Monday, 1 September 2014

The -ism Series (16): Weightism

Cultures that value thinness and tend to blame overweight individuals instead of considering environmental conditions, too, show a tendency to promote weight bias. According to the Rudd Report, weight bias can have psychological and medical consequences and have an impact on hiring, earning potential, promotion and academic opportunities (Friedman & Puhl, 2012). Although there are some positive associations with overweight individuals, such as happiness, sweetness, kindness, and generosity (De Caroli Sagone, 2012), negative stereotypes seem to more widespread.

Among those reporting weight-based employment discrimination, women seem to be particularly vulnerable (Friedman & Puhl, 2012); employment discrimination is also observed in simulated job interviews (e.g. Pingitore et al., 1994). In their study, Fouts and Burggraf coded the weight of female cast members in prime-time comedies broadcast in October 1996. 33% were rated as below-average weight, 7% as above-average weight. Most interestingly, the frequency of positive comments about the female cast members decreased as their weights increased. In 2000, the same authors carried out another study and found that 76% of the female characters were below-average weight and 5% were above-average weight. Again, the frequency of negative comments increased with the woman’s weight (Blaine & McElroy, 2002).


Weight bias is also an issue in health care. In a study, 400 doctors ranked obesity behind drug addiction, alcoholism, and mental illness as a condition they responded negatively to. More than two thirds of overweight people report having been stigmatised by doctors. Discrimination can range from doctors spending less time with the patient to doing less intervention (Friedman & Puhl, 2012). Weight bias is also prevalent among health professionals specialised in obesity (Schwartz et al., 2003).

In education, teachers have lower expectations for overweight students and tend to consider them as "untidy, more emotional, less likely to succeed at work, and more likely to have family problems." In addition, there are classmates who tease and bully overweight students. Negative attitudes can already be observed in pre-school. "In elementary school, the likelihood of being bullied is 63% higher for an obese child than a non-overweight peer." 92% of adolescents report having witnessed overweight peers being teased at school (Friedman & Puhl, 2012). In a study, children aged 8 to 10 years rated overweight children as bullying, unintelligent, lazy, greedy, unpopular, unable to play physical games and - most interestingly - bad at academic skills (Chalker & O'Dea, 2009).

Heavyweight individuals are perceived as "lazy, unattractive, lacking self-esteem and willpower, socially inept, and intellectually slow" (Blaine & McElroy, 2002). Wide-spread stereotypes are poor self-discipline, poor personal hygiene, dishonesty and less ambition and productivity (Friedman & Puhl, 2012). Negative stereotypes are perpetuated by television programmes and even weight loss infomercials (Blaine & McElroy, 2002). Particularly younger women are influenced by "media broadcast stereotypes about the weight of a beautiful woman" (Pogontseva, 2013), women and girls are "bombarded with messages from the media, parents, and peers that the ideal body is one that is almost impossibly thin" (Klaczynski et al., 2004).

Beliefs about causes, correlates and consequences of obesity might lead do discrimination which more and more children, adolescents and adults are confronted with. The negative attitude is nurtured by the image of the slim, successful person and the Western emphasis on individualism suggesting that those who do not have a "body for success" failed to cultivate it because of lacking personal efforts only and are therefore weak-willed, have other personal shortcomings and cannot succeed in other fields, either. As prevalence of overweight and health concerns are increasing, there is a growing need to better understand the psychosocial correlates of weight (Klaczynski et al., 2004). Obesity is a health risk factor but it also has social consequences (Washington, 2011). And a lot can be done as stigma reduction methods prove to be successful (Kim, 2013; Puhl et al., 2005).

“The most serious health problem in the U.S. today is obesity.” This was the opening line to a LIFE magazine article published in March 1954. Many of these photographs, taken by Martha Holmes, were not published.

>The LIFE article (...) focused (...) in part on one woman, Dorothy Bradley, whose struggles with overeating and body-image issues were familiar, and remain familiar, to countless American men and women.
“When she finished high school in Tyner, Tenn., in 1940,” LIFE told its readers, “5-foot 5-inch Dorothy Bradley weighed 205 pounds and fit snugly into a matronly size 44 graduation dress. She had overeaten from the time she began to mature, possibly because of unconscious emotional turmoil.”
The article chronicled Dorothy’s efforts to lose weight; her desire to work in medicine; her successes (losing 60 pounds) and her backsliding (gaining it all back, and then some); and ultimately, something of a happy ending, as she lost and, as of the article’s publication, had kept off close to 70 pounds and earned a job as head nurse at a hospital in Kentucky.< (literally via LIFE)

Dorothy's happy end.

- Blaine, B. & McElroy, J. (2002) Selling Stereotypes: Weight Loss Infomercials, Sexism, and Weightism. Sex Roles, 46(9/10), 351-357
- Chalker, B. & O'Dea, J. A. (2009) Fat Kids Can't Do Maths: Negative Body Weight Stereotyping and Associations with Academic Competence and Participation in School Activities Among Primary School Children. The Open Education Journal, 2, 71-77
- De Caroli, M. E. & Sagone, E. (2012) Anti-fat prejudice and stereotypes in psychology university students. Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences, 00, 1-5
- Friedman, R. R. & Puhl, R. M. (2012) Rudd Report: Weight Bias. A Social Justice Issue. A Policy Brief.
- Kim, J. (2013) Body Surveillance as a Moderator of the Relationship Between Fat Stereotypes and Dissatisfaction in Normal Weight Women. Windsor: Electronic Theses and Dissertations, Paper 4982
- Klaczynski, P. A., Goold, K. W. & Mudry, J. J. (2004) Culture, Obesity Stereotypes, Self-Esteem, and the "Thin Ideal": A Social Identity Perspective. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 33(4), 307-317
- Pingitore, R., Dugoni, B. L., Tindale, R. S., Spring, B. (1994) Bias Against Overweight Job Applicants in a Simulated Employment Interview. Journal of Applied Psychology, 79(5), 909-917
- Pogontseva, D. (2013) Modern Social Phenomenon of the Appearance Discrimination. Studia Sociologica V, 1, 108-114
- Puhl, R. M., Schwartz, M. B. & Brownell, K. D. (2005) Impact of Perceived Consensus of Stereotypes about Obese People: A New Approach for Reducing Bias. Health Psychology, 24(5), 517-525
- Schwartz, M. B., O'Neal Chambliss, H., Brownell, K. D., Blair, S. N. & Billington, C. (2003) Weight Bias among Health Professionals Specializing in Obesity. Obesity Research, 11(9), 1033-1039
- Washington, R. L. (2011) Childhood Obesity: Issues of Weight Bias. Public Health Research, Practice, and Policy, 8(5), 1-5
- photos via