Human Misery

Explicitly Dehumanizing People with Obesity

Why is implicit weight bias growing while other forms of implicit bias are dropping? Here’s one reason: routine and explicit dehumanization. A new study in Obesity documents a stark reality. Our culture is dehumanizing people with obesity. Furthermore, dehumanization provides an excuse for policies to discriminate against people living with obesity.

Less Than Human

Through a series of experiments, Inge Kersbergen and Eric Robinson uncovered some harsh and dehumanizing attitudes. Simply stated, people consider individuals with obesity to be less human than others. They see them as less evolved and more primitive.

In addition, they see this as a good reason to discriminate against people with obesity. They found these beliefs in the U.S., the U.K., and India alike. Though dehumanization is more common from thinner individuals, they also found it at work in the mindsets of people with mild obesity.

Sowing Implicit Bias

In a certain sense, this is not surprising. The lived experience of obesity can be one of recurring humiliation. Random people shouting things like, “Get out of the way, you fat cow.” These indignities are common enough that they always lurk in the back of one’s mind.

Thus they also increase the sting of minor insults that come all the time. The doctor who tells you that your bronchitis is a result of obesity. Restaurants that have no place where you can sit. It’s the death of human dignity by a thousand tiny cuts.

Dehumanization forms the foundation for implicit bias that permeates our response to obesity. If you think of people with obesity as lesser creatures, it’s easy to rationalize denying them medical care for their condition. It’s easier to say – as many policy makers do – we must put prevention first.

Perhaps it even soothes the social conscience when care is unavailable to five million kids kids with severe obesity. We care about them, we really do. We just can’t afford any effective treatment for them.

Humanizing Obesity

The only answer is to put a human face on obesity. We cannot afford to be shy about it. That’s why it’s so important that Obesity Action Coalition has been standing up for more than a decade to be a bold voice for people living with obesity. That’s why advocates in the OAC and a host of other organizations around the world are gaining strength.

Dehumanizing people with obesity will persist until we demand that it stop. Once and for all.

Click here for the study and here for further perspective.

Human Misery, painting by Paul Gauguin / WikiArt

Subscribe by email to follow the accumulating evidence and observations that shape our view of health, obesity, and policy.


April 5, 2019

2 Responses to “Explicitly Dehumanizing People with Obesity”

  1. April 05, 2019 at 2:16 pm, Allen Browne said:

    Wow! Hard to read. But a good exercise as we struggle to help.



  2. April 05, 2019 at 2:48 pm, Richard said:

    Discrimination against obesity, whether people, drugs, clinicians, or research and researchers is undeniable. It is present at all levels of society and particularly in the government. This has led to well intended efforts to reduce obesity discrimination. However, the methods by which we try to reduce obesity discrimination have not been well studied. The assumption is made that if we just call it out, discrimination will decrease. This needs to be tested scientifically so the best way to call it out can be identified. I am worried that “people first language” for obesity may be a mistake. There are few actual data, but a lot of opinion, about this concept. The Dec 2018 study by Pearl et al in JAMA Surgery purports to be the first that actually studied patient preferences. They found ~75% of people preferred “people with obesity” rather than “obese people.” However, only 97 of 702 individuals actually participated. Usually we would say a paper with this problem is compromised. At least one study from England found that about similar numbers of people preferred “diabetics” vs “people with diabetes.” It may well turn out that people first language is helpful, but the possibility that insisting on this will convince people that there is something about obesity that is different and that perhaps deserves discrimination. The history of “victims” in society has not been an uplifting one. Being identified as a “victim” may lead to “superior” vs “inferior” condescension. So perhaps we should examine the “solution” with rigorous research before going in with minimal evidence.