Discrimination of any kind can harm your mental and physical well-being. Weight discrimination is particularly harmful because it’s still legal in most places. It can limit your job prospects, education, earnings, and social life.
And it does something more: Weight discrimination can harm your health.
This article explores the health effects of weight discrimination. It also provides some guidance about how to respond if you’re being targeted because of your weight.
What is weight discrimination?
Weight bias is a group of negative attitudes and judgments about people with obesity and higher body weights. Some experts also include people with disordered eating and very low body weight as well.
Weight bias is based on faulty beliefsTrusted Source like these:
- People gain weight because they don’t have enough self-discipline.
- People have excess weight because they don’t work hard or are lazy.
- People only have themselves to blame if they have obesity.
In fact, weight gain can often be the result of a health condition, such as hypothyroidism or polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). Some medications can also cause unintentional weight gain.
Weight discrimination is what happens when someone acts on weight bias. In short, it’s about treating people differently based on their body weight.
Because weight discrimination can limit your opportunities, it’s considered a social justice issue as well as a health issue.
How common is it?
Weight bias is pervasiveTrusted Source. Traditional media and social media are instrumental in spreading it, and weight bias can be found in schools, workplaces, and even healthcare settings worldwide.
While many other types of bias and discrimination are slowly improving, weight discrimination has gotten worse, not better, researchersTrusted Source say.
Weight discrimination in the workplace
When you’re treated differently at work because of your weight, it can show up in lots of different ways.
According to research, people with obesity are 37 times more likely to report workplace discrimination, while people with severe obesity were 100 times more likely to experience weight discrimination at work.
Examples of weight bias in the workplace include:
- not being hired for certain positions
- receiving more negative performance reviews
- being on the receiving end of derogatory comments
- earning less money for doing the same or similar work as others
- not being able to advance in the workplace at the same pace as your peers
- being penalized for weight through company health benefits or other programs
For many people, weight bias and discrimination mean that work does not feel like a safe space. The environment can feel unsupportive and even hostile.
Is weight discrimination in the workplace legal?
According to 2020 researchTrusted Source, only one U.S. state — Michigan — currently has laws to protect people against weight discrimination. A handful of cities and towns have put anti-discrimination laws in place to deal with the problem, including:
- Binghamton, New York
- Madison, Wisconsin
- Santa Cruz, California
- San Francisco, California
- Urbana, Illinois
- Washington, D.C.
- Weight discrimination in healthcare
Some healthcare professionals have been trained to look at your weight as a sign of your overall health. Conversations about weight loss have been considered part of routine care.
However well-intentioned these measures have been, the result is that some people feel stigmatized in healthcare settings.
Newer guidelines recommend a different perspective. Research from 2017Trusted Source published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends emphasizing physical activity for all people, regardless of their body mass index (BMI).
What are the consequences of weight discrimination?
It’s important to understand that unfair treatment based on weight is associated with some very real health consequences.
You may avoid going to the doctor, even when you need care
People sometimes feel that their doctors and healthcare professionals treat them unfairly because of their weight.
According to a 2021 studyTrusted Source, people who were overweight felt that weight stigma had affected how quickly and effectively they were treated and how much emotional support they received in the healthcare system.
If you think you’re going to experience bias or discrimination, you may avoid going to the doctor, even if you really need care. In that way, weight stigma may affect your access to quality healthcare.
You may not get quality care when you do go to the doctor
You’re not imagining it. In some healthcare settings, patients receive inferior careTrusted Source when they have obesity. Your healthcare professional may speak to you with less empathy and may spend less time educating you about health conditions.
In a research reviewTrusted Source spanning 17 years and 21 different studies, people with obesity said they had been treated with contempt and disrespect in healthcare facilities.
The study participants reported that their doctors often attributed their weight as being the cause of their symptoms, no matter what symptoms they reported.
In some cases, this disregard meant people didn’t get a correct diagnosis until much later.
If you feel like you’re not getting the care you need, you may want to consider looking for another healthcare professional.
You may develop some unhealthy coping mechanisms
StudiesTrusted Source have shown that people who feel stigmatized because of their weight tend to do more comfort-eating as a result.
Weight stigma has also been linked to more binge eating and eating more convenience foods.
Processed convenience foodsTrusted Source have been linked to a higher risk of developing conditions such as:
- gastrointestinal conditions
- high blood pressure
- heart disease
- You may experience the harmful effects of long-term stress
Stress is unavoidable — and, in fact, a little bit of stressTrusted Source here and there can actually be a good thing. But stress that goes on too long is as bad for your body as it is for your mind.
Researchers have found that people who experience weight discrimination have doubleTrusted Source the 10-year risk of high allostatic load. Allostatic load is the medical term for the pile-up of negative effects from chronic stress.
People with high allostatic loads have a greater risk of developing many types of health issues, including:
- heart disease
- breast cancer
- mood disorders
- diseases of the teeth and gums
- You may internalize the bias
Negative ideas about weight can seep into your self-concept over time. Researchers refer to this problem as internalized weight bias.
Studies show that roughly 40 percentTrusted Source of people with overweight and obesity have internalized weight bias, devaluing themselves as a result.
A number of studiesTrusted Source have linked internalized bias to mental health issues such as:
- lower self-esteem
- a negative body image
- You may exercise less
A 2017 study involving close to 5,500 participants found that people who had experienced weight discrimination were about 30 percentTrusted Source less likely to engage in a robust physical activity once a week, regardless of their actual BMI.
Other studiesTrusted Source have shown that weight stigma is associated with avoiding the gym and group exercise settingsTrusted Source.
Some people develop coping strategies that allow them to exercise without being in group settings where traumatic stigmatizing events have happened to them. For example, exercising at home can be a safer environment, where there’s less risk of being a target of discrimination.
Those strategies are important, since exercise can lead to a wide range of health benefits.
You may have an increased risk of a lower life expectancy
How damaging are the long-term effects of experiencing weight discrimination?
Researchers in a 2015 studyTrusted Source found that living with weight stigma may be more harmful than obesity.
In the study, researchers analyzed the life spans of people in the Health and Retirement Study and the Midlife in the United States Study.
They found that people who experienced everyday discrimination based on their weight had a 60 percent higher risk of death in the time period they were studying.
This risk was independent of other factors such as a person’s BMI or tobacco use.