The Bias Against Being Big

by DavalosMcCormack on February 21, 2008

We’ve come a long way as a society in the last 50 years. The civil rights movement has helped create a lot of changes, and while we still have a long way to go, we are at least heading in the right direction. Unless, of course, you are fat, in which case, fuhgeddabadit!

Bias against fat people seems to be one of the last acceptable forms of discrimination, and one that covers every aspect of society.

A new study by researchers at Wayne State University in Detroit, MI is just the latest piece of evidence about the bias against obesity. The researchers found that being extra heavy, or obese, can reduce your chances of getting a job, and reduce your chances of getting a promotion even if you do get the gig.

“There are a whole lot of stereotypes that go along with being overweight, and a lot of them transfer into the workplace in terms of people’s judgements about others’ abilities and appearances in relation to job performance,” said Cort Rudolph, one of the researchers, in a news release put out by Wayne State.

The study found that the basic stereotypes against people who are overweight included:
• Laziness
• Sloppiness
• Untidiness
• Lack of self-discipline and control
• Having more health problems
• Lack of motivation

The researchers also found that people tend to find weight-based bias more acceptable than other forms of bias, such as those based on ethnicity or gender. One reason may be because there are laws that protect people against discrimination based on race and gender and in some cases even sexual orientation, but very few against weight – San Francisco and a few other cities being the exceptions. Another reason could be because people still tend to blame obesity on the individual themselves. Most people fail to appreciate that losing weight for someone who is obese is often as difficult as it is for a smoker to quit the habit, or for an alcoholic to stop drinking.

This is far from the first study to find bias against people who are overweight. In 2006 Jay Zagorksy, a researcher at Ohio State University, compared levels of body mass index to how much money people earned. He found that the heavier you were, the less likely you were to hold a high paying job. For instance with white men a 10 point drop in body mass index resulted in an increase of nearly $13,000 a year. And the reverse is true. Increases in body mass index mean lower wages.

Employment is not the only areas of bias. A recent study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that obese women are less likely than more normal weight women to be screened for breast and cervical cancer.

Nor is it just an American phenomena. Earlier this year a study in Hong Kong found that three out of four teachers discriminate against overweight students, and consider them “sluggish” and even “nasty”.

So why do we feel this way? Well, portrayals of overweight people in the media don’t help. When was the last time you saw anyone above a size 8 portrayed in anything other than an unflattering manner on TV or in the movies. Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence have made entire second careers of dressing up as fat people, usually obese women.

Whatever the reason it’s pretty clear that being obese is not something anyone would choose. It comes with a wide range of health issues, it makes it difficult to do simple things like get a seat on a bus or a movie theatre, and it sets you up for discrimination. If it were easy to lose weight, if all it took were willpower, then no one would be fat.

The irony in all this is that while bias against obesity is still common, more and more Americans are either overweight or obese themselves – close to 60 percent of adults at the last count, and rising. Perhaps as more and more people become fat, they’ll be less likely to discriminate against others who look like themselves.

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