People who worry about their appearance are more likely to discriminate against obese people, a new study has found.
Researchers gave bogus resumes to 102 university students and asked them to discuss the 12 candidates, six of whom were obese women and six of whom had undergone stomach surgery to treat their obesity. Participants said they were less prepared to award jobs to the obese women, less likely to identify them for future success and more likely to start them on low salaries.
The study, led by Monash University and published in the International Journal of Obesity, examined whether a recently developed measure of anti-fat prejudice, the universal measure of bias (UMB), predicted actual obesity job discrimination.
The international research team also assessed whether people’s own body image, and dimensions of personality such as “right-wing authoritarianism” - or the belief in the strong moral values and the rule of law - and social dominance orientation - or the belief in “the innate superiority and dominance of some over other”, were related to obesity discrimination.
Lead researcher, Dr Kerry O’Brien, from the School of Political and Social Inquiry, said the nature of the study was initially concealed from the participants to avoid biased results.
“Participants viewed a series of resumes that had a small photo of the supposed job applicant attached, and were asked to make ratings of the applicants’ suitability, starting salary and employability,” Dr O’Brien said.
“We used pictures of women pre-and post-bariatric surgery, and varied whether participants saw a resume that had a picture of an obese female attached, or the same female but in a normal weight range having undergone bariatric surgery.”
Participants were asked to rate the candidates on four counts: leadership potential, long-term career prospects, the likelihood that they would employ them, and the salary they would offer them.
They were also asked to answer questions about their belief in authoritarianism and social dominance orientation, and their feelings about their own physical appearance.
“We found that obesity discrimination was displayed across all selection criteria, such as starting salary, leadership potential, and likelihood of selection for the job.”
The higher a participant’s score on the UMB, the more likely they were to discriminate against obese candidates.
Dr O’Brien and his colleague Janet Latner, from the University of Hawaii, said one of the interesting aspects of the findings was that the participants’ own body image was closely associated with obesity discrimination.
“The higher participants’ rated their own physical attractiveness and importance of physical appearance, the greater the anti-fat prejudice and discrimination,” Dr O’Brien said.
“One interpretation of this finding might be that we feel better about our own bodies if we compare ourselves to, and discriminate against, fatter people, but we need to test this experimentally.”
The study is the first to show a relationship between self-reported measures of obesity prejudice and actual obesity discrimination. The results suggest that a belief in the superiority of some individuals over others is related to the perception that obese individuals deserve fewer privileges and opportunities than non-fat individuals, the researchers said.
“Our findings show that there is a clear need to address obesity discrimination, particularly against females, who tend to bear the brunt of anti-fat prejudice. Prejudice reduction interventions and policies need to be developed,” Dr O’Brien said
“It’s also becoming clear that the reasons for this prejudice appear to be related to our personalities and how we feel about ourselves, with attributions, such as ‘obese people are lazy, gluttonous, and so on’ merely acting as self-justifications for the prejudice.”
Lauren Williams, Head of Discipline of Nutrition and Dietetics at the University of Canberra and an expert on obesity stigma, said the problem with the stigmatisation of obesity was that it did not stop at the judgement of body size.
“It is seen as an attribute which overwhelms other attributes … which is why people tend to judge those who are overweight as possessing other qualities perceived as negative in our society, which results in the discrimination demonstrated in the Monash University study,” said Professor Williams, who was not involved in the research.
“In seeing the weight status of the women, the study participants are attributing other negative characteristics to the larger women on the basis of their size - that is why they would be less willing to employ them or to pay them equivalent wages.
"Judging an individual’s ability to perform at work on the basis of body size is as fallacious as judging them by their skin colour. However, discrimination based on body size or ‘fatism’, can be perceived, sadly, as one of the few remaining socially acceptable forms of discrimination in our society - just listen to the litany of 'fat jokes’ made by comedians. And discrimination of the overweight goes way beyond the arena of work into all areas of life.”
Professor Williams said that the fallacy implicit in this view was that, unlike people with different skin colour, fat people should be able to do something about their weight. “While the aetiology of obesity is complex, and involves psychological, social and environmental as well as physical determinants, the current evidence around weight loss is more clear.
"Even with the best of intentions, and substantial change in behaviour, individuals have a battle with long term success because of our obesogenic environment, and the biological imperative that strongly defends against attempts at weight loss.”