There can be little question that the growing number of overweight and obese Americans confront serious discrimination and prejudice. Situationist Contributors, Adam Benfrorado, Jon Hanson, and David Yosifon summarized the extent of the problem in their article, “Broken Scales,” as follows:
For obese Americans, constant stigmatization and frequent discrimination are found in all aspects of daily life, including education, employment, health care, and interpersonal relationships. . . . [P]arents provide significantly less monetary support for their overweight children than for their thin children in pursuing advanced education and that 28% of teachers involved in the study said that becoming obese was one of the worst things that could happen to a person. Unsurprisingly, fewer fat students end up going to college.
[Another scholar] reviewed twenty-nine studies about the experiences of the obese in the workplace, and he found discrimination in nearly every aspect of the employment relationship, from hiring to wages to benefits. In fact, weight appears to elicit more pervasive discrimination than other appearance-related factors like gender, age, or race. . . . Isolating weight and sex, one group of researchers found that the weight of an applicant explained 34.6% of hiring, whereas sex explained only 10.4%. In another set of experiments that studied how decisions about employee discharge were colored by social stigmas, participants demonstrated stronger negative feelings toward overweight employees than they did toward ex-mental patients or ex-felons.
The wage differential is equally startling, although the effect is far stronger in women. Morbidly obese white women have wages 24.1% lower than their standard weight counterparts, and moderately obese woman earn 5.9% less. This substantiates recent work . . . [finding] that the net worth for an obese woman fifty-seven to sixty-seven years of age was 60% less than a woman of normal weight in 1998.
Much of the discrimination occurs in areas less noticeable than hiring or wages. In one study of people who were at least 50% above their ideal weight, more than a quarter reported that they had been denied benefits like health insurance on account of their weight. Moreover, 24% of nurses in another study reported that they are “repulsed” by obese patients, so even when obese individuals manage to get health care there is reason to believe that it may not be the best.
Those situationist scholars argued that “[t]he added discrimination reserved for the overweight and obese reflects our sense that those problems, more than the others, reflect personal choices” (that is, disposition, instead of situation):
When we look at the obese we see only their fat. We miss their intelligence, their kindness, and their strength, just as we miss the broader situational influences that led them to be overweight. We see a disposition that reassuringly explains their most salient feature–fat people are weak. . . . [O]verweight people are frequently stereotyped as being socially handicapped and emotionally impaired, and as having negative personality traits. After all, who else would choose to look like that?
Such negative stereotypes attach early on. By nursery school, children show a preference for drawings of children in wheelchairs and with facial disfigurements to those of obese children; by the time they enter elementary school, they have already begun to construct causal schemas. In one study, children who were asked to describe a silhouette of an obese child used words like “dirty,” “lazy,” “ugly,” “stupid,” and “sloppy.” According to another study, the quality of life for obese children is approximately the same as that of children undergoing chemotherapy for cancer. . . . [As one of the researchers] explained: “Obesity is an extremely socially stigmatized disease, and unlike some conditions, it’s not something a child can hide.” Evidence abounds that obese people are not wanted. Sixteen percent of adult Americans would abort a baby if they knew it would be untreatably obese, whereas 17% would abort if they were certain the child would be mentally retarded. In a 1988 study, students reported that they would rather marry someone who was an embezzler, a drug addict, a shoplifter, or a blind person than someone who was obese.
It seems strange that there could be so much discrimination against the overweight in a country with so many fat people. The explanation may be that the overweight, just like everyone else, have been convinced of the desirability of the waif body and the righteousness of the dispositionist message. They made a bad choice–or many bad choices–and now fairness demands that they pay the consequences. They look in the mirror and say, “Yes, it’s true, I am disgusting;” “I brought all this discrimination on myself;” and “I have a decision to make, just like Dr. Phil says.” This self-assessment shares much with the reflections of Milgram’s subjects who left feeling that their own evil ways, and not the situation, were solely to blame for their behavior. (citations and footnotes omitted)
Elsewhere in their article, Benforado, Hanson and Yosifon explain some of the many situational forces (including the food, beauty, exercise, and self-help industries) that contribute to that discriminatory dynamic.
Roger Dobson and Ian Griggs recently wrote a brief article in The Independent summarizing studies at the University of British Columbia that may shed additional light on the possible situational causes of disgust and discrimination toward the obese. We excerpt portions of their article below:
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From the taunting of the chubby child in the playground to cruel jibes at fat people in work and social settings, few could doubt there is widespread prejudice against the overweight. However, according to research reported in Evolution and Human Behavior some people suffer abuse because being too fat is mistaken by the brain for a sign of disease.
Researchers say the immune system can be triggered into action at the sight of obesity because it doesn’t like the look of what it sees, and associates it with infection.
Just as it orchestrates attacks on viruses and bacteria and triggers nausea at the hint of bad food, so it sends out signals of disgust in some people at the sight of an obese body that is designed to encourage avoidance and survival.
The finding comes just days after research in The New England Journal of Medicine suggested that obesity is contagious, in a social rather than bacteriological sense. [summarized here.]
“Antipathy toward obese people is a powerful and pervasive prejudice in many contemporary populations. Our results reveal, for the first time, that this prejudice may be rooted in multiple, independent mechanisms. They provide the first evidence that obesity serves as a cue for pathogen infection,” say the University of British Columbia researchers.
They say a behavioural immune system appears to have evolved in humans that is designed to detect body signs that are related to disease, like rashes and lesions. The sight of them triggers disgust as well as negative attitudes and avoidance. The system errs in favour of over-reacting because failure to react to a real danger could be fatal.
Researchers carried out a number of experiments, including word associations and tests where they compared the reactions and views of men and women to obesity.
The results show that people who agreed with comments such as “it really bothers me when people sneeze without covering their mouths” were more likely to agree with statement such as “if I were an employer looking to hire, I might avoid hiring a fat person.” The greater the fear of disease, the stronger the negative feeling about obesity.
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We have not been able to read the study ourselves, and have our doubts about its underlying theory. After all, antipathy toward obesity seems to vary across cultures and historical periods. Indeed, depending on the situation, some excess weight has often been seen as attractive. In addition, there is another evolutionary-based argument that the ability to store large quantities of fat is one that would likely have been “selected” by situational, evolutionary forces. That is a little hard to square with the hypothesized disease -disgust link. Nonetheless, it is an interesting theory about which our readers may have an interest (and, we hope, some interesting reactions and comments).
Other Situationist posts on the topic of obesity include “Infant Death Rates in Mississippi” and “Situational Obesity,” (which contains additional links to other related posts); other Situationist posts discussing related forms of discrimination include “Shades of Fairness and the Marketing of Prejudice” and the “Physical Pain of Discrimination” (which also contains additional links).
Cognitive Daily has a terrific post from last summer, “Obesity and Discrimination,” that is well worth the read. For an audio recording of an interesting Talk of the Nation panel discussion (from 2003) on attitudes toward overweight people, click here.