Where do you see weight bias?

This week, we wanted to talk about an issue that not many people talk about but is seen widely throughout our society – weight stigma or “fatphobia.” Weight bias is a negative/stereotypical attitude, belief, and judgement about people because of their weight. While weight bias exists on a spectrum that can include people who are underweight, we are covering biases against plus-sized people because this group predominantly experiences negative attitudes and discriminatory practices.

Reflect: Where do you see weight bias?

What image do you think of when you think of a person who is considered “fat”? Common stereotypes about plus-sized people include that they are lazy, irresponsible, and sloppy. These stereotypes appear in all kinds of popular media, which in turn means we internalize this bias early on. The term “lipoliteracy” has been used to describe the process by which people ascribe these moralistic and physical characteristics to plus-sized people (Phillipson, 2013).

Learn: Weight Bias is Far-Reaching

In 2013, a professor tweeted that “obese PhD applicants” who didn’t have “the willpower to stop eating carbs [wouldn’t] have the willpower to do a dissertation.” Unfortunately, attitudes like this professor’s have more consequences than we realize.

The rise of bias against plus-size people (Charlesworth & Banaji, 2019) and a lack of legal protection affects plus-sized people in a variety of ways – with women experiencing higher levels of weight stigma than men (Fikkan & Rothblum, 2012). Shinall (2015) found that plus-sized women were paid lower than their straight-sized counterparts, particularly in public-facing roles. Hiring officers frequently look over people who are plus-sized because they are seen as less competent than thinner people (Flint et al., 2016; Levine & Schweitzer, 2015). In education, weight bias leads teachers to grade overweight students lower than their peers and to believe that they need more remedial help (Finn et al., 2020). Weight stigma also intersects with other systems of oppression, such that and plus-sized Black women experience a multiplicity of bias that affects their well-being (Hicken et al., 2018).

Change: Combating Weight-Based Stigma

  • “Fat” shouldn’t be a bad word: Some plus-sized people want to reclaim the term “fat” as a neutral term, as simply a descriptor that has no bearing on who they are. You may feel the urge to tell a plus-size woman who neutrally calls themselves “fat” by saying “No, you’re not fat, you’re beautiful.” Correcting a plus-size woman like this is a microaggression implying women who are plus-sized cannot be beautiful (and that being “beautiful” by societal standards is what is good, worthy, etc.). Alternatively, if a straight-sized person uses “fat” negatively (e.g., “does this make me look fat?”), talk to them about the implications of negative body talk.
  • Call out excuses like “But it’s about their health: A common excuse used by people antagonizing a plus-sized person is that they are “concerned” about that person’s “health.” In fact, evidence shows that weight stigma is a larger determinant of health outcomes than one’s body mass index, with weight stigma actually heightening risks for obesity (Tomiyama et al., 2018). Explain that not only is someone else’s body not up for commentary, considering only “skinny” people as “healthy” (i.e., “good”) reinforces unfair social standards.
  • Removing weight from the equation: Consider practices that negatively revolve around weight. Things like office competitions to see who can lose the most weight can implicitly promote the idea that weight is more important than overall health. In hiring, have conversations about weight stigma’s influence on perceived competency (Flint et al., 2016) before evaluating candidates. Like racial and gendered bias, the anxiety and negative bias against plus-sized professors (Escalera, 2010) must be considered when using student evaluations (Reidinger, 2020).