Bias against overweight and obese individuals is perhaps the last form of acceptable discrimination. Overweight people are subject to both subtle and blatant forms of discrimination, from childhood to adulthood. Discrimination occurs in family, social and professional situations as well.
This paper takes an interdisciplinary approach to the issue of weight-based discrimination and harassment, drawing on diverse literature from fields including psychology, law, pediatrics and economics. The extent of discrimination is explored through a critical survey and integration of current research on the social and professional effects of obesity.
The first part of this paper looks at the varying definitions of the terms "overweight," "obesity" and "discrimination."
It highlights the limitations of these definitions and how these terms can be misapplied.
The next part looks at statistics regarding the growing number of overweight and obese people in the United States. Recent studies show an alarming rise in obesity and overweight adults and children. Currently, an estimated half the population of the United States is overweight. Of that number, an additional 18% are considered morbidly obese.
In the next section, the paper examines the effects of being obese or overweight on a person's social life and interactions with others. This section is divided into the following parts: (1) effects of being overweight on an individual's personal perceptions and self-esteem; (2) effects on family relationships; (3) effects on a person's social relationships; (4) effects of being overweight on an individual's work and professional life.
Since conventional wisdom holds that women are more subject to being judged based on appearance, this section then examines if the effects of weight-based discrimination are muted or enhanced by a person's gender and race.
The next part of the paper looks at the various misconceptions that give rise to discrimination against obese or overweight people. These reasons include real economic issues -overweight individuals will have higher healthcare premiums - to unfounded myths that people who weigh more are "lazy," "sloppy," "inefficient" or more prone to absenteeism.
Finally, the paper examines the various options available to people who experience weight-based discrimination. This includes the limited effectivity of various legal recourses under state and federal law, as well as the Americans with Disabilities Act. The work of grassroots advocacy groups to raise awareness and form support groups for the overweight and obese are also discussed.
The goal of this paper is to contribute to the body of literature that studies how bias against overweight and obese individuals is prevalent, particularly in western cultures such as the United States. By examining the false conceptions about the overweight and studying the complex interactions between weight, gender, race and class, this paper aims to promote a better understanding of the discrimination and lack of tolerance against people who do not or cannot conform to society's prevailing standard of acceptable weight.
Definition of terms
Body weight is an important dimension of physical attractiveness. Though no standard definition exists, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) measures weight using a person's Body Mass Index (BMI). The BMI is determined by dividing a person's weight in kilograms by their height in meters squared. Under the BMI formula, a value of 25 or higher is considered obese in people aged 34 and below. For people above 35, a BMI value of 27 indicates obesity. Under this definition, a person who is 5 feet, 4 inches tall should weigh less than 144 pounds. An individual would be considered overweight at 145 pounds. At 175 pounds or more, the same person would be considered obese (Stearns, Borna and Sundaram, 2001).
Several physicians, however, have criticized the BMI value of 25 as an inadequate definition of being overweight. Instead, physician Steven B. Halls proposes a disaggregated overweight BMI threshold of 27.3 for women and 27.8 for men (Halls 2002).
Other health experts point out how this height-to-weight formula is imposed on both male and female physiques. The BMI also does not take into account body frames, or whether the weight is from fat or muscle. Under the BMI standards, for example, many healthy professional athletes will be considered overweight (Cohen and McDermott, 1998).
Despite these limitations, the BMI index has emerged as the standard definition of determining who is overweight or obese. The NIH maintains that this standard is necessary, since studies have linked extra weight to significant health problems. The BMI index is the standard used by several health care providers and insurance companies in determining who presents additional risk factors due to weight.
Statistics on the Overweight and Obese
The number of overweight and obese people in the United States has been rising steadily for the past decade. In the year 2000, people with a BMI value of 30 or above was at 19.8% of the total population. By 2001, that percentage has risen to 20.9%. This translates to 44.3 million obese adults in the United States (Mokdad et al. 2002).
Since 1991 the percentage of those who were obese in the United States has increased by 74%. Among racial groups, African-Americans had the highest obesity rates. Mississippi ranked first among the states in number of obese people (Mokdad et al. 2002).
In addition to the obese, statistics from the National Center for Health Statistics shows that an estimated 64% of adults in the United States have BMI values about 25. More than half of the population is overweight and an estimated one-third is obese (NCHS Factsheet 2002).
The NHCS statistics additionally show that there are more adult women who are obese than men. The prevalence of overweightness and obesity was most prevalent among African-American women (NHCS Factsheet 2002).
The number of overweight children continues to increase. A 2002 survey found that an estimated 9 million children, 15% of the population, are overweight. This is triple the number of overweight children in 1980. Mexican-American children were more likely to be overweight than their peers. Another 15% of children and teenagers are at risk of becoming overweight (NCHS Factsheet 2002).
Effects of Weight-based Discrimination
The effects of weight-based discrimination are both hurtful and pervasive. Obese and overweight people face harassment and discriminatory behavior from strangers, employers and even loved ones. The effects are felt early in childhood and continue to affect many heavier people throughout their lives.
In a survey conducted by University of Florida researchers on formerly overweight people who lost weight through intestinal bypass surgery, virtually all respondents said that they would rather be blind or deaf or have a leg amputated than be fat again (cited in Kolata 1992).
This extreme reaction against being fat was spurred by a lifetime of teasing, harassment and discrimination. The pressure to be thin among teenage girls is disturbing, particularly because self-perceptions about weight are often distorted. For example, as early as ninth grade, an estimated 33.4% of girls think they are overweight, compared to the 7.7% who actually are. By 12th grade, the number of girls who falsely assume they are overweight is 35.9%, compared to the 6.3% who really are overweight (Kolata 1992).
Formerly obese people have an almost irrational fear of becoming fat again. Aside from blindness and amputation, every survey respondent said they would rather have dyslexia, diabetes, bad acne or heart disease than ever be obese again. As one respondent observed, "When you're blind, people want to help you. No one wants to help you when you're fat" (Kolata 1992).
Obese people who try to lose weight often have symptoms of chronic starvation. They tend to feel cold all the time, are always hungry and are obsessed with food. Many of the formerly obese feel an overwhelming compulsion to eat until they are fat once more. The few who manage to stay thin keep the weight off by fanatically monitoring every piece of food that they eat or by becoming weight counselors themselves (Kolata 1992).
Aside from drastic surgery, respondents reported spend their money on ineffective diet programs. Some even endanger their health by smoking cigarettes or taking amphetamines in an effort to lose weight (Kolata 1992).
In addition to these effects, many obese men and women believe in a "basic badness." Psychologists Lewis Engel and Tom Ferguson describe this as an internal belief that a person is worthless, that there is something deeply and fundamentally wrong with them. Such feelings of worthlessness and inadequacy make it even more difficult to lose weight and address the emotional and psychological problems connected with excess weight (Engel and Ferguson 1991).
In summary, being overweight and obese can take its toll on an individual's psychological, as well as physical well-being. People who are overweight often endanger their health through unsafe diets. They opt to undergo drastic surgical procedures. Many can harbor feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness, which affect their emotional health. Many who manage to lose weight live in fear of gaining it back and end up strictly monitoring their food intake to the point of obsession.
Weight stigmatization starts in childhood. Overweight and obese children often reported being teased about their weight,…