The Last Socially-Acceptable Prejudice: Weight Discrimination

Obesity StigmaABC News recently published the article “Stigma Against Fat People the Last Acceptable Prejudice.” Several elements of this article struck a chord in me, and I wanted to touch on some of them in a blog post. Forgive me for paraphrasing so much of the article…there was so much good research and content.

Earlier this month, the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University published a study, indicating that in a courtroom setting, male jurors didn’t administer blind justice to plus-size female defendants. Female jurors displayed no prejudice against obese male defendants, especially lean men, and were much more likely to slap a guilty verdict on an overweight woman. Rebecca Puhl, the co-author of the Yale study, said that “these displays of fat stigma are par for the course.” Prejudice against fat people is pervasive and translates into inequalities across broad areas of life. Puhl continued:

“Thinness has come to symbolize important values in our society; values such as discipline, hard work, ambition, and willpower. If you’re not thin, then you don’t have them”

A study by the Center for Creative Leadership found that top-level managers with a high BMI are judged more harshly by peers and seen as less effective than their slimmer colleagues, both in professional and in interpersonal relationships. I can personally attest to the fact that this happens, and I’ve felt held back in my career objectives. People have liked me on paper, but have treated me far less favorably at in-person job interviews than their initial online correspondences would suggest.

As much as HR departments will claim otherwise, weight prejudice in the workplace is real. I’ve experienced it repeatedly through my career. I have been passed over for job offers and promotions. I am applauded for my creativity, not my hard work. Is is just a coincidence that professional opportunities are opening up for me like crazy after losing weight? It’s tough to say.

friends don't let friends fat talkIt’s obvious that weight discrimination doesn’t just exist in the workplace. It happens in our schools and in our families. More than 70% of obese people say that they had been ridiculed about their weight by a family member.

Yet another study by Puhl at Yale found the following results: Fifty percent of doctors found that fat patients were “awkward, ugly, weak-willed, and unlikely to comply with treatment.” 24 percent of nurses said they were repulsed by obese patients. Almost 30% of teachers said that becoming obese was “the worst thing that can happen to someone.” People have few qualms aiming overly cruel comments toward overweight and obese people because there are few consequences. One of the ironies of the treatment of overweight individuals is fat people didn’t get much sympathy, even from others struggling with their own weight.

Fat stigma hasn’t changed much in my lifetime, and every time it becomes a topic of conversation…people get uncomfortable. People want to change the subject. In this sense, weight prejudice is the last acceptable prejudice.

“Overweight people are usually shown in stereotypical ways- engaged in out-of-control eating or bingeing on junk food- and they are often shown as the target of humor or ridicule,” said Puhl. “With the amount of media we all consume, it’s no wonder these stereotypes stick.”Puhl also stated, “There are no federal laws on the books that make it illegal to discriminate on the basis of body weight, so on the whole, it remains legal. It sends a message that it’s no big deal.” Public health campaigns which brand obesity as a disease are easily perceived as criticizing individuals, rather than the environmental and social factors that lead to weight gain. People engage in public fat-shaming. She also believes media portrayals of heavy people as fat, lazy and gluttonous do them no favors.

Another article I found in Forbes, titled “The Obesity Police Turn A Solvable Problem Into A Needless War“, also brings up some interesting points. “when it comes to addressing obesity, the most prominent public health activists are intent at making it into a war, rather than a solvable problem.” The reference the following video made by Coca-Cola:

Coca-Cola’s video give scientifically accurate data and is trying to spark dialogue about how obesity is caused by consuming more calories than we burn (including the calories in Coke products). They support programs that advocate healthy living, and make it a point to display calorie counts boldly on their packaging.

However, public health activists are not happy about the campaign. These health activists tend to one-up each other, using inflammatory language and tactics to make the food and beverage industry into the villains, instead of making actually making a difference. For instance, Michael Jacobson from the Center for Science in the Public Interest said that if the company was serious about wanting to help fight obesity, it shouldn’t even advertise full-calorie drinks. “They’re trying to pretend they’re part of the solution, instead of part of the problem”. The solution should be to focus on helping those struggling with obesity, and provide resources to those who feel trapped in their predicament, rather than pointing fingers at companies.

So. Where do we go from here? How can we bring up these dialogues and foster meaningful change?

weight discrimination question

I think the important thing is to talk about obesity, and the ways that people can emerge from the trapped feeling of excess weight. Last week I sent out a tweet and posted in my Beauty and the Bypass Facebook Group, asking for people to share their experiences about weight discrimination.

And what was the response?

Zip. Zilch. Nada.

Nobody is comfortable talking about weight prejudice. People are either too scared to talk about their experiences, or they fear retribution for discussing the experiences they’ve had with weight prejudices in the workplace. Or even weight prejudice in general. I have stayed mostly silent on the subject, even though it’s an issue that infuriates me. Last year when I published my post “Weighty Impressions“, there was fallout from it because I mentioned experiences that I’d had in the workplace (at several different jobs). Employers are scared of getting sued, and employees aren’t really protected by anything legally. It’s a really bad situtation.

Where do we go from here? I think it’s time to talk about it. Ideas?


  1. I’m not proud of it, but I know that at some level I DO discriminate against large people.

    The problem I find is that, no matter what laws are introduced, you can’t change the way we perceive other people and the judgement calls we consciously or subconsciously make.

    For instance, when hiring a female, you’re not allowed to ask any questions about whether or not she intends on having kids in the near future. It still plays on your mind somewhat though because you naturally want to employ the person who is not just best qualified mentally for the job but, in your estimation, physically too. That means you make a judgement on how healthy someone is.

    It’s a fact that when some women get pregnant, they get morning sickness etc etc and some of them have days off of work because of it. So that plays into your decision. The law doesn’t change how you think.

    The same applies with overweight people. Rightly or wrongly, we associate obesity with poor health, fatigue, being slow and inactivity. That then carries across into molding our opinion of that person and how well they will be able to perform their job.

    It’s not fair and it’s not right…. but it’s going to take more than a little legislation to change how we think!

  2. I’ve seen what weight discrimination can do to a person. My dad has been obese most of my life. He’s had ups and downs, the downs including two nearly fatal heart attacks. The discrimination cam from all over. In the business world, through family members, church members and often to my face. I guess assuming that I would agree that someone point out the struggles about someone I dearly love as if it were a joke. Growing up in a home whet one parent struggled with weight and the other was ridiculously skinny was very difficult. Much of the ridicule and prejudice coming from the other parent. My parents are now divorced and there were many issues in the marriage, but this one is never acknowledged to have been a factor. Weight became a constant topic in the house and it extended to the kids who each have some of the makeup of or dad. We greet together and talk about it. Having had some of my own struggles including sickness that caused me to go from a 10 to a 2, I’ve had my eyes opened to the value of health over weight. I was skinny, but not healthy. Its not always easy to remember that this is the focus but I try. I don’t want weigh to be a worry for my kids and yet I’ve had to worry about one of them for being too thin and falling off the charts. Discrimination can come from being too thin add well as I’ve seen. The biggest deal is to stop judging one another! We all have our own body makeup and challenges.

  3. I think it is a relevant and important topic, and while I missed your call out for quotes, I actually would have been silent had I seen it. I’ve been overweight my entire life, obese, by the technical sense or literal sense of the word, and have never felt that in the workplace. Other places? Certainly. Work? No. I’m sorry it happened to you and I hate that it happens to anyone. Who is to say that I didn’t miss job opportunities I went for because of it, I suppose it’s possible – but it’s never held me back before when it came to opportunities once I had a job, etc. So I don’t know how to react when I hear it, I think it is awful and I hate HATE it. But I also think sigh – what can we do to change someone’s mindset? It’s like Peter mentions about what people think about. First impressions impact people more than we like to acknowledge, but what many forget is that the impressions aren’t all about YOU (the person being met) but often more about THEM (the person doing the meeting). I hope that makes sense. And I’m off to read your last post, because I remember when you shared it w/ me on FB in response to the article you mention, and then I lost it and never found it again! So yay for links and for touching on a serious topic, Nicole.

  4. I’m glad you’re talking about this. I remember being aporoached by a lady at the laundry mat two years ago because of my baby. Everybody wants to make friends with a baby. She then proceeded to tell me how lucky my baby was to have a mom who “takes care of herself.” Lucky was the most accurate term she used! I try to eat right, but I do not exercise and I do not diet. I remember feeling guilty and awkward. I am genetically encoded to look this way. I did not earn it and at 28 have already had health issues made worse than necessary by lack of exercise. I have many friends who are overweight that take much better care of themselves than I do. Assumptions are easy, but this makes me want to try to challenge some! Thanks for being a continual inspiration Nicole!

  5. You have a great voice Nicole, so good to see you bringing the injustice into the light. People have to sit up and take notice when they reads the words from someone who has ‘been there and done that’ and is able to speak their truth …

  6. Great post, Nicole. This is such an important issue. I think I’ve actually seen it play out MORE since I’ve lost weight…. at least I’ve witnessed it more. Most people would never think of making fun of someone or judging them because of a disability or their skin color, yet those same people have no problem making comments about another based on their weight. Now that I’m no longer in the morbidly obese category, I think people feel like it’s okay to make these comments about others in front of me. All I can think is “wow I wonder what you were saying about me when I was 70 lbs heavier…”

    • I have a friend who blogged about her weight gain due to some medication she was on. She wrote a long, anguished post about how disgusting, unattractive and gross she felt at 225 pounds. I tried to gently point out that I had weighed that much and did she think I was disgusting? She flipped out and said I was trying to deny her experience and her right to talk about it. That wasn’t my point – I just wanted her to consider that how we talk about ourselves can be as hurtful as how we talk about others.

      • Suebob, thank you for writing, “how we talk about ourselves can be as hurtful as how we talk about others.” . . . . Goosebumps. I need to take this to heart and remember it.

      • I know what your friend said might feel hurtful, but I feel like I can relate to her. If I gain 30 pounds from medicine or lack of exercising, I feel gross. I feel physically limited and I don’t feel comfortable in my own skin. And I’m not even that heavy – there are many, many women who are much heavier than I am. Does it mean that I think they’re gross? No. There is a difference between looking at someone and feeling uncomfortable and out of place in your own body. I cannot even fathom what it would feel like to be 225 lbs. At 175 lbs I don’t even feel right. While people do need to understand when their words to themselves might be hurtful, I think some heavier individuals need to understand that every time a person mentions weight, it’s not always about criticizing you.

  7. It is very much a real thing that happens. I think that many people are unaware they do it even, although there are some that do it knowingly. I’m sure that I have been passed over for some in person social media things because of my weight by some in the past. It happens. I think for those that lose weight and see more doors opening it can be partly because of your appearance, but also because you may feel more confident in yourself and that comes through when talking/meeting with others.

  8. Oh, absolutely. At 320lbs I had to hunt down sales clerks in department stores for help, men wouldn’t open doors for me, I got called whale, fatty, cow if I dared to walk anywhere instead of drive. It was horrible.

  9. I remember going into a bebe store years ago, looking for a dress for my company’s holiday party. My friend was a stick thin slip of a girl (either a 0 or 2) and I couldn’t find anything in my size (14). I asked a salesgirl if they had a specific dress in size 14. She gave me an incredulous look and snorted, “We don’t carry anything THAT BIG!” Oh, thanks, I’ll go crawl into a cannoli to drown my sorrows. WTH?!

    While I will say that I have people in my life who have life-threatening obesity issues that they don’t face AT ALL (and those issues negatively impact their loved ones, especially those who then have to play the role of caretaker), I think obesity is a stupid reason for considering a person worthy/not worthy of a job, a promo, etc.

    Obesity is a very complex issue…and it’s sad that so many people either hide from it or in it.

  10. Thanks for this post Nicole, I read it a number of times and today I posted about it. Its a conversation that the world needs to start having more of.

  11. I’m so glad I found your blog (via Five Star Friday) and read this post. The research findings you’ve summarized from the show are compelling. Thank you!

    11 years ago, I lost 48lbs via Weight Watchers… I remained nearly under-weight for about 4 years, then eased back up to the top of the healthy range where I’ve stayed since then. Gosh, probably even the words I just chose to describe my history demonstrate some form of subconscious prejudice.

    As for my experiences, I don’t have evidence of workplace discrimination, but dating was painfully interesting. During the years before and immediately after my weight loss, I went on a lot of internet blind dates. When I weighed more, I could have a date with lots of conversation about many common areas of interest, but would get no call back for a 2nd date. When I was thin, I noticed a pattern of always getting asked out again, no matter what and even began experimenting with disagreeing with everything the guy said….. He liked Van Halen. I’d lie & say I hated Van Halen. No matter what, I’d hear, when can I see you again? It still makes me angry — even though that was over a decade ago. I’m convinced that if I didn’t lose weight (in Los Angeles) I would still be single. I still find it painful watching the show Girls because when I was their age, I didn’t have much sex at all … I was invisible to potential partners. Okay – enough woah is me talk.

    These days, I wonder about my own prejudice over my parents. They are both heavy with type 2 diabetes. My mother had the lap band surgery, and has since stopped getting “the fills”. I think I turn my sadness into judgement because it’s painful to deal with the mortality of the people we love the most.

    Sorry for leaving a mini-blog post in your comments section. Thanks for inspiring me to want to write about it.

    Can’t wait to read more of your posts! Congratulations on your successful journey.

  12. I’m sorry I missed your call for responses on twitter as well though I appreciate the insight your post has given to me. I had never considered that this might be something that has been hindering me. Some background; I have been searching for employment for nearly 2 full years now with a month of work interrupting that time frame. I have been invited to interviews and have felt great about how things have gone in them and then I’ve heard nothing. No calls back. No emails. I am simply ignored. Until I read your post I just assumed that there was somebody else who came along that was more qualified, someone who was a better fit. Now that’s an ironic term.

    I’m not positive that my weight has anything to do with that, but I’m conscious that I am at the heaviest I have been in my life and I am at the lowest point of my life (because of the unemployment). I’m not sure how this problem will be addressed and solved but I’m certainly hopeful that something can be done.

  13. You are all in my prayers tonight! I’m going to follow you on twitter too.

    @Molly – this is how you know that it’s discrimination – everything is great until the interview and then they just ignore you like you don’t exist!

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