How obesity discrimination is just as common as racism

September 13, 2018 by Lesley Young, University of Alberta
Ximena Ramos Salas, managing director of Obesity Canada, says weight bias and discrimination are as pervasive as racism, even among health-care professionals. Credit: Virginia Quist

Ever notice how the proverbial "bad guy" in children's cartoons and movies tends to be a larger size? Or how popular TV shows tend to portray fat people as comedic, lonely or freaks?

Start paying attention and you will notice the discriminatory trend in media called "fattertainment," said Ximena Ramos Salas, a managing director of University of Alberta-based Obesity Canada, a national registered charity dedicated to reducing weight bias.

Weight bias, she explained, is an individual's attitudes or beliefs about a person because of their weight—for example, "That person is so fat. They are clearly lazy and unmotivated and lack willpower."

"When we extrapolate from many U.S.-based studies, it's clear that weight bias is as common, if not more common than racism," she said. "And media isn't the only place where discrimination occurs. In fact, health-care professionals, thanks to a lack of training in schools, are among the worst perpetrators."

Ramos Salas and colleagues at Obesity Canada say weight bias has been the single most significant obstacle they've faced in trying to develop a comprehensive national strategy for obesity prevention and management for the last 10 years. Her Ph.D. research also showed that the public health system forms policies that may have negative consequences for people living with obesity, who, in turn, find public health messaging unhelpful and stigmatizing.

"Health-care professionals and society in general need to recognize that obesity—defined by the World Health Organization as abnormal or excess fat accumulation that impairs health—is a chronic health problem, not a self-inflicted lifestyle choice," explained Ramos Salas.

She added that not everyone who lives in a larger body has obesity, and the idea that we categorize people based on their size as healthy or unhealthy is not accurate.

"However, for those who are living with obesity, there isn't a cure. It's a disease that these people will live with forever, so the key is, how can we help them manage their chronic disease like we would any other chronic disease, such as hypertension or cancer, and how can we make sure they're not discriminated against?"

For starters, awareness needs to be raised around the fact that many factors contribute to obesity beyond diet and exercise, she said.

"Not everyone will develop obesity for the same reasons, and when we make assumptions about lifestyle choices that aren't true, the consequences are quite damaging."

Why shaming is wrong

"We know from population-based health studies that experiencing weight bias and discrimination can cause psychological problems such as negative self-esteem, lack of body confidence and stress," said Ramos Salas.

In turn, that can cause avoidance of health-promoting behaviour. For example, people living with obesity may avoid going to the gym or seeing their doctor for fear of being shamed and blamed, she said, adding "stigmatization and shaming only increases health disparities."

It can also increase social disparities. Ramos Salas pointed to research showing that kids in educational settings who experience weight bias from teachers also encounter lower expectations from teachers.

"That has ramifications for social development, learning and future socio-economic status," she said.

Accepting not the same as promoting

"A common concern is that if we accept body diversity, we are promoting obesity, but that's not true," added Ramos Salas.

Accepting someone with a larger body requires us to embrace the fact that everyone comes in different shapes and sizes, and that as long as people who have larger bodies do not have health issues, they don't need to lose weight, she said.

"In fact, helping people who have obesity isn't necessarily about weight loss either, but tackling other ways to improve their health and well-being," she said.

"Certainly, making people feel bad about their body is not helpful. We need to make them feel accepted and accommodated, whether that's making sure kids at school have big enough seats or making sure there are MRIs big enough to fit people with obesity in hospitals."

She added that what's at stake is not only a person's individual health, but also population health outcomes.

Damaging views

  • Weight bias: an individual's attitudes or beliefs about a person because of their weight. For example, "That person is so fat. They are clearly lazy, unmotivated and lack willpower."
  • Weight stigma: the social stereotypes we have about people with obesity and about obesity. For example, "People with obesity eat unhealthy foods and do not exercise; they don't care about their own health."
  • Weight discrimination: when people act on their own individual biases and the social stereotypes of people with obesity, and treat differently because of their . It can have serious consequences, said Ramos Salas: "Less promotions in the workplace, lower salaries, lower expectations by teachers for children with obesity in school, and lack of access to dignified and respectful care in -care systems."

Explore further: Study: Obesity alone does not increase risk of death

Related Stories

Study: Obesity alone does not increase risk of death

July 12, 2018
Researchers at York University's Faculty of Health have found that patients who have metabolic healthy obesity, but no other metabolic risk factors, do not have an increased rate of mortality.

How stigma in the healthcare system is undermining efforts to reduce obesity

March 23, 2018
Obesity is a global public health concern due to its associations with an increased risk of poor mental and physical health. This is why attempts to prevent and treat obesity – especially in children – have become a focus ...

Many Americans blame themselves for weight stigma

October 31, 2017
A new study by the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut shows that many individuals who are targets of weight bias also internalize the stigma directed towards them, blaming themselves ...

Lonely and prolonged struggle for people with severe obesity

June 20, 2018
The majority of people with severe obesity have a lonely and prolonged struggle with their weight. In one study spanning more than 10 years, 83 percent report that they constantly strive to lose weight or prevent weight gain.

Provider counseling for weight loss up for arthritis, overweight

May 7, 2018
(HealthDay)—In 2014, health care provider counseling for weight loss for adults with arthritis and overweight or obesity was 45.5 percent, up 10.4 percent from 2002, according to research published in the May 3 issue of ...

Fat shaming linked to greater health risks

January 26, 2017
Body shaming is a pervasive form of prejudice, found in cyber bullying, critiques of celebrities' appearances, at work and school, and in public places for everyday Americans. People who are battling obesity face being stereotyped ...

Recommended for you

Scientists shine new light on link between obesity and cancer

November 12, 2018
Scientists have made a major discovery that shines a new, explanatory light on the link between obesity and cancer. Their research confirms why the body's immune surveillance systems—led by cancer-fighting Natural Killer ...

Genetic factors tied to obesity may protect against diabetes

November 2, 2018
Some genetic variations linked with obesity actually protect against Type 2 diabetes, heart attack and stroke, new findings suggest.

Zebrafish larvae help in search for appetite suppressants

November 2, 2018
Researchers at the University of Zurich and Harvard University have developed a new strategy in the search for psychoactive drugs. By analyzing the behavior of larval zebrafish, they can filter out substances with unwanted ...

Study shows improved health, reduced overweight and obesity in Pacific-region children

October 30, 2018
A community-randomized clinical trial of the Children's Healthy Living Program (CHL), based at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, seeking to sustainably prevent and decrease overweight and obese young children and to improve ...

Childhood antibiotics and antacids may be linked to heightened obesity risk

October 30, 2018
Young children prescribed antibiotics and, to a lesser extent, drugs to curb excess stomach acid, may be at heightened risk of obesity, suggests research published online in the journal Gut.

Researchers make mice lose weight by imitating effects from cold and nicotine

October 25, 2018
Inspired by some of the effects from winter swimming and smoking, researchers from the University of Copenhagen, among others, have found a way to improve the metabolism of mice and make them lose weight. They have done so ...

3 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Osiris1
not rated yet Sep 13, 2018
You might want to think a bit before going out with a really large person if you are a lot smaller. If he/she is on top during lovemaking, and has short legs, he/she could easily cut off circulation through your femoral artery carrying blood to your legs and feet. This is painful and results in immediate numbness in whatever parts of your legs are below the mechanical block just like a tourniquet would be. Get out from under that person immediately and tell him/her what just happened. This is not 'shaming', but saving a life........yours. This happened to me with a large lady, but did not happen with an even larger lady who had longer legs and better sense. Depends on the couple. Most problems can be solved.
Anonym518498
1 / 5 (1) Sep 13, 2018
typical canadian tripe
RobertKarlStonjek
not rated yet Sep 13, 2018
People can't choose the race they hail from, but the majority of obese chose to be that way.

Every ounce of fat on the body had to pass through the individual's own lips in some form to get there, this is a fact that is considered too terrible to tell the offender??

Note that a very small portion of of obese adults suffer genetic and other conditions that result in their weight gain, the rest fail to eat properly and exercise sufficiently to avoid their obesity.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.