It's illegal to discriminate against someone because of race or gender, but our culture condones a bias against people who are overweight.
There are no federal laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of weight, and only Michigan has such a law, according to a new study from Yale University.
As a result, the researchers contend, weight discrimination is spiraling upward, and that's a dangerous trend that could add fuel to the obesity epidemic.
Weight discrimination "occurs in employment settings and daily interpersonal relationships virtually as often as race discrimination, and in some cases even more frequently than age or gender discrimination," the researchers report in the current issue of the International Journal of Obesity.
Overweight women are twice as vulnerable as men, and discrimination strikes much earlier in their lives, the report states.
"This is a form of bias that remains very socially acceptable in our culture," research scientist Rebecca Puhl, lead author of the study, said in a telephone interview.
Puhl, who was trained as a clinical psychologist, and co-author Tatiana Andreyeva, studied data collected from 3,437 adults as part of a national survey conducted in 1995-1996. They have just updated the work in a disturbing paper showing that weight discrimination has accelerated through 2006.
Puhl, who has been studying weight discrimination for nine years, said our culture has made it clear that it's wrong to discriminate against someone because of race, color, creed, gender, age and so forth, but that it's OK to show someone the door because he or she is fat.
"We send a message to citizens in our culture that this is something that is tolerated," she said. "We live in a culture where we obviously place a premium on fitness, and fitness has come to symbolize very important values in our culture, like hard work and discipline and ambition. Unfortunately, if a person is not thin, or is overweight or obese, then they must lack self-discipline, have poor willpower, etc., and as a result they get blamed and stigmatized."
The social current driving this is the obvious fact that no one is responsible for his or her race, or gender or even age. That's a given. But the traditional thinking goes that people should be able to control their weight, so if they're obese, it's their fault.
But that, according to Puhl, is dead wrong.
"We place a lot of emphasis on personal responsibility for body weight," she said. "Our billion-dollar diet industry is founded on that premise. Your weight is modifiable. But that does not reflect the current state of science. We know from hundreds of randomized clinically controlled trials that it's very difficult to sustain weight loss over time with our existing treatment methods."
"That has compelled a number of expert panels, like the National Institutes of Health, to conclude that we really can't expect you to lose more than 10 percent of your body weight and be able to keep that off."
For a 300-pound man, she notes, that's a mere 30 pounds, and he's still overweight, unless he's nearly seven feet tall. Obesity is based on the body mass index (BMI) that is derived from a formula based on weight vs. height. Normal BMI is 18.5 to 24.9. Obesity begins at BMI 30 and ranges up to 40.