Ray Smith
/ Categories: WELLNESS, 2023

Combatting Weight Bias

Recognizing and turning the tables on a socially acceptable injustice

When most of us hear the words bias and discrimination, we tend to think of how those terms apply to race and gender. But there’s another type of bias at work in our world that’s equally prevalent and harmful: weight bias.

Often referred to as weight stigma, weight bias is holding negative attitudes about people’s weight or harming and shaming someone because of their weight. For the nearly 120 million Americans affected by obesity, the issue is very real and widespread. In fact, 90% of U.S. adults acknowledge that weight bias exists while 42% of U.S. adults say they’ve experienced it. These numbers support the idea that weight bias remains a socially acceptable injustice.

Crossing age, race, and gender barriers, no one affected by obesity is immune to the impact of weight bias. Experienced in every aspect of life, including employment, healthcare, education, media and personal relationships, these stigmatizing experiences are harmful and can lead to both immediate and long-term consequences for an individual’s emotional and physical health, including a 60% increased risk of death.

Weight bias occurs in many forms and produces results ranging from emotional distress to financial harm.

For example, in school settings, weight bias can come from peers, teachers and even administrators. Unkind words from and harassment by peers can lead to social isolation, low self-confidence, weight gain, and eating disorders.

Biases from teachers and administrators can have life-long detrimental effects on a student’s self-esteem, confidence, and enthusiasm for learning.

In the world of work, higher weight men and women are less likely to be hired, and if they are, they’re more likely to receive negative evaluations than non-overweight individuals. In addition, employees who experience weight bias in their workplace are:

  • More likely to be given a lower wage or salary
  • Less likely to be given a promotion or position overseeing others
  • More likely to be penalized in a current position
  • More likely to be hired for a non-contact position (doesn’t interact with many people and is not the face of the company)

Sadly, even the quality of healthcare received by individuals with obesity is impacted by weight bias. In one study, physicians indicated that they would spend 28% less time with a patient with obesity than they would a patient of normal weight. The same physicians cited the following perceptions about patients with excess weight as a driver in their decision to spend less time with those patients:

  • Non-compliant; dishonest
  • Lacking in self-control; weak-willed
  • Lazy; unmotivated
  • Unintelligent
  • Unsuccessful

As a result of the treatment–or lack thereof—received, patients with excess weight are less likely to get regular exams and screenings for cancer and other illnesses, and more likely to delay an appointment.

So, what’s to be done about weight bias?

As we all know, the first step in making any change is acknowledging a problem exists, followed by considering how our own perceptions contribute to the problem, and then making concerted efforts to change those perceptions.

If you hold a bias, the most important mindset change is to recognize that having a higher weight is not a character flaw and is not a measure of an individual’s intelligence, potential, motivation, or value to the world. It may help to remind yourself that obesity is a complex disease with multiple causes including genetic, biological, and other noncontrollable factors. 

As you work on your own perceptions, work to educate others, especially those who express negative opinions about people with excess weight. 

To learn what else you can do to raise awareness, change public perceptions, and create a world where everyone is treated with dignity and respect, visit StopWeightBias.

Dr. Kimberley Sampson, MD, is a board-certified Obstetrics & Gynecology Specialist at SVHC in Bennington.

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