Weight bias is bigger problem than you may think, experts say

Updated 5:55 PM EDT, Thu September 29, 2016

Story highlights

Weight bias is a significant problem, experts say -- especially for women

Only one state prohibits weight discrimination

(CNN) —  

Fatness was an unexpected topic at the presidential debate at Hofstra University on Monday – and many obesity experts now say that they are concerned about what was said.

The topic arose when Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton claimed that Republican nominee Donald Trump publicly body-shamed former Miss Universe winner Alicia Machado, who gained weight after winning the title in 1996. Machado said Trump called her “Miss Piggy.”

Then, as Trump mused about who may have hacked the Democratic National Committee, he said the cyberattacker could have been someone sitting on their bed who weighs 400 pounds.

“Mr. Trump’s comments were highly regrettable and speak not only to weight bias directed at women but also to men,” said Kelly Brownell, dean of the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University and an expert on obesity.

“People should be judged based on their character and other attributes rather than their body weight. Body weight is not a reflection of intelligence, ability to work hard or any other factor, and it shouldn’t be perceived as such,” he said. “I can’t even imagine there is an association between body weight and creating a cyberattack.”

Yet weight bias is a bigger problem than most people may think, experts say – especially for women.

Women face more weight bias

“We know from our research on weight stigma and discrimination that even though both women and men experience unfair treatment because of excess weight, women report these experiences at lower levels of obesity than men,” said Rebecca Puhl, a professor at the University of Connecticut and deputy director of the university’s Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity.

“Weight stigma occurs in many different aspects of daily living,” she said. “People who have a higher body weight are vulnerable to stigma in employment, schools and colleges, health care settings, public accommodations, the mass media, and in interpersonal relationships with family and friends.”

Women are more likely to face weight discrimination in the workplace than men, even when their body mass index is within the healthy range, according to a study published this month in the journal Plos One.

For the study, an international team of researchers asked 120 participants to rate eight pictures that showed the faces of men and women at various weight levels: Each face was portrayed in one “original” photo and one photo in which the face appeared heavier. The participants were asked to rate the photos based on hireability, but they also were told that the men and women in the photos were all equally qualified for various jobs.

The researchers discovered that there was no significant difference between the ratings of the original and “heavier” photos for male faces. However, there was a statistically significant difference between the ratings of the original and “heavier” photos for female faces, if they were being considered for a job that required a lot of interaction with customers.

In other words, the “heavier” women were evaluated significantly more negatively in customer-facing job roles, the study suggests.

There is a long history of legal battles about weight discrimination among women in various customer-facing job roles, from flight attendants to aerobics instructors to university dance team members.

“A little weight gain for female job applicants is damaging to women’s job chances. These findings suggest quite clearly that women are at a distinct disadvantage compared to men” in this area, the researchers wrote in the study.

Discrimination hurts health

If someone perceives that they are experiencing weight discrimination, they are more likely to suffer daily stress and negative emotions than otherwise, which could cause their health to worsen over time, according to a separate study published this month in the journal Obesity.

The study involved 1,153 adults who had a body mass index classified as either overweight or obese. The adults were asked to participate in daily interviews over an eight-day period, in which they were called each night and asked about their everyday experiences.

The participants who reported having faced weight discrimination, compared with those who hadn’t faced any weight discrimination, experienced more daily stress, worse emotional health and worse physical health over the subsequent eight days, said Angelina Sutin, assistant professor in the Florida State University College of Medicine and lead author of the study.