NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Discrimination against the overweight may be about as prevalent as racial discrimination, the results of a survey of U.S. adults suggest.
Using data from a survey of nearly 2,300 Americans, researchers at Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut found that 5 percent of men and 10 percent of women said they had faced discrimination because of their weight — ranging from job refusals to rude treatment in everyday life.
Among respondents who were severely obese — having a body mass index
(BMI) of 35 or higher — 40 percent reported instances of weight discrimination. A body mass index is the ratio between height and weight commonly used to classify individuals as over- or underweight.
Weight bias also rivaled the prevalence of other, long-recognized forms of discrimination, the researchers report in the International Journal of Obesity.
Among women, weight discrimination was the third most common form, behind sex and age discrimination. Among all adults, it came in fourth overall, after sex, age and racial discrimination.
The findings point to a need for “organized efforts” to combat weight bias, the researchers note in their report.
“In order to reduce weight bias, we need major shifts in societal attitudes,” lead researcher Dr. Rebecca M. Puhl told Reuters Health.
This would include building awareness of weight discrimination and its consequences, Puhl noted, as well as improving media portrayals of obese individuals. Overweight people should also have legal protection against discrimination, she said.
The findings are based on a nationally representative sample of 2,290 Americans ages 25 to 74 who were surveyed between 1995 and 1996.
Respondents were asked whether they had ever been victims of discrimination based on race, religion, sex or various other reasons, including weight.
Of the men and women who reported weight discrimination, 60 percent said they had experienced work-related discrimination, such as not being hired, being passed over for promotion, or being wrongly fired.
Many also cited day-to-day types of discrimination, like being treated with less respect or courtesy than others, or being “perceived as inferior.” And compared with victims of other forms of discrimination, those subjected to weight bias were more likely to say they had been called names or overtly insulted.
Women were particularly likely to perceive weight bias, with twice as many women as men reporting such discrimination.
This may not be surprising, according to Puhl, given the “stringent and unrealistic ideals of thinness that are placed on women in North America.”
Indeed, the study found that women seemed to be vulnerable to weight discrimination even if they were moderately overweight, whereas only severely obese men reported discrimination at a rate comparable with their female counterparts.
“This means we need to be especially aware of the negative experiences and effects of weight bias among females,” Puhl said.
SOURCE: International Journal of Obesity, online March 4, 2008.