While there is concern in many circles about the effect of images of beauty in our society on the psychological well-being of children, the reverse receives less study. Despite the fact that obesity rates are rising, there remains prejudice in American society against the obese, perhaps in part because they do not conform in any way to the typical images of beauty. It is worth exploring, however, just how prevalent prejudice against the obese is. Many prejudices have deep antecedents and this is no different -- consider how often the obese are subject to accusations of the "sins" of gluttony and sloth.
This paper focuses on three articles about obesity prejudice. Tausch and Hewstone (2010) asked whether group stereotypes were malleable in the face of disconfirming information. The authors noted that individuals resist changing stereotypes even when presented with such information, but questioned whether that behavior would be observed in a group context, where social dynamics can affect one's beliefs differently than would occur at the individual level. Devine (2001) offers a study on the nature of prejudice. Her research question related to how people's prejudices are triggered. She wanted to know if prejudices are triggered automatically with exposure to the stigmatized group, or if such prejudice triggers could be manipulated to change the reactions of people when faced with the stigmatized group. In a third study, directly related to obesity, Chambliss, Finley and Blair (2004) sought to determine if there were specific characteristics within individuals that would make them more or less likely to exhibit prejudice against obese individuals. The study also sought to determine the prevalence of anti-fat prejudice among exercise science students -- the same people who could and should be helping obese individuals to achieve better health outcomes and who can be opinion leaders for society with respect to society's views about obese individuals.
Blatant or Subtle?
The distinction between blatant and subtle prejudice reflects how prejudice is activated in the individual. Devine (2001, 757) notes that "even those who consciously renounce prejudice have been shown to have implicit or automatic biases that conflict with their nonprejudiced values that may disadvantage the targets of these biases." She notes that the tools for measuring such subtle prejudice have become more sophisticated, allowing us to better understand implicit biases. Often, the obese are subject to implicit bias -- being passed over for promotions, seen as less desirable partners, etc. The targeted individuals are likely more aware of the bias than the biased individual, as the former is more aware of the behavior patterns that manifest the bias, a result of their own personal experience. Devine notes, however, that implicit prejudice triggers are at least partly dependent on context, and that changes in the external context can result in changes to the way that the bias manifests. This has interesting implications for obese individuals. It is expected, for example, that a well-dressed obese person might receive less stigmatization than a poorly-dressed one, or that one with sophisticated taste in food might be regarded better by society than one who prefers junk food. Triggers that affect the appearance of the person can change the context, as can triggers that affect the perception of the obese person's behavior. Devine's work shows the subtle nature of this prejudice by showing how it can be changed with different changes in context.
The Chambliss study dealt with more blatant forms of prejudice against obese people. This again reflects context. The prejudice was found in that study to be fairly blatant, among a group of science exercise students. The bias was rooted in the bad/good and lazy/motivated pairing, highlighting the perception that obese people are lazy (the sin of sloth). Furthermore, there were correlations between having no family history of obesity or a belief in greater personal control of obesity and linking not just antifat bias but also social/character disparagement. Thus, the physical manifestation of fat was seen as directly related to the character of the person. In many cases, there was blatant bias in the respondents not even having any obese friends, despite the high rate of obesity in American society. The study group being exercise science students highlights that more blatant forms of obesity bias are likely in groups where such bias is more generally tolerated. While society as a whole might be oriented towards subtle obesity bias, in some social groups the bias is more blatant. Again, context affects the intensity of the bias and the self-knowledge of the bias among individuals.
Outcomes Associated with Obesity Bias
Puhl and Brownell (2001) found that there were strong outcomes for even the subtle bias against obese people. Teachers and nurses were both found to discriminate at least a little bit against obese individuals, and even parents were found to provide less college support money to obese children, even when other factors were controlled. Discrimination in health care and education can be strong, lasting outcomes for the obese individual, especially when coupled with discrimination in the workplace. In the case of the latter, it is still not a violation of federal statute to engage in such discrimination. Thus, even when the bias is subtle, income and health effects can be quite strong, when the bias is applied over time. The quality of life for obese persons is going to be affected by the bias against them.
The Chambliss study highlights one of the major disconnects in obesity bias. The same people who can offer the most benefit to obese individuals with regards to either lowering weight or at least improving health outcomes are those with a high level of knowledge of the human body. Yet those individuals have some of the most blatant bias levels. As Chambliss (2004, 473) noted, "it is important that fitness and wellness services are available, accessible and acceptable to obese persons" but that "antifat bias and weight discrimination among exercise professionals may serve as barriers for physical activity participation for some obese individuals." This in turn leads to health outcomes that are more negative than their otherwise would be, if this bias did not exist or even if it was not so blatant among this group of professionals.
Reducing Obesity Bias
The academic community has sought to determine the roots of obesity bias in order to determine the best way to eliminate it. Puhl and Brownell (2003) authored a study in which they sought to find solutions to obesity bias. The authors note that the increasing incidence of obesity has done nothing to reduce obesity bias. They offer a few solutions. Work done with attribution theory has shown some ability to reduce bias. Much of obesity bias is rooted in attribution, for example Chambliss finding that obesity was linked to character judgments. Thus, Puhl and Brownell suggest that better education about the biological, genetic and uncontrollable factors in obesity. This option is unlikely to be too successful, however, given that there are not factors in all obesity given the observed link between obesity and lifestyle changes in American society over the past century. Further, Chambliss showed obesity bias was strongest in the people who understand physiology the best and therefore are in the best position to know better. Education is not a factor in the blatant bias they found.
Another solution Puhl and Brownell (2003) have suggested is to find ways to evoke empathy towards obese people. Most people in society have little understanding of the harm caused by weight discrimination, so exposing people to stories that highlight this harm may create more empathy towards obese individuals. This might work as a reduction strategy, reducing blatant discrimination and making people more aware of their subtle discrimination as well. Many people who do not realize that they are engaging in discriminatory behavior might change their behavior if they understand that…