April 2, 2008 -- 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.
Puhl emphasized that she isn't saying people shouldn't try to control their weight. Scores of studies have shown that excess weight contributes to a wide range of diseases, and physical fitness is one of our best bets for fighting everything from heart attacks to aging. But let's face it, if diets worked, we would all be skinny. Many uncontrollable factors contribute to obesity, like genetics and some diseases, yet we still blame the individual.
The heart of the problem, Puhl said, is that obesity brings social stigmatism and stereotyping, and that can lead to depression, discrimination and binge eating, so the problem just gets worse.
But why are we failing so miserably at keeping our weight under control?
"We live in a very toxic food environment," Puhl said. "We make it very easy for people to be unhealthy. Unhealthy foods, or junk foods, are accessible, cheap and engineered to taste very, very good. Healthy foods, like produce, are not as accessible, and are more expensive."
And it's everywhere. A friend recently offered me one of those cookies sold by Girl Scouts in our community. The label on the box said one cookie has four grams of fat. And nobody eats just one Girl Scout cookie. It tastes great, it's cheap and it's for a worthy cause. But that little angel standing at your door is offering you a one-way ticket to obesity.
So grab a handful, and if you get fat, it's your fault, right?
"We take this personal responsibility approach and say well, just exercise more and eat less, but it's much more complicated than that," Puhl said. "If it were that easy, we wouldn't have this epidemic that we have now."
So people who are overweight, regardless of the cause, are blamed for their excesses and it's OK to discriminate against them, at least according to federal law and cultural norms.
Here are some of the findings in Puhl's study:
Puhl (whose BMI is in the normal range) thinks this is a very big deal. Our culture, she said, sanctions biases against people who are even a little overweight. We blame them for a condition that may result from their genes, or a health problem, and that condemnation in many cases backfires.
And the solution isn't as simple as eat less, exercise more.
Lee Dye is a former science writer for the Los Angeles Times. He now lives in Juneau, Alaska.