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Weight stigma, also known as weightism, weight bias, and weight-based discrimination, is discrimination or stereotyping based on one's weight, especially very large or extremely thin people. The term is a misnomer as the stigma arises from the condition of being obese, or schadenfreude arising from the suffering from the disease, and not the body mass of the individual stigmatized in this manner. Weight stigma reflects internalized attitudes towards the obese that affects how those who are the targets of bias are treated.
A person who is stigmatized possesses a weight that leads to a devalued social identity, and is often ascribed stereotypes or other labels denoting a perceived deviance which can lead to prejudice and discrimination. Common, “weight-based”, stereotypes are that obese persons are lazy, lack self-discipline, and have poor willpower, but also possess defects of intelligence and character. More common weight-based stereotypes of obese persons are that obese persons are unattractive, unhealthy, have a bad diet and/or don't exercise. Pervasive social portrayals of obesity create and reinforce biased attitudes.
In centuries past, a degree of plumpness has been seen as indicative of personal or family prosperity: "Calories were scarce, physical labor was hard, and most people were as lean as greyhounds." In some cultures, having a fat wife was a status symbol: there was plenty to eat, and she did not need to work hard. The connection of fatness with financial well-being persists today in some less-developed countries. Indeed, it may be on the rise, as it is for example in South Africa.
Types of weight stigma
Weight stigma and bias can be:
- practical (for instance, medical equipment or seats in most public places that are too small to accommodate obese persons);
- verbal (such as insults, ridicule, teasing, stereotypes, derogatory names, or pejorative language); or
- physical (such as bullying or other aggressive behaviors).
In some cases stigma results in discrimination, such as employment discrimination wherein an obese employee is denied a position or promotion solely or primarily due to aesthetic revulsion at his or her appearance, despite the individual being appropriately qualified.
Causes of weight stigma
The causes of weight stigma are complex, as many factors seem to play a role. For instance, the degree to which heavy people are stigmatized (or revered) is highly variable across cultures and historical periods. However, research on social stigma offers some clues. According to many researchers,[who?] there are three basic forms of stigma (physical deformity, poor personal traits, and tribal outgroup status). Given the common stereotypes that are applied to fat people (unattractive, lazy) and thin people, it seems that two of the three basic forms (physical deformity, poor personal traits) may apply to the case of weight stigma.
Several studies conducted by social psychologists have found that the perception of laziness or lack of willpower is a strong determinant of weight stigma. For instance, people who more strongly believe that fatness results from lack of willpower are more likely to be prejudiced against fat people. People who believe that thinness results from poor body image are more likely to be prejudiced against thin people.
Common contexts and settings of weight stigma
Obese and thin children and adults are vulnerable targets of weight stigma from a variety of sources.
In medical facilities, weight stigma toward obese patients has been documented by physicians, nurses, psychologists, dieticians, and medical students. One consequence of bias by health care professionals is that obese patients may avoid obtaining medical care because of these negative experiences. However, one must take care when reading such studies, as genuine concern from a doctor about a patient's weight may be reported by the patient as weight stigma. This may be due to the real discrimination obese people experience in their day-to-day lives, leaving them more sensitive to perceived discrimination (whether real or not).
Even family members may express stigmatizing attitudes towards loved ones who are obese. Children who are overweight and obese may confront stigma by parents and siblings, and obese adults may experience stigma from spouses and other relatives.
Consequences of weight stigma
Weight stigma has negative consequences for emotional and physical health. Children who are overweight and obese may be especially vulnerable. Negative attitudes towards obese children develop as young as three years old, and throughout preschool, elementary school, and high school, obese children are attributed multiple negative characteristics by their peers including being mean, stupid, ugly, unhappy, lazy, and having few friends. Obese youth who are victimized by peers because of their weight are at risk for poor body image, unhealthy eating behaviors, eating disorders, lower levels of physical activity, lower self-esteem, higher risk of depression and suicidal thoughts. Weight stigma can also lead to social isolation, poorer interpersonal relationships, and self-blame by those who are targeted. It can be inferred from data linking low social status to poor health that the low status assigned to the obese is a significant contributor to their excess morbidity.
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