About 1 in 3 adults in the U.S. are obese according to recent obesity statistics. That’s a lot of people who could be facing discrimination because of their weight, but it’s also a lot of people who aren’t aware that they’re being discriminated against.
Weight discrimination statistics show that:
- overweight and obese Americans are paid less
- are more likely to be fired for being fat
- less likely to get hired in the first place than their thinner colleagues.
They also face discrimination from healthcare providers and even from potential romantic partners — all based on their weight alone1https://www.obesityaction.org/resources/weight-discrimination-a-socially-acceptable-injustice/.
What is weight discrimination?
The definition of weight discrimination is any behavior that stigmatizes or discriminates against individuals on the basis of their weight or size. Weightism can be overt or covert, intentional or unintentional and can include any number of behaviors.
Obesity discrimination is a real issue, but it’s not something that most people talk about. More than 50% of overweight people have been teased, criticized or harassed about their weight.
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), “BMI is a measure of body fat based on height and weight that applies to adult men and women.” It has been used for decades as a way to determine whether someone is overweight or obese.
The NIH also states that “Anyone whose BMI falls between 25 and 29.9 is considered overweight, while anyone with a BMI of 30 or higher falls into the obese category.”
While it may seem like this would be an easy way to decide whether someone should lose weight, it’s not always accurate. For example, someone who has a lot of muscle mass will have a high BMI but look very fit and healthy. The opposite can be true for someone who doesn’t exercise much but doesn’t carry much fat on their body either.
People who are overweight or obese may experience discrimination in a variety of settings, including employment, healthcare, education and interpersonal relationships including:
- Stereotyping based on body size.
- Belittling or mocking overweight people.
- Being denied employment opportunities because of your weight.
- Being treated differently by an employer.
- Not being hired because of weight.
- Being denied a job based on weight.
- Being denied promotions.
- Being harassed at work.
- Being paid less than others with similar qualifications.
- Receiving poorer customer service because of weight.
- Having difficulty obtaining insurance coverage.
- Facing barriers to obtaining adequate healthcare due to weight.
- Receiving poorer treatment from doctors and other medical providers due to weight.
- Facing stigmatization from friends.
- Family members and strangers because of weight.
- Experiencing social exclusion from friends or family members because of weight.
- Experiencing physical violence (e.g., getting shoved or pushed) on account of your weight.
Types of weight discrimination
Approximately 34 % of U.S. public middle school students reported experiencing weight-related teasing frequently (more than once per week).
Researchers looked at data from more than 5,000 children between the ages of 8 and 15 years old who took part in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) between 1999 and 2012.
They found that obese children were twice as likely as non-obese children to report being bullied at school because of their weight. This was true regardless of whether they were healthy weight or overweight/obese according to body mass index.
In addition to the health benefits of a healthy lifestyle, a new study shows that obese children who are bullied may also be more likely to develop mental health issues such as depression or anxiety later in life. The study was conducted by researchers from the University of Toledo College of Medicine.
Children who reported being teased about their weight had higher rates of depression and anxiety than those who didn’t feel they were targeted by bullies because they were too heavy or too thin.
Obesity discrimination is on the rise in the workplace, according to a new Gallup poll. The survey found that one in four Americans have been discriminated against at work because of their weight. That’s up from 20% in 2007 and 17% in 2008 — and it’s still climbing.
The following obesity discrimination at work statistics are from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH):
- 32% of obese employees report being bullied on the job.
- 17% of obese employees report being treated differently because of their weight.
- 13% report being fired or laid off because of their weight.
Obesity discrimination is also more common among women than men, with 27% of women reporting weight bias compared to 20% of men. The survey also found that obese workers were more likely than thin ones to report that they’d been passed over for a promotion or fired from their job because of their weight.
Studies have shown that obese individuals earn 10% to 15% less than their non-obese counterparts and receive fewer promotions than their normal-weight counterparts.
In a study by the American Medical Association, 68% of doctors said they had either thought about or taken steps to avoid overweight patients. The study also found that one in five doctors said they were less likely to refer obese patients for tests because of concerns about discrimination. A third said they were less likely to treat obese patients for anything except a life-threatening condition.
In another survey by the American Medical Association, more than half reported that they felt pressure from insurance companies to not provide care to obese patients because it was too expensive.
Researchers from Cornell University conducted a study to determine how obesity affects people’s lives and whether or not they experience discrimination for their weight. The results showed that 55% of obese individuals reported being treated differently by doctors because of their weight.
Obese people were more likely to report not having a regular doctor or place for medical treatment: 42% of obese adults reported no usual source of medical care compared with 31% of non-obese adults. Obese adults were also more likely to report not having seen a doctor in the past year: 28% vs. 23%.
How weight stigma harms health
Research shows that stigma negatively affects health by increasing stress levels and decreasing self-esteem. One study found that stigma was related to higher stress levels among overweight women compared with underweight women. A second study found that stigma was positively associated with depression among overweight adults aged 18 to 55 years old. This was true even after accounting for age, sex and education level.
The following statistics illustrate how weight stigma can harm health:
- People who perceive themselves as being overweight are at increased risk for developing high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease and diabetes. These conditions are linked to a higher risk of death from all causes.
- People who perceive themselves as being overweight are more likely to avoid exercise because they fear being stigmatized by others or worry about their physical appearance.
- Women who believe they are overweight or obese have an increased risk of developing depression and anxiety. These mental health problems are associated with higher rates of chronic illness as well as higher mortality rates from any cause.
How common is weight discrimination?
According to a study published in the Journal of Obesity, more than half of overweight Americans have experienced discrimination because of their size.
The researchers found that 59% of obese adults reported weight discrimination and 42% reported experiencing unfair treatment because of their size.
The majority of respondents reported being treated unfairly on at least one occasion during the past year, while 17% said they had been discriminated against three or more times.
The findings suggest that “weight discrimination is an important public health issue,” the study’s authors wrote.
To assess weight discrimination, researchers surveyed 7,395 adults over 18 years old about whether they had experienced any type of discrimination related to their weight. This included: being treated differently or unfairly by
- family members or friends.
- medical professionals.
- People at work.
- strangers outside their home.
The participants also answered questions about their weight status and other factors that could influence their perceived attractiveness, such as age and race.
Participants who reported experiencing weight discrimination were more likely to be obese than those who hadn’t experienced it — 57% vs. 43%. And those who reported experiencing weight discrimination were more likely than those who hadn’t experienced it to be less satisfied with their overall appearance and feel worse about themselves.
It is important for everyone to be aware of what obesity discrimination is, and how to avoid it. Although it is controversial and not often observed in Western culture, there are countries where this prejudice can have life-threatening consequences.
Unfortunately, the definition of obesity is still not entirely clear. And, in our opinion, that is why misperceptions and discrimination are still such a prominent problem today. We hope that in the future a better consensus will be reached, thus eliminating obesity discrimination and allowing us to focus on fighting the true causes of obesity: poor diet and lack of exercise.