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Are You Affected by Weight Bias or Discrimination?

January 9, 2014 by Andrea Godfreyson, Registered Dietitian

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Has someone you know been treated negatively because of their weight or size? This is more common than we might think.

Many of us know that bullying because of weight happens to children in school, but some are surprised to hear that it continues throughout peoples' lives.

What is weight bias?

Having negative attitudes, beliefs, assumptions or judgements about people because of their weight is called weight bias.

An example of weight bias is having the belief that people who are overweight lack willpower, overeat, eat a lot of unhealthy food and aren't physically active. Weight bias can also include believing that people who are overweight are lazy, less successful and less capable.

What are some reasons for weight bias? 

There are many reasons why weight bias exists. Our society tends to value thinness which contributes to weight bias. Valuing thinness is not the same thing as valuing healthy weights. Visual thinness doesn't indicate whether a person is healthy or not.

Media images and messages shape public beliefs including weight-based stereotypes. Media regularly reinforces false beliefs that people who are thin are more successful, happy, loveable and attractive than people who are overweight. People who are overweight are often portrayed negatively in the media.

What are some of the impacts of weight bias?

Weight bias ignores the genetic, biological, social, cultural and environmental factors that contribute to weight and instead, places judgement on individuals for their weight. When weight biased beliefs or judgments lead to treating people in an unfair way, it's called weight discrimination.

Weight discrimination can cause serious harm to peoples' health and well-being. Some of the potential impacts include poor body image, low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, social isolation, disordered eating, avoidance of physical activity and suicidal thoughts and behaviours.

Research shows that people who are overweight are discriminated against in many settings, including employment, education and health care. This can result in lower levels of income and education and people avoiding medical care when they need it.

How do I know if I have weight bias?

Weight bias is so common that you may not recognize it. Start by thinking about people in your life that may be overweight or obese. This could include your family or your friends. Do you view them differently because of their weight? Would you view a stranger any differently because of their weight? What assumptions do you make about them?

What can I do?

At this time of year when everyone is talking about weight and New Year's resolutions, consider weight bias and shift the conversation from weight to health and well-being. Here are some ways to start:

  • Become aware of your own attitudes about weight
  • Avoid making comments about your own or other peoples' weight
  • Learn more about the causes of obesity
  • Focus on healthy behaviours like healthy eating and being active, instead of weight
  • Speak up if you witness teasing, bullying or discrimination 

For more information on this complicated issue, check out the resources below.


Photo credit: Canadian Obesity Network

Recommended Resources:

Ways for Parents to Combat Weight Bias
Weight Prejudice: Myths & Facts Video
Weight Bias: A Social Justice Issue
Technical Report: From Weight to Well-Being: Time for a shift in Paradigms?
Reducing Weight Bias and Stigma in British Columbia’s Health Care System

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