1. What is weight bias?
Weight bias refers to negative weight-related attitudes and beliefs that are displayed by stereotypes, stigma, rejection, and prejudice towards children and adults because they are overweight or obese. Weight bias can take multiple forms: it can include verbal comments (e.g., name calling, derogatory remarks, being made fun of), physical bullying (e.g., hitting, kicking, pushing, shoving), and relational victimization (e.g., social exclusion, being ignored or avoided, the target of rumors). Weight bias is also pervasive. It occurs in multiple settings, including inequities in employment, barriers in education, biased attitudes and behaviors by health care professionals, negative portrayals of obese persons in the media, and biased attitudes by friends and family members.
2. Could weight bias serve a positive function, like motivating obese people to lose weight?
When presenting on weight stigma to professionals, community groups, teachers, and physicians, we have been asked the question, “Isn’t stigma helpful in motivating weight loss?” Research suggests the opposite is true.
Studies have shown an increase in weight stigmatization over the past 40 years - the same period during which the prevalence of obesity has increased so dramatically. This is a correlational observation but does not support the idea that stigma helps.
There is some evidence that weight bias may actually contribute to obesity. Recent studies show that weight bias leads to unhealthy eating behaviors. For example, overweight girls and boys who experience frequent weight-based teasing are more likely to engage in unhealthy weight control and binge eating than overweight girls and boys who were not teased about their weight. One prospective study of more than 2000 adolescents, found that that weight-based teasing predicted binge eating 5 years later among both males and females, even after accounting for age, race, and socioeconomic status.
A Rudd Center study of more than 2000 overweight and obese women examined experiences of weight stigma and how individuals cope with this bias. Fully 79% of individuals reported that they ate more food as a coping response to weight stigma, and 75% reported that they refused to keep dieting. We also found that individuals who internalized weight stigma reported more frequent binge-eating episodes.
Obese individuals are less likely to engage in physical activity because of weight stigma. Overweight youth who are victimized by their peers are less likely to participate in physical activity. Stigma expressed by teachers also leads students to avoid participating in physical education classes.
3. How does the Rudd Center integrate its dual aims of reducing weight bias and preventing obesity?
The Rudd Center aims to prevent unhealthy behaviors that can lead to obesity by changing the food environment to improve nutrition and public health. We employ strategic science to inform and foster a healthy food environment for all individuals, regardless of whether they are obese or not. Some individuals can be healthy while also overweight by common standards (BMI charts), and some individuals are prone to weight gain even in a healthy environment.
The Rudd Center addresses population-based factors that contribute to poor diet, physical inactivity, and the conditions caused by these, with obesity and diabetes leading the list. The aim is to address obesity in particular as a global public health issue, and to identify practices and policies related to food and nutrition that can inform and empower the public, promote objective, science-based approaches to policy, and maximize the impact on public health and well-being.
Stigma, bias, and discrimination aimed at overweight and obese people is pervasive, powerful, and wrong. Despite the vast numbers of people effected by negative attitudes, outright bias, and discrimination, little has been done to stop this form of stigma. A key objective of the Rudd Center is to help reduce weight bias and improve the quality of life for children and adults who are overweight and obese. We hope to lead these efforts through research and public awareness in an effort to increase attention to the stigma of obesity, address how societal bias and negative attitudes can be reduced, and develop methods for increasing tolerance in employers, health care professionals, educators, and others who interact with obese children and adults.
We believe that these two goals of the Rudd Center address very important public health issues, that improving the food environment and reducing weight bias are compatible objectives, and that there are many historic precedents in medicine and public health that address both a problem and the stigma it produces. AIDS, alcoholism, and even diseases as common as cancer are examples. Great strides were made in the treatment and prevention of AIDS once stigma was reduced sufficiently. When alcoholism was declared a disease, blaming decreased and resources increased for prevention. With cancer, bold and aggressive efforts for prevention proceed side-by-side with efforts to reduce stigma. The aim is not to eradicate or punish people with AIDS, alcoholism, or cancer. Quite the contrary – compassion and defense of basic human rights are essential.
The Rudd Center takes a similar approach to obesity. We believe it is crucial to reduce rates of obesity without creating stigma and further worsening emotional and physical health outcomes for obese people themselves.
4. Do overweight people face weight bias at work?
Weight discrimination is common in employment settings. Overweight people may face biased hiring decisions even before they confront a job interview. For example, experimental research studies have found that overweight job applicants are rated more negatively and less likely to be hired compared to non-overweight applicants, despite having identical qualifications and resumes.
Other studies have found that overweight employees are considered lazy, sloppy, less competent, lacking in self-discipline, disagreeable, less conscientious, and poor role models. Research also shows that overweight individuals are paid less for the same jobs, are more likely to have lower paying jobs, and are less likely to get promoted than thin people with the same qualifications. Rudd Center research studies have documented employment settings to be a frequent place where weight bias occurs. A 2006 study surveyed over 2400 overweight and obese adults about their experiences of weight bias, and showed that 54% of participants reported that they had been stigmatized by co-workers, and 43% had experienced weight bias from employers and supervisors.
The issue of weight discrimination in employment settings continues to receive attention in the press.
5. Are there any laws protecting overweight individuals from discrimination in the workplace? What options do individuals have if they feel they are being discriminated against because of their weight at work?
No federal laws exist to prohibit discrimination against obese individuals. With the exception of a few jurisdictions that address discrimination on the basis of weight or appearance (e.g., Michigan has a state law), most people who experience weight discrimination must fight their battles alone or attach their claims to other statutory categories in order to obtain legal protection. In particular, overweight individuals have depended on the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (RA) and the American with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). Employment discrimination cases encompass the vast majority of these actions, many of which are unsuccessful.
There is much debate about obesity being labeled a “disability” under the ADA. Overweight persons who are not “morbidly obese” but who experience weight discrimination cannot even file claims under the ADA because they are not considered disabled. Unresolved issues about disability labels and public perceptions that continue to blame obese people for their negative experiences result in many inconsistent rulings and few court cases filed.
There is a strong need for legislation in this area. Legal options for obese individuals need to move beyond the RA and ADA. Work is needed to determine what the most appropriate alternatives are for legal protection from weight discrimination.
Recently, Massachusetts introduced legislation (House Bill 1844) to prohibit weight-based discrimination in employment settings. The hearing for this bill is scheduled for September 2007. The initial hearing for this bill was scheduled for September 2007. Since then, it has been renamed H4748, amended, and was referred to the House Committee on Steering, Policy, and Scheduling on July 28, 2010.
6. Are teachers biased against overweight students?
Research shows that teachers and school health care workers express negative attitudes about obese people and bias against overweight students.
As one example, some research has found that physical education teachers perceived overweight children to have poorer social, reasoning, physical, and cooperation skills than normal weight children. In addition, physical educators reported higher expectations for ‘normal weight’ than overweight students, across a range of performance and ability areas.
Thus, efforts to combat weight bias and improve the school climate must include interventions for both students and teachers. For educational tools and strategies that teachers can use to improve the school climate and address weight bias, please see our Tools for Schools and Educators.
7. Are parents sources of weight bias?
Several studies have examined weight-based teasing and victimization in adolescents, and show that parental bias is common. For example, in one study, weight-based teasing by family members was reported by as many as 47% of overweight girls and 34% of overweight boys. Our own research indicates that family members are often reported as the most frequent sources of weight bias. We studied experiences of weight stigmatization and sources of bias in a sample of over 2400 overweight and obese adult women. These women reported family members to be the most frequent source of stigma, with 62% reporting that family members had stigmatized them on multiple occasions because of their weight. Mothers and fathers were frequently reported in descriptions of their worst stigmatizing experiences. For more information about the research on this topic, please consult Puhl and Brownell, 2006.
8. What can parents do to stop weight bias and protect their children?
Parents have a critical role to play in reducing bias and improving the lives of overweight children. The following suggestions highlight parental strategies that can be helpful towards these goals. For additional resources, please see our Tools for Parents.
1) Increase awareness of personal attitudes about weight.
As a parent, it’s important to become aware of your own weight-based assumptions, as these are often communicated to children even if unintentionally. Here are some questions to consider:
- Do I make assumptions based on a person's weight about their character, intelligence, or lifestyle?
- What are my views about the causes of obesity? Does this affect my attitudes toward obese persons?
- What are common stereotypes about obese persons? Do I believe these to be true or false? Why?
2) Use sensitive and appropriate language about weight.
Children are very perceptive of parental attitudes. Thus, it’s important for parents to avoid making negative comments about their own or other peoples weight in front of their child. Avoid making negative associations with being overweight (e.g., that overweight people are lazy), and be careful not to use pejorative terms to describe body weight. Talk to your child to learn what words they feel comfortable using when talking about weight. Recent research found that adolescents generally prefer that parents use indirect/cautious approaches to discussing weight (i.e., focus on eating or physical activity behaviors without specifically mentioning weight) rather than more direct/open approaches or never/rarely discussing weight (Shrewsbury et al., 2010).
3) Intervene to reduce weight-based teasing.
Parents need to look for signs of peer harassment, teasing, or victimization if their child is overweight. It’s important for parents to talk to children if there is a problem, and to find ways to intervene and provide support in dealing with these difficult experiences.
4) Increase awareness of weight bias at school.
Parents can be powerful advocates of change in schools. It can be helpful to talk to teachers or the principal in your child’s school to promote awareness of weight bias. You have the right to express your concerns about this problem, and to ask what the school can do to address bias and promote weight tolerance.
5) Find role models to build confidence and self-esteem.
It is important for children to see examples of positive role models who aren’t thin. Teach your child that overweight individuals can be successful and accomplish important goals. Look for examples of individuals who challenge common weight-based stereotypes, and share these with your child.
6) Emphasize health rather than thinness.
Most parents of overweight children want their child to lose weight. But be sure that your focus is on your child’s health and not just on their appearance or how much they weigh, which can place added pressure on your child and communicate that health is not as important as appearance.
9. How can I read personal stories or accounts of experiences with weight bias?
Amazon.com features a list of books related to size acceptance where you can find authors who write of their personal experiences with weight bias.
Pearlsong Press also features books and resources related to this topic.
10. What can I do to reduce weight-based prejudice?
Research suggests that weight bias can originate from beliefs that obesity is a matter of personal control, and a result of “laziness” or lack of self-discipline. Thus, efforts to reduce weight bias require an accurate understanding about the causes of obesity - that obesity occurs from multiple contributors, such as the food environment, our human biology, and genetics.
It’s also important to recognize that significant, sustainable weight loss is difficult to achieve and a person’s weight often has very little to do with willpower and self-discipline.
Another strategy to combat weight bias is to challenge common weight-based stereotypes that attribute unfair blame, inferior status, or moral failure to obese individuals. These stereotypes are damaging and perpetuate the problem of weight discrimination. Challenging negative attitudes, finding examples of individuals who counter stereotypes, and modeling weight tolerance in front of others are good ways to combat stigma.
In addition to treating people of all sizes with fairness and respect, weight bias can be reduced by examining organizational and institutional sources of weight discrimination. This includes ensuring that overweight people receive equal treatment in employment settings, equal opportunities in education, and appropriate health care services in medical facilities.
Pearlsong Press also offers a useful handout titled “Twelve Tips for Fighting Fat Stigma” by Pattie Thomas and Veronica Cook-Euell.
11. How are overweight and obese people portrayed on television, in magazines, and other media outlets?
Unfortunately, overweight and obese characters in television and film are often portrayed negatively in ways that promote stereotypes and perpetuate stigma. Studies show that overweight and obese characters are typically found in minor roles, less likely to be involved in friendships and have fewer romantic relationships than thinner characters. They are also more likely to be engaging in stereotypical behaviors, such as binge-eating or eating junk food. In addition, larger female characters are more often the objects of humor and receive more negative comments than thinner characters.
For more information about the research on this topic, please consult the following articles:
Himes, S.M., & Thompson, J.K. Fat Stigmatization in Television Shows and
Movies: A Content Analysis. Obesity, 2007 15: 712-718.
For more information about the portrayal of overweight and obese characters in the media, please see “The Portrayal of Weight in the Media and Its Social Impact” by Greenberg and Worrell in Weight Bias: Nature, Consequences, and Remedies. You can read an excerpt from this chapter at Google Books.