The Obese Feel More Discrimination

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Karen Kasmauski / Corbis

As obesity rates continue to rise in the U.S., so might our acceptance of those who are overweight. But a new study from Yale University suggests the converse trend: rather than feeling tolerance in our society, the overweight and obese say they feel more heavily discriminated against now than they did a decade ago.

Led by Tatiana Andreyeva, a postdoctoral research associate at Yale's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, a team of researchers questioned 1,100 subjects, aged 35 to 74, twice over a 10-year span (once between 1995 and 1996, and again between 2004 and 2006). The respondents answered 11 questions about whether they had been discriminated against in the context of common life experiences — including applying to college or for a scholarship, renting or buying a home in a neighborhood they desired, applying for a bank loan or dealing with police. Participants answered nine additional questions about everyday experiences, such as how they were treated in restaurants, and whether they had encountered name-calling, harassment or threats. The subjects were asked to indicate the reasons they felt they had been discriminated against (facing police harassment, for example, or being denied bank loans), whether it was because of age, gender, race, height or weight, physical disability, sexual orientation or religion. Between the two survey periods, the rate of discrimination due to height or weight increased from 7% of respondents to 12% of respondents. (The scientists determined separately that the people who reported discrimination due to height or weight were also more likely than other participants to be overweight or obese.)

The study is one of the first to track patterns of discrimination based on weight. It's worth noting, however, that the survey relied on people's own perception of discrimination — the authors did not require the subjects to document bias in any way. In addition, the authors found that rates of discrimination by age and gender also increased in the same time period, suggesting that several forms of bias — or perhaps sensitivity to perceived bias — is on the rise overall, not just against the overweight. Nevertheless, the study did track the same population over time, and Andreyeva says that an increase even in people's perceived sense of maltreatment is an important measure of our society's attitudes. In this report, weight ranked third behind age and race as the most common form of prejudice. "If a person perceives he is being discriminated against," Andreyeva says, "it might have significant consequences for his or her health and mental health. Even the perception of discrimination can be important because it is self-perpetuating." And if rates of weight discrimination are indeed on the rise, say the authors, then it's up to society to mandate legal protections for those who are overweight, just as laws protect people from discrimination by race, gender, disability and age.