Portrait of a Fat Gentleman

Can Policy Stop Weight Discrimination and Bullying?

A major thread running through ObesityWeek® is weight stigma, bias, and discrimination. Today at the Obesity Journal Symposium, the first paper presented will be a new study by a collection of distinguished weight bias researchers led by Rebecca Puhl. It is unique because it tells us that the public supports policy to stop weight discrimination and bullying in six different countries.

This is good news. But we wonder. Is it enough?

Online Survey Research with 13,996 Respondents

Puhl et al surveyed 13,996 people in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, the U.K., and the U.S. This was quite a task. So to recruit their sample, they drew from people participating in the WW programs from these countries.

They found the highest support (>90 percent) for laws and policies to address weight-based bullying. Support for banning discrimination in employment was a bit lower and more variable, but still strong. It ranged from 61 percent to 79 percent, depending upon the country. Human rights and disability protections earned somewhat less support, ranging from 47 to 57 percent.

Puhl says this is important:

“Public support is a key catalyst for policy change and motivation for policymakers to take on legislation, but we know very little about public support for laws that could address weight discrimination and bullying outside of the US,” says Rebecca Puhl, lead author of the study and deputy director at the Rudd Center.

“Across the six countries we studied, people view policy as an appropriate remedy to address societal weight-based mistreatment.”

A Measure of Good Intensions

Implicit and Explicit Bias PatternsThese fit with data that tells us explicit weight bias may be declining. However, data from that same research suggests that implicit weight bias is rising.

What’s more, as Rebecca Pearl told us in the Presidential Plenary, roughly half of people with obesity have high levels of internalized weight stigma. That means they think obesity is their fault and they are likely to feel in some way that they deserve any ill treatment they might receive. Research also tells us that internalized stigma is prevalent in all of these countries.

Jessica Nordell explains in The End of Bias, implicit bias can be the most devastating. That’s because it is pervasive – always present. It begins to define a person’s thoughts about themselves.

So yes, it is good that people are open to policies that would put an end to weight-based bullying and discrimination. It is also good that such openness exists in several countries. But it is only a beginning. The end of bias will come only when we reshape our lives to see people through fresh eyes and recognize our own implicit biases.

Click here for Puhl’s new study and here for perspective on the end of bias.

Portrait of a Fat Gentleman, painting by Bernardo Strozzi / WikiArt

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November 4, 2021