How obesity discrimination is just as common as racism
U of A researcher says weight bias is at the root of a society that shames people who identify as fat or as living with obesity.
Ever notice how the proverbial “bad guy” in children’s cartoons and movies tends to be a larger size? Or how popular TV shows tend to portray fat people as comedic, lonely or freaks?
Start paying attention and you will notice the discriminatory trend in media called “fattertainment,” said Ximena Ramos Salas, a managing director of University of Alberta-based Obesity Canada, a national registered charity dedicated to reducing weight bias.
Weight bias, she explained, is an individual’s attitudes or beliefs about a person because of their weight—for example, “That person is so fat. They are clearly lazy and unmotivated and lack willpower.”
“When we extrapolate from many U.S.-based studies, it’s clear that weight bias is as common, if not more common than racism,” she said. “And media isn’t the only place where obesity discrimination occurs. In fact, health-care professionals, thanks to a lack of training in schools, are among the worst perpetrators.”
Ramos Salas and colleagues at Obesity Canada say weight bias has been the single most significant obstacle they’ve faced in trying to develop a comprehensive national strategy for obesity prevention and management for the last 10 years. Her PhD research also showed that the public health system forms policies that may have negative consequences for people living with obesity, who, in turn, find public health messaging unhelpful and stigmatizing.
“Health-care professionals and society in general need to recognize that obesity—defined by the World Health Organization as abnormal or excess fat accumulation that impairs health—is a chronic health problem, not a self-inflicted lifestyle choice,” explained Ramos Salas.
She added that not everyone who lives in a larger body has obesity, and the idea that we categorize people based on their size as healthy or unhealthy is not accurate.
“However, for those who are living with obesity, there isn’t a cure. It’s a disease that these people will live with forever, so the key is, how can we help them manage their chronic disease like we would any other chronic disease, such as hypertension or cancer, and how can we make sure they’re not discriminated against?”
For starters, awareness needs to be raised around the fact that many factors contribute to obesity beyond diet and exercise, she said.
“Not everyone will develop obesity for the same reasons, and when we make assumptions about lifestyle choices that aren’t true, the consequences are quite damaging.”