Fat Discrimination Research

Rebecca Puhl, director of research and weight stigma initiatives at the Rudd Center, is quoted on studying weight bias in The Toronto Star:

[It’s] one of the easiest [bias] fields to research as the prejudices are so widespread and socially acceptable that people easily admit to them.

This is a form of bias that is so prevalent, society accepts it unchallenged […] It’s a social justice issue and a public health problem …

A few years ago the ABC News piece ‘Weight-ism’ More Widespread than Racism discussed both Puhl’s research on fat bias and that it’s not easy to just “stop being fat”:

“We place a lot of emphasis on personal responsibility for body weight,” [Puhl] said. […] “But that does not reflect the current state of science. We know from hundreds of randomized clinically controlled trials that it’s very difficult to sustain weight loss over time with our existing treatment methods.”

“That has compelled a number of expert panels, like the National Institutes of Health, to conclude that we really can’t expect you to lose more than 10 percent of your body weight and be able to keep that off.”

For a 300-pound man, she notes, that’s a mere 30 pounds, and he’s still overweight, unless he’s nearly seven feet tall.

For much more detail on the state of fat bias research, check out the The Stigma of Obesity: A Review and Update, co-authored by Puhl. It discusses weight bias research in employment, healthcare settings, education, the media, and the consequences of weight stigma.   It discusses both perceived bias in surveys of fat people and experimental research.

Typically, experimental studies ask participants to evaluate a fictional applicant’s qualifications for a job, where his or her weight has been manipulated (through written vignettes, videos, photographs or computer morphing). Roehling and colleagues recently conducted a meta-analysis of 32 experimental studies investigating weight discrimination in employment settings. […] Across studies, it was demonstrated that overweight job applicants and employees were evaluated more negatively and had more negative employment outcomes compared to nonoverweight applicants and employees.

The Fatosphere is well aware of fat bias in healthcare.  We know it can be hard to dress professionally as a fat person, especially in extended sizes.   But I’m not sure we realize how much we lose in other ways, and we’re so used to it that it can be hard to see it.  (Are fish conscious of water?)

More information: The Canadian Obesity Network and The Rudd Center provide good information and are working against fat bias, but I can’t help feeling that they’re handicapped by their own pro-weight-loss attitudes.   Naafa’s FAQ is all about weight bias.

16 thoughts on “Fat Discrimination Research

  1. “working against fat bias, but I can’t help feeling that they’re handicapped by their own pro-weight-loss attitudes.”

    This. It needs to be said more… you can’t reasonably expect there to ever be any progress on this issue as long as even those studying it have an unwritten “…but of course, losing weight is still what you should be doing” on the end of everything.

    I’ve actually had that conversation on forums many times… I try to point out specific instances where people have acted in a discriminatory, if not outright hostile and threatening, manner only to be shot down with “Well of course that’s bad. They shouldn’t do that. But if people are acting like that towards you, maybe it’s a sign you should just lose the weight. Then you won’t need to worry about being discriminated against, you’ll be normal! Problem solved!”

    I have trouble thinking of a more concrete example of “you appear to have missed the point… care to move three hundred feet towards the center and try aiming for it again?”

    • Yes. If I beat incredible odds to actually MAINTAIN a weight loss, the usual weight loss is around 10%. I fail to see how weighing 360lbs instead of 400lbs would make all that big a difference.

  2. There is just one benefit for women, I think, in being overweight. I live and work in Europe, in a sexist culture. Women aren’t listened to in my company, even though most of the real expertise lies with the female employees. The colleague who is nearest to me in seniority is the sort of woman who is deeply admired here (and everywhere, actually): slender, beautiful, elegant and aristocratic in demeanour. But although she’s treated like a princess, her expertise is ignored. I, on the other hand, got more respect professionally when I was fat (I’ve been off sick and so don’t know if my illness-provoked weight loss will change this). Being overweight not only gives gravitas, but it moves women out of the sexual sphere. As a woman who is not a princess to be admired or a woman anyone here would consider dating, I sort of moved into a different, non-sexual category. And, let’s face it, lots of people think an angry fat woman is downright scary.

    It all sucks. All of it. But weight DOES confer gravitas and it can be used to your advantage. Whether this is a good thing or not is another matter.

    • It can confer gravitas, same as being older, in the sense that you register less as “silly young girl who can’t possibly know anything”. I note that the researchers on weight discrimination rank it as LESS prevalent than race, gender and age.

      That said, there are disadvantages to looking old, too, in a sense of “can’t possibly keep up” or “too old to work hard”. I recently paid $150 for highlights to cover my gray in a fashionable way, with a bonus that the roots won’t be as noticeable.

      • Age discrimination is incredibly serious. When I was a 20 year old feminist, I scoffed at vanity. If botox had been around then, it would have horrified me.

        Of course, then 40 comes round and it’s a different matter. I still believe that looks shouldn’t matter, but at the same time, I don’t want to be discriminated against. So these days I spend much, much more on clothes and so on than I did 20 years ago.

        The only good thing is that in Europe, older women are much more visible. You get a range of ages showing up in fashion magazines and there is very little photoshopping of images, so pictures of real people are everywhere. That helps a lot.

        But woe betide if you let your grooming go!

  3. Here’s another link for you about discrimination against the fat among medical students – http://www.drsharma.ca/weight-bias-amongst-medical-students.html
    I got this link from an email to me at First Do No Harm, and haven’t posted it there yet (I haven’t quite figured out how I want to post it as a topic yet). But when the bias against fat amongst doctors starts in medical school, you know fat people are screwed for getting good medical care (with the way bias against fat people is so wide-spread, I think it begins before these medical students even get to medical school and it’s just reinforced there by equally biased teachers/doctors).

  4. @ Alexie
    Interestingly enough, being male I’ve experienced pretty much the opposite here in the US. I’m sure in bygone days a certain amount of gravitas was afforded larger men here. We see it in Depression Era movies (Bosses being played by the likes of Charles Laughton or Sidney Greenstreet) and cartoons with Boss Tweed and others in the political arena. Despite the unfavorable light that was cast on Fat Cat Politico’s in those days, I don’t think it can be argued that their physical size didn’t play SOME part in the power or influence those men wielded. These days in the US? Not so much.

    I’ve dealt with promotion fly-bys and the pay scale disparities in my day although I’ve never noticed any lack of respect or out-right dismissal when dealing with colleagues or superiors. This probably has more to do with male privilege and America’s unique brand of misogyny than anything else. And there are other factors to consider as well but believe me, it’s been made pointed clear- I know, that they know, that I know; I’m fat (Yah know, just in case I wasn’t sure).

    Of course, if we’re going to talk about Fat Discrimination / The Influences of Fat in the Workplace, no discussion would be complete without the anomaly of Gov. Chris Christi. Who barely scraped the Win for his current office by his opponent. And that, not primarily because of his opponents politics, but because that opponent went low-road and attacked him for his weight. As Christi’s term matures and his goals / initiatives become more apparent (many would say NOT for the better), there has even been speculation about his size and it’s relevance to maintained popularity (despite low grades for actual Governing). What’s up with THAT America?

  5. Oddly enough, I agree with Alexie. When working in a sales role in a very conservative industry, I established strong relationships with my clients because I am fat. I got more business done because clients weren’t busy flirting with me, as the same clients were when they had skinnier female sales people.

  6. I’d love to ask you some questions about what life is like walking through a crowd of people at an above-average weight. I suffered from bulimia and body dysmphorphia for over a decade. I’m trying to learn how to be fat-accepting of people around me (and maybe one day I can even accept fat in myself.)

    How bad are you treated by people, just for being overweight?

      • Okay… I’m 5’2 and have been underweight most of my life. The feeling that other people didn’t see me, would walk into me (or over top of me) was always present. I wondered if it felt different not being notably smaller than most other adults.

        • I’m 5’8″ as well as being large (size 30-32, depending) so yes, I’m a lot easier to see. What got me over being afraid of people running into me was playing soccer in grade school. I weighed a LOT less, but even so I was tall and broad for my age (age 10-12, I was about 5’4″- 5’6″). I learned that other girls running into me smarted, but it wouldn’t cause lasting damage. Often I wouldn’t even get knocked down.

          Even so, as an adult I’ve had people walk into me and claim they didn’t see me. Inconsiderate people really do just exist – it’s NOT just about being small. :/

        • Here’s a strange thing – how you hold yourself physically often dictates how people react to you. Some people of short stature have incredible presence. They get noticed. Just like little kids can walk through a crowd without worrying about getting trodden on, so can petite adults who create an aura around themselves.

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