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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 fat people.

Stigmatization based on body weight can lead to a devalued social identity and the stigmatized people are 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. Other 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."[1] In some cultures, having a fat wife was a status symbol: there was plenty to eat, and she did not need to work hard.[citation needed] The connection of fatness with financial well-being persists today in some less-developed countries.[2] Indeed, it may be on the rise,[3] as it is for example in South Africa.[4]

Types of weight stigma[edit]

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[edit]

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[which?]. 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[which?] 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.

Another study by researchers offers a different answer to the cause of weight stigma, though. A 2006 study published in the Journal Evolution and Human Behavior[5] concludes that stigma towards the obese is due to the evolved trait to avoid other humans who show outward symptoms of disease, sickness or other pathogen-related health issues, which also includes excessive body fat. The study claims that: "Evolved pathogen-detection mechanisms are hypersensitive, and they appear to play a role in the stigmatization of obese people."

Common contexts and settings of weight stigma[edit]

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[citation needed]. 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[which?], 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.

Weight stigma in the work place[edit]

Over time the United States has made laws to protect its citizens from discrimination on race, religion, age, sex and disabilities. However, no law has been passed to protect citizens against discrimination on appearance, except for one state (Michigan) and six cities and counties (the District of Columbia; Howard County, MD; San Francisco; Santa Cruz, CA; Madison, WI; and Urbana, IL).

In a survey by the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance 62 percent of female members and 42 percent of male members answered yes when asked if they had been turned down a job due to their weight. In Texas in 1994, an obese woman was turned down the job of a bus driver after a company doctor saw her “waddle down the hall.” The company claimed that the woman would be unable to flee the bus in an event of an emergency. Company conducted to tests to prove this theory.

Likewise, in New Jersey in 2005, a “Borgata babe” cocktail waitress went from size four to six due to a thyroid condition. The waitress was turned down when she asked for a uniform in a larger size. The waitress was told that “Borgata babes don’t go up in size.” Her contract required her to maintain an hourglass figure that is height and weight appropriate.

In California in 2001, Jennifer Portnick, an aerobics instructor, was refused a Jazzercise franchise due to her weight. Jazzercise claimed that their image needed a fit and toned instructor. Portnick worked out 6 days a week as well as teaching back-to-back classes.[6]

Consequences of weight stigma[edit]

A crash simulation with a slender (left) and an obese (right) passenger. Design of automobiles protects low-weight people more than high-weight people.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Natalie Angier. "Who Is Fat? It Depends on Culture The History and Art of Being Fat". The Food Museum: Online Exhibit. Archived from the original on 17 October 2006. Retrieved 21 November 2013. 
  2. ^ "Fat Women: A Painter's Inspiration". Safariweb.com. Retrieved 2010-04-01. 
  3. ^ Smith, Alex Duval (1 March 2009). "Girls being force-fed for marriage as fattening farms revived". The Observer. Retrieved 27 January 2014. 
  4. ^ "Fat May Be Bad, But Beautiful". The Economist. December 17, 2011. Retrieved January 27, 2014. 
  5. ^ "Pathogen-avoidance mechanisms and the stigmatization of obese people". Evolution and Human Behavior. May 25, 2007. Retrieved January 22, 2015. 
  6. ^ Rhode, Deborah (May 23, 2012). "Why Looks Are the Last Bastion of Discrimination". Washington Post. 

Further reading[edit]

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