"She must eat a lot of junk food to weigh that much."
"She must be bulimic or anorexic."
"He probably hasn't exercised in years."
"Why can't he just have a little willpower?"
Most of us have made snap judgments at one time or another upon seeing someone who falls on the heavier (or lighter) end of the weight spectrum. These types of perceptions may have flitted through your mind without you even realizing it - or maybe there was a time when someone made false assumptions about you.
When most people think about discrimination, it's usually in terms of racism or sexism. While race and gender biases certainly make more headlines and generate more public outrage, there's another type of prejudice that's largely unspoken, but perhaps even more prevalent.
It's called weightism.
In fact, according to a study conducted at Yale University, it could be even more widespread than racism. With obesity rates continuing to climb and eating disorders on the rise, weight-based discrimination has become ingrained in the fabric of our society.
Types of Weightism
It might seem like only heavy people face weightism, but it can affect people on both ends of the weight spectrum. Anytime someone is denied an opportunity or treated differently solely because of their weight, they are a victim of weightism.
There is a general assumption that everyone is control of their weight, so anytime someone falls outside the range of what is viewed as a "normal" body mass, there is the potential for discrimination.
There are two main types of weightism:
Obese individuals. Obese people usually experience more overt discrimination, as others may assume that extra weight is indicative of laziness or unhealthy eating. Examples of weightism that affect overweight people include receiving judgmental comments or looks on a crowded airplane, being refused a job for which they are qualified or getting snubbed at a store or restaurant.
This individuals. Thin people can sometimes be perceived as "too skinny," as onlookers assume that they are starving themselves, exercising too much or are obsessed with their appearance.
According to the Yale study, women are up to three times more likely to be discriminated against because of their weight, and the discrimination starts at a BMI of around 27 versus 35 for men.
Why Do People Discriminate Against Weight?
In many cases, people who practice weightism may feel that their behavior or mindset is justified. This type of discrimination is often portrayed as stemming from a genuine concern for someone's health and happiness.
For instance, a boss who continually tries to encourage an overweight employee to adopt a healthier lifestyle might believe that she is being helpful, when in reality she could be making the employee feel singled out, unfairly judged or inferior to her co-workers.
In reality, there is no such thing as one normal, healthy weight, and it's not always easy or possible for someone to keep their body mass within a certain socially acceptable range. Many people seem to have the idea that we all start from the same level playing field in terms of BMI and weight, and that's simply not the case.
Beyond diet and exercise, there are many other extraneous factors that determine a person's weight, such as metabolism, hormones, ethnicity, age, genetics and physiological influences. Even social and economic aspects can come into play, as some people may find it more difficult to access or afford healthy foods or fitness opportunities.
Examples of Weightism
Someone who is perceived as "too fat" or "too thin" can face many different types of discrimination, such as the following scenarios:
- Being denied a seat on a plane, bus, train or other mode of public or shared transportation
- Being fat-shamed at a doctor's office or hospital, and not receiving the same quality of care as someone with a more typical weight
- Being denied insurance coverage
- Getting passed over for a job or promotion in favor of someone at a healthier weight
- Getting treated differently at a place of business, such as a clothing store, car dealership or restaurant
Weightism seems to be particularly rampant in the healthcare field. When an overweight or obese person seeks medical attention, a doctor is more likely to prescribe weight loss as the solution, rather than ordering blood work, scans or therapy.
At the 125th annual convention of the American Psychological Association, Connecticut College professor Joan Crisler spoke about the danger this can present to heavier patients.
Disrespectful treatment and medical fat shaming, in an attempt to motivate people to change their behavior, is stressful and can cause patients to delay health care seeking or avoid interacting with providers," said Crisler. It can go the other way, too, as doctors might assume a thin patient is less likely to experience heart disease or other conditions, and therefore may forgo life-saving testing or treatment.
Real examples of weightism have appeared in national news as well. In 2008, when Regina Benjamin was named Surgeon General due to her medical experience and expertise, many critics claimed she was "too heavy" to serve as the face of the fight against obesity.
How to Confront Weightism
If you've been treated differently or unfairly due to your weight, your first instinct might be to shrug it off out of embarrassment, hoping to deflect the attention away from you. But if weightism is affecting your job, relationships, reputation or feelings, it's important to respond to the behavior in a firm, constructive way. Below are some examples of how to effectively confront weight-based discrimination:
- Respond to spiteful statements or jokes with something like, "That is inappropriate and hurtful, and I won't allow you to speak to me that way."
- Educating others about the reality that overweight and obese people live every day, and about how they do not always have control over their weight.
- Sharing your experiences with weightism and explaining how it made you feel.
- Making a formal complaint against any company or organization that practices weight-based discrimination.
- Taking legal action if weightism has negatively impacted your opportunities, reputation, rights or property.
Although it may not get the same level of attention as other forms of discrimination, weightism is a very real issue in today's image-conscious society. It's important to recognize the issue and take steps to combat it. Regardless of weight, everyone deserves to be treated with fairness and respect.