What Is Weight Bias?

Weight bias refers to a negative attitude about and behavior toward an individual as a result of their size. Individuals may also experience internalized weight bias—a negative thought process about oneself due to socialization within a fatphobic environment.

Unlike weight stigma, which is a negative social label affixed to a person due to living in a higher-weight body, weight bias deals with personal stereotypes toward people who are considered overweight or obese. This bias can lead to discrimination in everyday life, from the workplace to healthcare settings, as a result of exclusivity and marginalization. It may also result in distorted eating patterns and low self-esteem in those who experience internal weight bias.

Examples of weight bias include seeing someone who carries excessive weight and immediately considering that person to be undisciplined, lazy, or unmotivated. Though most people would not outwardly admit to holding these opinions, this attitude has been continuously perpetuated by the mainstream media.

Where Does Weight Bias Occur?

In our society, where thinness is often promoted as "ideal," weight bias usually runs rampant against those in larger bodies. This can begin as early as childhood, with students mocking their peers for being overweight.

Heavyset children are often teased about their size, which can lead to ostracizing from certain social circles. Those with slender physiques may be viewed as more athletic or attractive, while those who have larger bodies are ridiculed due to ingrained negative feelings about heavier individuals.

Of course, weight bias doesn’t end in one’s younger years, but its presence will likely change. While children are more inclined to be forthcoming with harsh words, adults generally have more tact, knowing their prejudices should remain unspoken.

However, people with larger bodies will continue to experience bias. One may turn a potential suitor down for a date solely based on their weight, or a job seeker might be passed over following an interview because the hiring manager categorized them as being unambitious.

Examples of Weight Bias

The evidence is clear that people who are considered “thin” or “average” in size are not subjected to the same bias as those who live in larger bodies. From discrimination within social circles to underlying prejudices by major corporations, individuals with larger bodies face more weight-based hurdles as compared with their thinner peers. Below are some examples of where weight bias takes place.

Schools

Young children being teased for their weight as early as their first year in school: For example, one woman reported her friend’s kindergarten-aged daughter came home in tears after being called “fat” by a fellow student.

Workplaces

Professionals in the workplace being less likely to be hired as a direct result of their weight: In an independent survey of nearly 1,000 employers, a whopping 45% of hiring managers reported they would be less inclined to recruit an obese applicant beyond the interview stage

Media

Tabloids and other media outlets outwardly critiquing the figures of female celebrities: In a research study, it was discovered that exposure to fat-shaming commentary about famous females’ bodies increased women’s implicit weight bias and negative weight-related attitudes.

Medical Offices

Delays in care or dismissive attitudes by physicians, who have implied patients’ medical issues are a direct result of their weight: Surveys have shown more than half of overweight patients have put off or canceled medical appointments and screenings for fear of being weighed, or receiving unsolicited weight loss advice.??

TV Shows

The presence of weight stigmatization in television programs geared toward adolescents: One study analyzed the prevalence of weight bias in popular programming geared toward younger audiences and found half of the episodes contained at least one instance of body-shaming—namely toward women.

The Impact of Weight Bias

Shaming individuals with larger bodies about their size is not an effective method to help them lose weight. Rather, doing so can result in larger-bodied individuals developing low self-esteem, as well as being less inclined to seek medical care.

Judgments and stereotypes increase with body size, meaning a larger person is more often subjected to criticism about their weight. Unfortunately, these negative remarks can begin at a very young age, with the Obesity Medicine Association (OMA) reporting 33% of girls and 25% of boys across the United States experience weight bias in the form of teasing.

According to the OMA, bullying, and harassment about a child’s weight is linked to depression, anxiety, and a negative body image.

Low self-esteem about one’s body image can result in internal weight bias. Body dissatisfaction carries several risk factors, including distorted eating, which the OMA estimates affect approximately 20% of teens who are concerned about their weight. Symptoms of distorted eating include restricting, binging, purging, and the use of laxatives/diuretics to encourage weight loss.

In adults, weight bias can perpetuate health-related issues. Because higher-weight patients report they are more likely to experience weight bias from their providers, they are also more inclined to avoid medical appointments.

Obesity in itself is a health risk, but the stigma around overweight patients in the healthcare system can cause feelings of embarrassment and shame. Patients who discuss weight concerns with their providers are often ordered to follow weight loss regimens.

Those who are unsuccessful may berate themselves for being unable to lose weight and cancel their follow-up visits for fear of their physician’s response. This is particularly problematic in cases when excessive, unchanging weight could be the result of an underlying issue needing further exploration.

Can Weight Bias be Erased?

Overcoming weight bias can be achieved with increased education regarding the causes of obesity, as well as a widened focus on the psychological impact affecting those who suffer from the disease. This can begin with tackling weight bias within the healthcare industry and expanding on behavioral resources for individuals whose psychological state has been affected by weight bias.

Enhanced education programs, advocacy groups, and an altered mindset are all powerful tools in fighting against weight bias, eliminating weight-based discrimination, and providing equal acceptance for individuals of all sizes. 

 

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Article Sources
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  1. Weight stigma. World Obesity Federation.

  2. Bevin, Stephan. 50% of all employers are less likely to hire obese candidates. World Economic Forum. February 6, 2019

  3. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/221763687_Impact_of_Physician_BMI_on_Obesity_Care_and_Beliefs

  4. Weight bias & the psychological impact of obesity | helpful resources | oma. Main.

Additional Reading
  • Eisenberg ME, Carlson-McGuire A, Gollust SE, Neumark-Sztainer D. A content analysis of weight stigmatization in popular television programming for adolescents.?Int J Eat Disord. 2015;48(6):759-766.

  • https://www.researchgate.net/publication/221763687_Impact_of_Physician_BMI_on_Obesity_Care_and_Beliefs

  • Weight bias & the psychological impact of obesity | helpful resources | oma. Main.

  • Weight stigma. World Obesity Federation.