By Sharon Kirkey , Canwest News Service
With more people becoming obese, it would stand to reason attitudes toward obese people should be getting more tolerant. But a major new study shows the opposite is true.
Yale University scientists who searched through medical studies on weight bias published between January 2000 and May 2008 found:
More than half of 620 doctors surveyed view obese patients as “awkward,” “unattractive,” “ugly” and “non-compliant.” A third went further, painting the
obese as weak-willed, sloppy and lazy. Even dietitians, personal trainers and doctors who specialize in treating obesity exhibit fat phobia.
College students asked to rank pictures of hypothetical sexual partners that included an obese partner or partners with various disabilities – including missing an arm or described as having history of sexually transmitted diseases – ranked the obese person as the least desirable sexual partner compared
to the others.
In one study of nearly 3,000 people, obese respondents were 37 times more likely than normal-weight to report employment discrimination – not being hired for a job, not getting promoted and wrongful termination. Obese employees are considered less conscientious, “less agreeable” and less emotionally stable
than “normal weight” workers.
“People think sometimes that, because obesity rates continue to increase, we really shouldn’t have this problem with bias and prejudice, that attitudes should be getting better and more tolerant,” says Rebecca Puhl, co-author of the study published in the most recent issue of the journal Obesity and director of research at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale.
“But what we see is that the weight bias is getting worse.”
In the past year alone in studies, obese people have been held partially responsible for rising fuel prices, global warming and causing weight gain in their friends, Puhl and co-author Chelsea Heuer write.
In television and in film, people in fat suits and obese characters are played for fat gags, and reality shows such as the Biggest Loser perpetuate the stigma. For nearly two-thirds of the American population alone, the only place on television where they see bodies similar to their own “is on shows where
the entire cast is trying desperately to become thin,” Puhl and Heuer write.
Weight bias is a “very pervasive problem that continues to really paralyze people in many aspects of their daily life,” Puhl said in an interview.
“This a category of stigma that is not protected legally at all. Whereas we have protections in place for gender based, or racial or age based discrimination, there are no legal protections in place for people who are discriminated against because of their weight.
“That sends a message that it’s okay to do this.”
There has been some positive news for obese people in Canada. As of this year, thanks to a Canadian Transportation Agency ruling on disabled airline passengers,
an obese person can be allocated two seats for the price of one.
The researchers found that obese people face stigma and discrimination at every stage of the employment process, from getting hired to getting fired. They’re
more likely to get less pay for equal work and Puhl says that “striking” experimental studies show people “would rather hire an unqualified thin person than a qualified overweight person with better credentials.”
In surveys, medical students report “with nearly total agreement,” that severely obese patients are the most common target of derogatory humour by doctors, residents and students, most often in surgery or obstetrics-gynecology settings. Overweight and obese children are also targets of humour, they said.
Obese people report being stigmatized about their weight by their mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, sons, daughters, friends and spouses.
They’re more likely to suffer depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and even suicidal behaviours as a result, Puhl says, and they cope with the stress and trauma by eating unhealthy and avoiding physical activity “because those are settings where they often are criticized and teased and stigmatized.”
Puhl says media portrayals of the obese need to be challenged, and legislation is needed to protect people from weight-based discrimination.
“I think we need to show examples of diverse body types. We need to show that a person can be successful, ambitious and happy and reach their life goals, even if they’re not a size 4.”
In 2004, nearly seven million Canadians were overweight, and another 4.5 million were obese.
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