Stereotyping, Weight Bias and Discrimination

Stereotypes are a generalised set of beliefs about members of a social group. They reduce the time and mental effort needed to process information, which can be useful in situations where quick decision making is required. Unfortunately, there can be many disadvantages to stereotyping. We often selectively attend to information which is in line with our beliefs, disregarding other information. This is referred to as a processing bias and can have a powerful effect on behavior.

Researchers have demonstrated widespread negative beliefs or stereotypes of people with overweight or obesity amongst adults and young people, in the media, amongst professional groups (doctors, dieticians and psychologists) and in a variety of different institutions. There is also evidence that these negative beliefs result in discrimination and that people with overweight or obesity may experience:

Social exclusion and isolation: Individuals with obesity are often excluded from social activities by their friends, peers and families because of their weight.

Inequality in the work place: Research shows that individuals with obesity can earn less for comparable employment, receive fewer promotions and are more likely to be fired, suspended, or demoted because of their weight.

Inequalities in education: Poor academic performance due to weight-based bullying in schools. This does not mean that individuals with obesity are less intelligent. Research shows that children and youth who have been victimized because of their weight report missing more days of school, and experiencing lower expectations by their teachers, which can result in poorer academic performance.

Inadequate healthcare services due to weight bias attitudes among health professionals: People affected by obesity can be denied healthcare services because of their weight, and receive inadequate care (e.g. having unrelated medical problems attributed to their weight).  Alternatively, well intentioned health care providers may be less likely to recommend evidence based treatments for fear of causing offence or shame to their patients.

These findings have led to leading some researchers to suggest that weight bias is more pervasive than other sources of bias, such as race, gender and sexuality.

What are the personal effects of weight bias?

Social psychological research suggests that if people believe have “failed” at task which is portrayed as “easy”, they reliably experience feelings of shame. The common belief about overweight is that it is a lifestyle choice and that weight loss is a simple matter of addressing the imbalance of “energy in” and “energy out”. This is despite compelling evidence that body weight regulation is highly heritable (i.e. based on genetics) and influenced by the interplay of a range of factors including biological, environmental and psychological.

One qualitative study in which people with obesity were interviewed about their experiences has demonstrated a profound effect of obesity on self-identity. Some participants referred to themselves as “ugly” or a “freak”, with effects on mood such as depression or guilt and also a sense of their bodies as being “alien” to them. Participants also talked about food as a source of both repair and guilt and of weight loss as a way of “fitting in” or being “normal” in a world where overweight is a source of shame.

It is often commonly thought that “fat-shaming” tactics can encourage people to make changes to their diet or exercise patterns. In fact, the reverse is true and weight stigma can actually give rise to unhealthy eating patterns, unhealthy weight control practices and weight cycling, which are in themselves stressful and can lead to other health problems. People who experienced obesity stigma in public settings may also be less willing to participate in physical activity programs for fear of being victimized again. Worse still, some people in need of medical care, report being reluctant to seek treatment or cancel and delay important appointments because of their experiences of weight bias.  

What can be done about weight bias?

Due to the pervasive nature of weight bias and discrimination, it will not be eliminated overnight. OEN UK does not have all of the answers, however, it is our suggestion that some/all of these tactics will be of use:

  • Examining our own biases and the language that we use about obesity. No one is completely free from any biases. Visit https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/ to gain insight into your personal attitudes about people living with obesity. The Canadian Obesity Network also urges everyone to be cautious of the way in which people affected by obesity are described, making use of what they refer to as “people-first language” For more information on this see the Canadian Obesity Network  (website details below).
  • Education – The message that weight regulation is complex, that explanations that solely emphasise personal responsibility are inadequate and “fat-shaming” is counter-productive, needs to be disseminated. One study which aimed to educate people in working in health promotion about weight bias and its negative effects led to decreases in anti-fat attitudes and increases in their confidence in talking to people about weight issues.
  • Positive role models – at OEN UK we have appealed to a wide range of people with experience of overweight and obesity, from all walks of life, with aim of undermining some of the negative images of people who struggle with weight.
  • Research- More research is needed into understanding which is the most effective methods to lessen stigma and promote health. People affected by weight issues should be at the forefront of this type of research.
  • Becoming political –   Whilst UK governments recognise the health burden of overweight and obesity, the lack of mandated treatment and limited interventions to  tackle aspects of the obesogenic environment may inadvertently serve to reinforce the idea of obesity as a matter of personal responsibility. At OEN UK, we wish to empower people to know their rights in matters relating to obesity and to know how to lobby for these. We would also like to gather support to campaign for mandated access to treatment, a more extensive research agenda into ways of reducing stigma whilst promoting health and in general a greater interest in the rights of people with overweight and obesity.

For more information on weight bias and ways to tackle it, check out The Canadian Obesity Network www.obesitynetwork.ca and the Obesity Action Coalition www.obesityaction.org 

This page has been written in collaboration with Professor Sara Kirk, Scientific Director of the Healthy Populations Institute, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Canada.  

Copyright © 2017 Obesity Empowerment Network