Weight bias refers to negative attitudes and discrimination aimed at people because of their body weight.
In the WebMD webinar “The Impact of Weight Bias,” Joe Nadglowski explained it’s common in our society – even among doctors and other health care providers.
“Somehow, we’ve made the people living with obesity ‘bad’ – and that’s a problem,” he said. “It’s actually making this issue even worse for those of us who live with obesity.”
It can affect almost every aspect of your life:
Career. When you live with obesity, research shows employers often think you’re:
- Less likely to have leadership potential
- Unlikely to have job success
- Less qualified
And if you’re hired, research shows you’re likely to have a lower starting salary. This bias affects women even more.
“This discrimination isn’t illegal in most places,” said Nadglowski. “So it’s important that we actually educate hiring managers around these unintentional biases they have toward people with obesity.”
Health. You may not expect to find weight bias among health care providers, but studies show it’s not uncommon.
“We actually don’t teach most health care providers about obesity in their training,” said Nadglowski.
This can lead to less quality care for people living with obesity, he said. Doctors may not spend as much time with you, and they may offer you fewer treatment options than they give other patients, research shows.
So it’s not surprising that people living with obesity are more likely to delay or cancel medical appointments, to avoid judgment from medical professionals, studies show.
But tools and training are increasingly available for obesity health care. Hopefully this will help diminish weight bias in medical settings, Nadglowski says.
Family, friends, and society. Sadly, it’s common for people living with obesity to face the most weight bias and stigma from their own friends and family.
- More social rejection from their peers
- Lower quality of personal relationships
- Fewer successes at school or work
While some may feel they need to “motivate” or pressure you to lose weight, Nadglowski says that’s actually harmful.
“The data is very clear. If you stigmatize, blame, and shame someone because of their body weight, they’re not going to lose weight,” he said.
“In fact, the opposite is going to happen, because they’re going to binge eat, engage in some unhealthy weight control, or cope with the stigma by eating more food.”
Of the different media types listed in a webinar poll, about half of the respondents said they notice weight bias most in TV shows. Over 30% said they notice it most in fashion magazines.
In another poll, one-third of the respondents said they were surprised to learn weight bias can lead to obesity.
“What’s the first step if you feel you’ve experienced weight bias from a doctor?”
“What’s the best way to find a doctor who isn’t weight biased?”
“What’s your advice for someone dealing with the dual discriminations of weight and mental health biases?”
Ask your doctor if your treatment options would be different if you had a smaller body size. If so, ask to be given the same care.
In some cases, this may help your doctor realize they have weight bias. It may help them think differently. But if they continue to show bias, it might be good to find another doctor.
To find doctors with training in obesity, ask if they have an American Board of Obesity Medicine certificate. Or, look for locations known as a Bariatric Surgery Centers of Excellence and call them for a list of qualified doctors. You can also use the Obesity Action Coalition’s provider locator at obesitycareproviders.com.
It’s extra hard to deal with weight bias and mental health bias at the same time. If you’re living with both conditions, you might take meds for your mental health that make it harder to manage or lose weight. Nadglowski says it’s crucial to find a doctor who understands all of your needs.
You might have to try a few doctors before you find a good fit.
“It’s often a little bit of a hit and miss,” he said. “Find one who treats you with compassion, dignity, and respect. It makes all the difference in the world.”
“What’s the best approach for someone living with obesity whose family members are stigmatizing rather than supportive?”
“As a mother who is overweight, how can I be a healthy role model for my children about accepting my body, but also wanting to lose weight?”
If you have family members who aren’t supportive, it’s important to address the issue upfront.
Nadglowski says it may help to share some of the information from this webinar. That may help them reframe the way they look at obesity. Tell them it’s unhelpful and hurtful to hear unsupportive comments.
“It’s important that you put your foot down in those situations,” says Nadglowski. “And if you need additional resources on how to do that, or resources to share with your family, reach out to us at obesityaction.org.”
To set a good example for young people in your life, model healthy behaviors. If you’re on a weight loss journey, focus on good habits that support weight loss instead of a certain “ideal” body size, your appearance, or the scale.
“How does weight bias affect educational opportunities and achievements?”
“How does weight bias impact those trying to recover from anorexia and other eating disorders?”
A study on weight bias tracked graduate-level students based on their body size, grades, and acceptance into graduate programs.
“The study showed that the people with obesity had better grades, but they had lower interview scores, and actually had less acceptance into graduate programs,” said Nadglowski. This shows how assumptions about the character and behavior of people living with obesity can impact decisions.
Weight bias doesn’t only affect those living with obesity. “Bias and stigma actually work both ways,” he says. “When we talk about weight bias, it could be for people who are underweight as well.”
Health consequences of being underweight are often like those of being overweight. Communities that work with eating disorders support efforts to fight weight bias.
“People’s body size is their business,” says Nadglowski.
“Unless you’re invited to comment on someone’s body size, I’d encourage you not to engage in that. Even if you might think you’re being complimentary – people might be losing weight because they have an eating disorder. People might be losing weight because they have cancer. It’s not always appropriate to compliment somebody based on these issues.”