‘Weigh’ed Down by Discrimination: The Truth about Weight Bias

This week is weight stigma awareness week. Last week, I attended UNC’s Smash TALK, an open discussion with leading eating disorder experts, and I was shocked to learn that weight stigma is much more than the brief sting of hearing the words “you’re fat.”

Imagine that you were sitting at Lenoir or Starbucks with some friends, looking at the photo below in a magazine or online. What are people saying?

Thin woman wearing black shirt and jeans
“Models photo shoot” by David Yu, Flickr Creative Commons


Now, imagine ya’ll are looking at this photo. What are people saying?

Large woman wearing floral dress and coat
“It’s been awhile” by Amber Karnes, Flickr Creative Commons


We did a similar exercise at the Smash TALK event, and it really illustrated the assumptions we make around body size. The thin-framed woman drew words like hot, confident, disciplined, healthy, social, popular, and vain. The large-framed woman was described as both happy and unhappy, weak-willed, lazy, lonely, not-as-popular.

Wow. That’s a lot of assumptions based on one photo and NO interaction.


Where do these assumptions come from?

These assumptions are clear examples of weight bias. The Binge Eating Disorder Association defines weight bias as “negative judgment based on weight, shape, and/or size.” It can be both explicit and implicit, and it leads to weight stigma, or internalized shame resulting from weight bias.

Weight bias stems from a culture that inaccurately equates thinness with health, happiness, and success. Add to that the growing “war on obesity” which has become a war on obese people, and it is clear that weight bias is increasingly pervasive.

Unfortunately, it also starts young and often in the home: in one study, 47% of overweight girls and 34% of overweight boys were teased about their weight by family members. Many parents who struggle with their body image subconsciously pass this on to their kids, while others try intentionally not to.


What about weight stigma for the skinny folks?

I have written a few blogs about body image, and I try to veer away from promoting one body type over another, because thin people face assumptions that they are stuck up or vain or that they have an eating disorder. Songs like “All About That Bass” and campaigns like “Real Women Have Curves” send a negative message to thin women, and I’m not okay with that.


When it comes to weight stigma, people with large bodies have it worse. And here’s why:

People with large bodies don’t just face stigma from fat jokes, they also face discrimination. Weight discrimination has increased 66% over the past decade, making it comparable to rates of racial discrimination, especially among women.


Here are some of the inequities:


Education—compared to nonobese children, obese children are

  • Perceived as less likely to succeed by teachers and principals
  • Less likely to be admitted to college with comparable academic performance
  • Less likely to attend college
  • Subject to teasing and bullying which leads to increased absences and depression


Employment—compared to nonobese adults, obese individuals face

  • Lower employment with comparable qualifications and skills
  • Lower wages (1% to 6% less than nonobese employees)
  • Negative bias in performance evaluations



Health—compared to nonobese patients, obese patients experience

  • Negative stereotypes among health care professionals
  • Less time with their physicians
  • Increased depression, lower self esteem, and negative body image


In an earlier blog, I talked about how body shame hurts us all. And it does. However, the shame associated with larger bodies comes with a large dose of discrimination that affects people’s ability to get into college, get a job and get paid fairly, and get the medical attention they need. And that’s the real shame.


Help fight weight stigma by

  • Avoiding media that supports weight bias and weight stigma; read positive media like Yoga Body Project or join the Health At Every Size movement
  • Recognizing that body shame negatively affects everyone—large or small—but it results in some serious inequities for people with larger bodies
  • Taking Embody Carolina’s training to learn more about eating disorders and the healthy weight myth
  • Reading more about thin privilege and fat acceptance

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