Weight stigma

Weight stigma, also known as weightism, weight bias, and weight-based discrimination, refers to invidiously discriminatory attitudes towards overweight/obese individuals that influence interpersonal interactions. Weight stigma reflects internalized attitudes towards overweight and obese people and affects how these people – the targets of bias – are treated.

A person who is stigmatized possesses a characteristic that leads to a devalued social identity, and is often ascribed stereotypes or other deviant labels which can lead to prejudice and discrimination. Common weight-based stereotypes are that obese persons are lazy, lack self-discipline, and have poor willpower, but also possess defects of intelligence and character. There is no experimental or scientific evidence to indicate that these stereotypes are true, although pervasive social portrayals of obesity create and reinforce biased attitudes. Those who wish to defend devaluation of the fat say that the fat are unattractive and have lowered physical stamina, and that these qualities may be the true causes of what others believe is a bias or prejudice against obesity.

Types of weight stigma

Weight stigma and bias can be verbal (such as insults, ridicule, teasing, stereotypes, derogatory names, or pejorative language), physical (such as bullying or other aggressive behaviors), or practical (medical equipment or seats in public places that are too small). In some cases stigma results in discrimination, such as employment discrimination where an obese employee is denied a position or promotion due to his or her appearance, despite being appropriately qualified.

Causes of weight stigma

The causes of weight stigma are complex, as many factors seem to play a role. For instance, the degree of which heavy people are stigmatized (or revered) is highly variable across cultures and historical periods. However, research on social stigma offers some clues. According to many researchers, there are three basic forms of stigma (physical deformity, poor personal traits, and tribal outgroup status). Given the common stereotypes that are applied to fat people (unattractive, lazy), it seems that two of the three basic forms (physical deformity, poor personal traits) may apply to the case of weight stigma.

Several studies conducted by social psychologists have found that the perception of laziness or lack of willpower is a strong determinant of weight stigma. For instance, people who more strongly believe that fatness results from lack of willpower are more likely to be prejudiced against fat people.

Common contexts and settings of weight stigma

Obese children and adults are vulnerable targets of weight stigma from a variety of sources. In employment settings, overweight employees are ascribed many negative stereotypes and may suffer wage penalties, as they tend to be paid less for the same work. Obese employees are more likely to have lower paying jobs, and are less likely to be promoted than are thinner employees with the same qualifications.

At school, students who are overweight or obese can face harassment and victimization from peers, as well as negative attitudes from teachers and other educators. At the college level, some research shows that qualified overweight students, particularly females, are less likely to be accepted to college than their normal weight peers.

In medical facilities, weight stigma toward obese patients has been documented by physicians, nurses, psychologists, dieticians, and medical students. One consequence of bias by health care professionals is that obese patients may avoid obtaining medical care because of these negative experiences.

Even family members may express stigmatizing attitudes towards loved ones who are obese. Children who are overweight and obese may confront stigma by parents and siblings, and obese adults may experience stigma from spouses and other relatives.

Consequences of weight stigma

Weight stigma has negative consequences for emotional and physical health. Children who are overweight and obese may be especially vulnerable. Negative attitudes towards obese children develop as young as three years old, and throughout preschool, elementary school, and high school, obese children are attributed multiple negative characteristics by their peers including being mean, stupid, ugly, unhappy, lazy, and having few friends. Obese youth who are victimized by peers because of their weight are at risk for poor body image, unhealthy eating behaviors, eating disorders, lower levels of physical activity, lower self-esteem, higher risk of depression and suicidal thoughts. Weight stigma can also lead to social isolation, poorer interpersonal relationships, and self-blame by those who are targeted.It can be inferred from data linking low social status to poor health that the low status assigned to the obese is a significant contributor to their excess morbidity.


* Crandall, C. S. (1994). Prejudice against fat people: Ideology and self-interest. "Journal of Personality and Social Psychology," 66 882-894.
* Erving Goffman, "Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity", Prentice-Hall, 1963, ISBN 0-671-62244-7.

External links

* [http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1593851995 "Weight Bias: Nature, Consequences, and Remedies"]
* [http://www.yaleruddcenter.org/ The Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University]
* [https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/demo/index.jsp/ Implicit Association Test (IAT)]
* [http://www.obesityresearch.org/cgi/reprint/9/12/788/ "Bias, Discrimination, and Obesity"]

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