Quick. What comes to mind when you think of a person who is overweight or obese? What characteristics or qualities do they possess?
Researchers have found that when people are asked these questions they generally respond with a laundry list of undesirable traits. “Fat people are lazy.” “They’re messy/disorganized.” “People who are overweight lack willpower.” “They must be uneducated when it comes to their health.”
Unfortunately these perceptions are only stereotypes and often have little basis in reality. The truth is that obesity is a complex disease that is influenced by many genetic and environmental factors. There is no “one size fit’s all” obesity model. Most people would agree that it’s naïve to believe that everyone who is carrying around extra weight fits nicely into the above categories. Yet for some reason people who are overweight and obese are still subjected to these types of judgements on a routine basis. At best this can be insulting, but at worst it is discriminatory.
What is weight bias?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States defines weight bias as an “inclination to form unreasonable judgments based on a person’s weight.” Basically, weight bias occurs when you attribute certain qualities to someone, like those mentioned in the examples above, for no reason other than how big they are. Many obesity researchers claim that weight bias is one of the last acceptable forms of discrimination.
Weight bias occurs in every facet of life. It is found in the classroom where children affected by obesity are often subjected to daily bullying from their peers. It’s in the workplace, where people who are overweight are less likely to be hired by employers than their thin counterparts. It happens in the media every time you hear an inappropriate “fat joke”. And it even occurs in health care settings where doctors report that they perceive their obese patients as more likely to be noncompliant, hostile, dishonest and have poor hygiene.
Regrettably, weight bias has become more prevalent in recent years. This is likely due to a combination of factors including rising rates of obesity, recurring messages from industry and government that focus on personal responsibility as a sole means to combat the obesity epidemic, and the media’s continued negative portrayal of people who are obese.
Why is weight bias harmful?
Weight bias is harmful because it creates barriers for individuals who wish to improve their health and wellness. People who are targets of weight bias are more likely to suffer from depression, low self-esteem, anxiety or have poor body image and suicidal thoughts. They are also more likely to engage in unhealthy dieting practices, develop eating disorders and avoid physical activity. These aren’t exactly the types of conditions you want to be creating amongst a group of people who may benefit from weight loss.
Weight bias can have negative effects on other aspects of a person’s life too. On the social side, people who are obese are more likely to be rejected by their peers. They are also more likely to do poorly in school. From an economic perspective overweight adults earn less money than thin people in comparable positions.
Common myths about overweight/obesity
Myth # 1 – People who are obese are lazy, disorganized, unintelligent or lack self-discipline.
These stereotypes have little basis in reality. People who are obese are no more likely to possess these traits than thin people.
Myth # 2 – Criticism helps motivate people to lose weight.
The opposite is actually true. Studies have shown that the majority of adults who are obese cope with weight bias by eating more and losing their motivation to improve their diets.
Myth # 3 – Losing weight is easy. All you need to do is eat less and exercise more.
If only it were that simple. Unfortunately obesity is a complex disease that is influenced by numerous genetic and environmental factors. Many people who are overweight eat as healthy and exercise as much as the average thin person.
Myth #4 – People who are overweight are unhealthy.
Measures like body weight and body mass index (BMI) are useful indicators of health for populations, but are of little use when assessing an individual’s health status. Much more important indicators are things like blood pressure, cholesterol levels, fasting blood glucose and percent body fat. Being overweight or obese may put someone at higher risk for developing certain chronic diseases, but by itself is a poor way to determine if someone is unhealthy.
What can you do?
Educate yourself as to the root causes of obesity. A great place to start is by checking out the Obesity Action Coalition’s website. The bottom line is that obesity is more than the result of someone simply making poor lifestyle choices.
It’s also important to be an advocate whenever possible. If you hear an inappropriate joke or derogatory comment related to weight speak up and say it’s not okay. Don’t be afraid to challenge people’s perceptions and negative stereotypes head on.
Unfortunately until weight bias is recognized as a real issue that has real consequences, the situation will continue to exist. At the end of the day, the goal should be to fight obesity, not obese persons.
For more information on weight bias check out the websites below:
Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity – http://www.yaleruddcenter.org/
Obesity Action Coalition – http://www.obesityaction.org/weight-bias-and-stigma
*originally published on www.dietitianabroad.com on February 24, 2014