One of the odd things about losing weight, especially if it happens in a short enough period of time, is that you definitely notice that people treat you differently. I don’t think it’s my imagination, but the lighter me gets more doors opened. Cars are more likely to wait for me to enter a crosswalk. It’s sad–I’m really the same person after all.

Now Rebecca Puhl and her colleagues at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University report that bias against heavy people is as common in the United States as racial bias, and is more common than bias based on sexual orientation, nationality/ethnicity, physical disability, and religious beliefs [1].

Heavy women seem to be subjected to more bias than heavy men. Weight bias for men is not common until they reach a BMI of 35 or higher (30 is considered obese), whereas women experience bias at a BMI of 27 or above (which is considered overweight but not obese). At 5’9″, that means that I would experience bias if I weighed 183 lbs or more (at which weight I wore a size 12–the average American woman is only 5’4″ and wears a size 14). If I were a man, I could weigh 237 lbs for a BMI of 35, and I think we can all agree that’s pretty chubby.

If you are smugly assuming that you are not biased about weight, let alone anything else, I suggest you try the Implicit Attitudes Test (IAT) on “fat-thin” at Harvard University. I took this a few months ago myself. Although I answered their explicit questionnaire in a way that I felt was truthful, indicating I did not feel biased against heavy people, my IAT said otherwise. It would have been interesting to see how I would have done BEFORE I lost weight. Perhaps my implicit attitudes are a defense mechanism–if I feel like being heavy is bad, maybe that will help keep me motivated to stay slim. That’s not an excuse. I found the results unsettling.

There’s no doubt that more Americans are getting heavier. It seems odd that the majority of Americans are overweight or obese, and that this majority is subject to bias and discrimination. Check these maps from the Centers for Disease Control:

1. Puhl, R., Moss-Racusin, C., Schwartz, M.B., & Brownell, K.D. (2008). Weight stigmatization and bias reduction: Perspectives of overweight and obese adults. Health Education & Research.


jmgraham · April 2, 2008 at 10:58 pm

As horrible as this article is, it’s so true. And as much as I don’t even want to admit to myself that I treat people differently based on their weight, I do. Especially living in California, I ahve grown up in a society that leads me to be somewhat of a “fat phobic”. I mostly have this standard for myself and hate every ounce of fat on me (like all other females my age), but I see sometimes that I hold others to my standard as well. I found the test to be interesting, and unfortunately true.
The worst part about our fat phobic society is that women share the worst of it. I feel as if we are the ones who care and try the most to be healthy or thin and we get judged more harshly. Although, it would be interesting to find out if it is in fact women who judge others more harshly. I’m guessing that we get judged as well as judge more than the men.

Laura’s Psychology Blog » Is your weight in your genes? · April 4, 2008 at 3:55 pm

[…] We hear a lot of different theories about the current obesity epidemic and why some of us are fatter or thinner. We know that family members tend to resemble one another, but whether this is more of a matter of genes, shared habits, or maybe social pressure, we can’t determine. As a child growing up, I was taught to clean my plate, somehow mysteriously helping children in other parts of the world who didn’t have any broccoli to eat. This habit is very persistent, and I know now to avoid buffets and salad bars. […]

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