Fatphobia: What It Is and How to Combat It

Fatphobia refers to discrimination against people because of excess body weight. Let's look at why it's a real problem and what can be done about it.
Fatphobia: What It Is and How to Combat It
Laura Ruiz Mitjana

Reviewed and approved by la psicóloga Laura Ruiz Mitjana.

Last update: 16 June, 2023

Fatphobia, also known as weight bias, weight discrimination, or weight prejudice, refers to stereotypes and episodes of discrimination toward people, populations, and organizations based on criteria of body weight. It appears in a variety of contexts, including social media, advertising, healthcare, job opportunities, school, and more.

For the purposes of this article, we’ll focus on the characteristics and consequences of weight-focused stereotypes. As we’ll see shortly, the scope of fatphobia goes far beyond the popular opinion that some sectors have towards it.

Characteristics of fatphobia

In principle, the prejudices towards overweight or obese people focus on the assumption that they aren’t very intelligent, and lack self-discipline and willpower. When talking about fatphobia, it’s done taking these criteria into account, and some authors point out that, at least in the US, its prevalence is very close to that of racial discrimination.

Other criteria that some people assume in relation to being overweight or obese is to think that they aren’t very obedient, not very responsible, and that they all have health problems.

As the World Health Organization (WHO) points out, both being overweight and obese are associated with an increased risk of developing cardiovascular diseases, musculoskeletal disorders, and some types of cancer (among other conditions).

Despite this, and here is the heart of the matter, whoever reproaches an overweight or obese person, mentioning the health risks surrounding their weight, hardly ever does it thinking about their health. Instead, they do it to confirm or encourage the prejudiced views they have already assumed.

By this, we’re referring to their assumptions regarding their “low intelligence” to understand the associated problems, their apparent lack of discipline and willpower to diet and exercise, and their poor responsibility regarding their health and others.

It’s important to note that fatphobia is an informal term. Despite its wide receptivity in society, the terms weight discrimination, weight prejudice, or weight bias are more appropriate to allude to the problem.

Consequences of fatphobia

Now that you understand exactly what weight discrimination is, you’re ready to connect with its consequences. Very seldom do people think about the real impact that certain prejudices can have on people who are overweight or obese. There are many ways that these will negatively affect them, but in this article we’ll focus on five factors.

Impact on education

Fatphobia in overweight girls
Even being slightly overweight can make children and adolescents victims of fatphobia.

A paper published in Obesity (Silver Spring) in 2010 found that obese teens are less likely to earn a college degree compared to their normal-weight peers. The researchers concluded that, in combination with other factors, it may be due to perceived discrimination that leads them to abandon their career.

But this isn’t all. A study published in the same journal in 2013 found that people who interview applicants for graduate programs may consistently favor thinner applicants. In essence, obese people receive fewer admissions to graduate programs. This is regardless of their abilities and their profile.

Impact on interpersonal relationships

It is known that overweight and obese youth have fewer friends in their school years than thin people. In support of this, experts have found that overweight and obese people who lose weight experience greater well-being in terms of their interpersonal relationships. Due to weight prejudices, it’s difficult for all of them to consolidate a circle of friendship around them.

Impact on a professional career

Evidence tells us that obesity is a general barrier to employment, certain professions, and career success. Mainly, this applies to women. Those who are overweight or obese have more trouble getting referrals, getting a job, getting through a job interview, moving up the ranks in a company, enjoying a living wage, and more.

Impact on healthcare

Fatphobia in hospitals.
Like what happens with many vulnerable groups, people with obesity can be discriminated against when receiving medical care.

Experts have found that overweight and obese patients receive less respect than patients with a healthy weight in the context of healthcare.

Similarly, some physicians view all of them with biases that include less discipline toward treatments, therapies, and lifestyle changes. Finally, and in general, the desire to intervene decreases as the patient’s BMI increases.

A paper published in the Journal of the American Association of Nurse Practitioners in 2002 suggested that an increase in BMI is associated with an increase in delay/avoidance of medical care.

The stigma and discrimination that some patients perceive in relation to their weight can lead them to delay or even avoid consulting with medical specialists. Despite this, it is known that very few medical professionals are aware of their prejudices.

Impact on psychological well-being

How could it be otherwise, the so-called fatphobia has a direct impact on psychological health. It has been associated with low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, body dissatisfaction, and even suicidal intentions.

Keep in mind that women are more prone to suffer discrimination because of their weight, and they’re also more prone to manifest the aforementioned psychological disorders. Together they form a cocktail that plays against well-being.

For all of the above, and always following the evidence, weight bias encourages excess weight and obesity. Given that people have problems in their educational, professional, interpersonal, and psychological environment and don’t feel confident or comfortable seeking help, in many cases they choose to isolate themselves and take refuge in habits that directly or indirectly promote weight gain.

How to combat fatphobia

We have already established the criteria and consequences with which fatphobia operates. Knowing this, what can be done to combat it? As the specialists warn, the first step is to recognize the problem.

Being aware of what has been discussed in previous sections is useful to gauge that it isn’t a trivial phenomenon. On the contrary, it has multiple repercussions on the daily lives of those affected.

It has been mentioned that a large part of the prejudiced attitudes are concentrated in the school, professional and medical-hospital environment. Therefore, creating plans and programs in such environments is essential to combat fatphobia. Let’s see some examples:

  • Addressing weight discrimination in workplace harassment training talks.
  • Implement anti-bullying policies in schools to protect students who experience bullying because of their weight (policies should be geared towards raising awareness of any type of bullying, of course).
  • Train health care providers (nurses, medical specialists, and others) on respectful care for overweight and obese patients.

Along with all this, plans and programs aimed at society in general must also be designed. Congresses, talks, seminars, campaigns financed by public and private entities for the news media and others are part of combating weight bias. Being aware of the problem is the best route to avoid discriminatory episodes of this type.

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