Weight Stigma Is a Dangerous Threat to Health
While the nation has been wringing its hands over an obesity epidemic, another public health crisis is raging
For the last 20 years, Americans have been embroiled in a full-fledged health and morality panic about the widely reported obesity epidemic. Nightly news, newspapers and daytime talk shows alike bemoan the state of American bodies, while often failing to report the 1998 change in the BMI’s definitions of “overweight” and “obese,” or the racist history of the BMI itself. Health reporting frequently cites the dangers of living in a fat body. Most people don’t give it a second thought, with some of us even coming to believe that a higher BMI necessarily means that all fat people will come to develop diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and an early grave. But a growing body of research shows that the health issues attributed to being fat may be exacerbated — or even caused — by the bias and discrimination too often leveled against fat people.
Bias among health care providers may be worsening fat patients’ health outcomes by perpetuating weight stigma. A 2014 study published in the journal Obesity found that 67% of medical students exhibit overt bias against fat patients, with over half of respondents characterizing fat people as a whole as being “lazy, unmotivated, noncompliant, and unhealthy.”
Providers’ bias doesn’t end with their own perceptions, either — it measurably impacts fat people’s care. A 2013 study in the journal Obesity found that doctors “build less emotional rapport with obese patients.” And a 2001 study in the International Journal of Obesity found that “although physicians prescribed more tests for heavier patients, [they also spent] less time with them, and viewed them significantly more negatively.” Research published last year found that nurses who belied in weight controllability (that is, the idea that people can control their own weight, and that fat people are simply failing to control our own behaviors) also reported greater weight-based discrimination in medical settings — ultimately negatively impacting the care they provide to fatter people. Some researchers even argue that weight stigma is a primary driver of the so-called “obesity epidemic,” citing a range of studies showing that…