Anti-fat Bias

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Anti-fat bias refers to the prejudicial assumption of personality characteristics based on a visual assessment of a person as suffering from obesity based on physical characteristics. Anti-fat bias can be found in many facets of society, and the media’s portrayal of obese individuals has often been blamed for the pervasiveness of this phenomenon.

Anti-fat bias leads individuals to label obese members of society with negative personality traits such as ‘lazy,’ ‘greedy,’ ‘stupid,’ ‘smelly,’ ‘slow,’ or ‘unmotivated.’ This bias is not restricted only to clinically obese individuals, but also encompasses those whose body shape is in some way found unacceptable (although still within the normal or overweight BMI range).

Anti-fat bias can be moderated by giving a mitigating context to the individual’s appearance of obesity. For example, when told an individual was obese because of ‘overeating’ and ‘lack of exercise,’ a higher implicit bias was found among study participants than those told that the individual’s obesity was due to ‘genetics.’ The group told that ‘genetics’ were to blame did not exhibit a lowered implicit bias after the explanation, however. Thus, anti-fat bias may result from disgust. Newer research suggests that the stereotypical traits and attributions are post hoc justifications for the expression of prejudice against obese people. Initial unconscious feelings of disgust and associated negative valance when viewing obesity may evoke negative emotions that need to be justified, and thus, negative attributions supporting or justifying the negative feelings towards obesity are produced. Additionally, recent work around physical appearance issues, body image, and anti-fat or obesity prejudice suggests that feelings about one’s own appearance may stimulate downward physical comparisons with obese individuals in order to make one feel better about their own physical appearance.

The media is often blamed for the strong negative trait associations that society has toward overweight individuals. There is a great deal of empirical research to support the idea of ‘Thin Ideal Media,’ or the idea that the media tends to glorify and focus on thin actors and actresses, models, and other public figures while avoiding the use of overweight individuals. In a study of children’s movies and books for messages about the importance of appearance, media targeted for children were heavily saturated with messages emphasizing attractiveness as an important part of relationships and interpersonal interaction. Among the movies used in the study, two Disney movies contained the highest amount of messages about personal beauty. This study also found 64% of the videos studied portrayed obese characters as unattractive, evil, cruel, unfriendly, and more than half of the portrayals involved the consideration or consumption of food.

In 2011, columnist Michael Kinsley (founding editor of ‘Slate’ magazine) wrote, ‘New Jersey Governor Chris Christie cannot be president: He is just too fat . . . .why should Christie’s weight be more than we can bear in a president? Why should it even be a legitimate issue if he runs? One reason is that a presidential candidate should be judged on behavior and character . . . . . Perhaps Christie is the one to help us get our national appetites under control. But it would help if he got his own under control first.’ Governor Christie responded: ‘The people who pretend to be serious commentators who wrote about this are among the most ignorant I’ve ever heard in my life. To say that, because you’re overweight, you are therefore undisciplined — you know, I don’t think undisciplined people get to achieve great positions in our society, so that kind of stuff is just ignorant.’

Anti-fat bias can be found in the educational system. When compared to a group of psychology students of the same age, a group of students training to become physical education (PE) teachers were more likely to display implicit anti-fat attitudes. One dangerous effect of anti-fat bias is the presence of this bias in healthcare professionals, whose biases could result in a lower quality of treatment for overweight patients. Even those medical professionals who specialize in the treatment of obesity have been found to have strong negative associations toward obese individuals. Anti-fat bias can also be found at an early age. Preschool-aged children reported a preference for average-sized children over overweight children as friends. As a consequence of anti-fat bias, overweight individuals often find themselves suffering repercussions in many facets of society, including legal and employment issues.

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