless of weight and shape.

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