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:
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.
Weight bias can also cause social exclusion, inequality in the workplace and inequality in education.
This page has been written in collaboration with Professor Sara Kirk, Scientific Director of the Healthy Populations Institute, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Canada.