It’s illegal to discriminate against someone because of race or gender, but our culture condones a bias against people who are overweight.
There are no federal laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of weight, and only Michigan has such a law, according to a new study from Yale University.
As a result, the researchers contend, weight discrimination is spiraling upward, and that’s a dangerous trend that could add fuel to the obesity epidemic.
Weight discrimination “occurs in employment settings and daily interpersonal relationships virtually as often as race discrimination, and in some cases even more frequently than age or gender discrimination,” the researchers report in the current issue of the International Journal of Obesity.
[Research scientist Rebecca Puhl, lead author of the study], who was trained as a clinical psychologist, and co-author Tatiana Andreyeva, studied data collected from 3,437 adults as part of a national survey conducted in 1995-1996. They have just updated the work in a disturbing paper showing that weight discrimination has accelerated through 2006.
Puhl, who has been studying weight discrimination for nine years, said our culture has made it clear that it’s wrong to discriminate against someone because of race, color, creed, gender, age and so forth, but that it’s OK to show someone the door because he or she is fat.
“We send a message to citizens in our culture that this is something that is tolerated,” she said. “We live in a culture where we obviously place a premium on fitness, and fitness has come to symbolize very important values in our culture, like hard work and discipline and ambition. Unfortunately, if a person is not thin, or is overweight or obese, then they must lack self-discipline, have poor willpower, etc., and as a result they get blamed and stigmatized.”
Puhl emphasized that she isn’t saying people shouldn’t try to control their weight. Scores of studies have shown that excess weight contributes to a wide range of diseases, and physical fitness is one of our best bets for fighting everything from heart attacks to aging. But let’s face it, if diets worked, we would all be skinny. Many uncontrollable factors contribute to obesity, like genetics and some diseases, yet we still blame the individual.
And it’s everywhere. A friend recently offered me one of those cookies sold by Girl Scouts in our community. The label on the box said one cookie has four grams of fat. And nobody eats just one Girl Scout cookie. It tastes great, it’s cheap and it’s for a worthy cause. But that little angel standing at your door is offering you a one-way ticket to obesity.
Here are some of the findings in Puhl’s study:
# Men are not at serious risk of discrimination until their BMI reaches 35, while women begin experiencing an increase in discrimination at BMI 27.
# Moderately obese women with a BMI of 30 to 35 are three times more likely than men in the same weight group to experience weight discrimination.
# Compared to other forms of discrimination in the United States, weight discrimination is the third most prevalent cause of perceived discrimination among women (after gender and age) and the fourth most prevalent form of discrimination among all adults (after gender, age and race.)
[Editors Note: “Perceptions of Weight Discrimination: Prevalence and Comparison to Race and Gender Discrimination in America,” by Rebecca Puhl, et al., can be read or downloaded both as an HTML and as a PDF file here. Purchase or subscription is necessary. The abstract appears below.]
* Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, Yale University, New Haven, CT, USA
Correspondence: Dr RM Puhl, Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, Yale University, 309 Edwards Street, New Haven, CT 06520-8369, USA. E-mail: [email protected]
Received 13 September 2007; Revised 25 November 2007; Accepted 19 January 2008; Published online 4 March 2008.
Limited data are available on the prevalence and patterns of body weight discrimination from representative samples. This study examined experiences of weight/height discrimination in a nationally representative sample of US adults and compared their prevalence and patterns with discrimination experiences based on race and gender.
Method and procedures: Data were from the National Survey of Midlife Development in the United States, a 1995–1996 community-based survey of English-speaking adults aged 25–74 (N=2290). Reported experiences of weight/height discrimination included a variety of institutional settings and interpersonal relationships. Multivariate regression analyses were used to predict weight/height discrimination controlling for sociodemographic characteristics and body weight status.
Results: The prevalence of weight/height discrimination ranged from 5% among men to 10% among women, but these average percentages obscure the much higher risk of weight discrimination among heavier individuals (40% for adults with body mass index (BMI) of 35 and above). Younger individuals with a higher BMI had a particularly high risk of weight/height discrimination regardless of their race, education and weight status. Women were at greater risk for weight/height discrimination than men, especially women with a BMI of 30–35 who were three times more likely to report weight/height discrimination compared to male peers of a similar weight.
Discussion: Weight/height discrimination is prevalent in American society and is relatively close to reported rates of racial discrimination, particularly among women. Both institutional forms of weight/height discrimination (for example, in employment settings) and interpersonal mistreatment due to weight/height (for example, being called names) were common, and in some cases were even more prevalent than discrimination due to gender and race.