Research Points to Bias Against the Obese

Jul 24, 2013

"Obesity bias" is a growing issue that comes from an unlikely source - the people trying to help the obese lose weight.

There may be an "anti-fat attitude" among fitness health professionals.
There may be an "anti-fat attitude" among fitness health professionals.
Credit Nina Hale/Flickr

We’ve heard a lot about the obesity epidemic in this country – that too many people, both young and old, weigh too much and that it’s having an impact on disease rates, from diabetes, to heart disease, to cancer.

But Milwaukee-based researcher, Dr. Christy Greenleaf, says overweight people face another struggle - biases against them, even when they work to get in shape.

“One of the things we found in some of our research is that physical educators have pretty negative stereotypes or assumptions of overweight kids,” Greenleaf says. "They assume they’re going to be not only less physically skilled and capable and fit, but that they are lacking in social skills and in cognitive abilities.”

Research suggests that when an overweight person is treated different, harassed, or excluded from social environments, the most common ways to cope are with inactivity and overeating. With this in mind, experiencing weight bias can cause a circular effect that makes it difficult to ever get healthy.

The research finds that among health professionals there is a heavy bias or “anti-fat attitude.” With all the checkout line magazines, commercials, and emphasis on being slim, the reasons for professional health experts askew view on bodies could be because our society is too focused on individual, and not the social, aspects.

Greenleaf says there are also a lot of misconceptions about what healthy means. Just because someone can fit into a size 0 dress or wear skinny jeans without a muffin top doesn’t mean they’re able to run marathons or are even nutritionally healthy.

“The assumption (is) that someone who is overweight or larger, is unhealthy,” Greenleaf says, ”when that’s not in fact the case; there are many people who are larger that are metabolically healthy and there are many people who are thin or leaner that are not.”

Greenleaf is an assistant professor in the department of kinesiology at UW-Milwaukee, and a specialist weight and obesity bias in fitness settings.