Prejudice against fat people the last acceptable form of discrimination, studies find

At a time when obesity is seen as a serious public health threat, research has found a growing prejudice against fat people.

Last week, the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University published a study suggesting that male jurors didn't administer blind justice when it came to plus-size female defendants.

Female jurors displayed no prejudice against fat defendants but men -- especially lean men -- were far more likely to slap a guilty verdict on an overweight woman and were quicker to label her a repeat offender with an "awareness of her crimes."

Another recent study by the Center for Creative Leadership found that top managers with a high body mass index were judged more harshly and seen as less effective than their slimmer colleagues by their peers, both at work and in interpersonal relationships.

Rebecca Puhl, one of the Yale researchers who co-wrote the juror study, said these displays of fat stigma are par for the course.

"Thinness has come to symbolize important values in our society, values such as discipline, hard work, ambition and willpower. If you're not thin, then you don't have them," she said.

Previous research by Puhl and her associates found that prejudice against fat people was pervasive and translated into inequities across broad areas of life.

Some examples: Fifty percent of doctors found that fat patients were "awkward, ugly, weak-willed and unlikely to comply with treatment" and 24 percent of nurses said they were repulsed by their obese patients. Nearly 30 percent of teachers said that becoming obese was "the worst thing that can happen to someone" – and more than 70 percent of obese people said they had been ridiculed about their weight by a family member.

Heavy-Duty Stereotypes

Kenlie Tiggeman, a political consultant who lives in New Orleans, said she's never needed a study to highlight hostility against fat people. As someone who has lost 120 pounds but has a 100 more to lose, she lives it.

Last year Tiggeman was thrown off a Southwest Airlines flight not once but twice because the carrier deemed her "too fat to fly." According to Tiggeman and witnesses, she was stopped at the gate both times by airline employees who proceeded to quiz her loudly about her weight and dress size before denying her boarding access.

Far from being an isolated incidence, Tiggeman said the experience was symptomatic of what she encounters every day.

"Just last week I was at the swimming pool in my gym when I overheard a woman on her cell tell a friend she was whale watching," Tiggeman said. "She was looking right at me. I know she was talking about me."

People have no qualms aiming such overt cruelty at obese people, Puhl said, because there are few consequences. She said that fat stigma is rarely challenged and often ignored. In effect, it's the last acceptable prejudice.

"There are no federal laws on the books that make it illegal to discriminate on the basis of body weight, so on the whole it remains legal. That sends a message that it's no big deal," said Puhl.

Puhl suspects that public health campaigns branding obesity as a disease are sometimes perceived as criticizing individuals rather than the environmental and social factors that lead to weight gain. This, she said, gives some people license to engage in public fat-shaming.

She also believes media portrayals of heavy people as fat, lazy and gluttonous do them no favors.

"Overweight people are usually shown in stereotypical ways -- engaged in out of control eating or bingeing on junk food -- and they are often shown as the target of humor or ridicule," she pointed out. "With the amount of media we all consume, it's no wonder these stereotypes stick."

Big Changes Needed

"For things to change there needs to be a greater understanding of how complex the condition is and how hard it is to reverse," she said.

Even as obesity rates continue to soar, Puhl hasn't seen much improvement in public perception except for a few glimmers of hope in the workplace and health care environment.

Tiggeman, for one, is fighting back. She's suing Southwest, not for monetary gain but to force the airline industry to address its policies regarding overweight passengers, she said.

"I have no problem being held to a standard, but I think that standard shouldn't be applied arbitrarily based on how an airline employee feels about my size," she said. "We need to know if we need one seat or two, because this eyeballing happening at the gate is incredibly discriminatory, and it's so unnecessary."

Puhl said because of the public's belief that obesity is a temporary condition completely under an individual's control, fat people didn't get much sympathy, even from others struggling with their own weight.