May 21, 2008 -- Weight discrimination, especially against women, is increasing in U.S. society and is almost as common as racial discrimination, two studies suggest.
Reported discrimination based on weight has increased 66 percent in the past decade, up from about 7 to 12 percent of U.S. adults, says one study, in the journal Obesity. The other study, in the International Journal of Obesity, says such discrimination is common in both institutional and interpersonal situations -- and in some cases is even more prevalent than rates of discrimination based on gender and race. (About 17 percent of men and 9 percent of women reported race discrimination.)
Among severely obese people, about 28 percent of men and 45 percent of women said they have experienced discrimination because of their weight.
"Weight discrimination is a very serious social problem that we need to pay attention to," says Rebecca Puhl of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, a co-author of both studies.
The research, based on surveys of more than 2,000 U.S. adults in 1995-96 and 2004-06, is the first to compare rates of weight discrimination with other forms of discrimination, Puhl says.
Institutional discrimination involved health care, education or workplace situations, such as cases in which people said they were fired, denied a job or a promotion because of their weight. Interpersonal discrimination focused on insults, abuse and harassment from others.
Lynn McAfee, director of medical advocacy at the non-profit Council on Size and Weight Discrimination in Mt. Marion, N.Y., is not surprised by the findings.
"Until we clean up language like 'war on obesity' and have authorities speak out about it, discrimination will continue to increase," she says.
Puhl agrees weight discrimination will not decrease until attitudes change and laws begin addressing it.
No federal laws against weight discrimination exist, although some cities, including Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, have banned discrimination locally. The Massachusetts Legislature had hearings last month on a proposed law.
Peggy Howell says she will never forget the day her boss told her she either had to lose weight or lose her job. She weighed 280 pounds at the time and was working as a librarian. Feeling as if she had no choice but to comply, Howell joined Weight Watchers.
Howell volunteers for the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, a non-profit organization in Oakland.
After shedding 120 pounds in a year and a half, she quit her library job and started an online business selling items that portray people of size in a positive light.
She says she now knows she has the right to challenge stereotypes, and she wants to "help people to see the beauty in themselves, no matter what their size."