2001 Annual Meeting of the North American Association for the Study of Obesity

Gary D. Foster, PhD


January 22, 2002

In This Article

Bias, Stigma, and Discrimination of Excess Body Weight

At this year's conference, there was a major effort to bring attention to the bias and discrimination that overweight and obese individuals often face in their daily lives. The conference opened with Dr. Kelly Brownell[1] of Yale University administering a questionnaire, the Implicit Association Test, to the attendees to identify discriminatory attitudes and heighten awareness of antifat behaviors that can get in the way of effective and compassionate treatment for overweight/obese individuals. This introductory exercise was followed by an afternoon symposium on bias and stigma. Part of the discussion focused on the work of the Rudd Institute, a public, nonprofit organization whose mission is "to document, understand and ameliorate the bias, stigma, and discrimination associated with obesity." To accomplish this goal, the Rudd Institute is currently engaged in the following activities: (1) creating a white paper on obesity-related bias and stigma; (2) examining the legal constructs surrounding weight discrimination; (3) conducting research studies aimed at documenting real-world discrimination (ie, housing, employment); (4) documenting the portrayal of body weight in television programs; and (5) developing approaches to reduce obesity-related stigma. Additional information about the Rudd Institute can be found at www.ruddinstitute.org.

Dr. Bradley Greenberg[2] of Michigan State University presented data from a study funded by the Rudd Institute examining how television programs portray overweight and obese individuals. Dr. Greenberg's research indicated that in real life, men and women are 3 times more likely to be obese than people appearing on television. Thus, obese people are underrepresented on television in the United States. His review of the 10 top-rated television programs revealed that heavier characters (both males and females) had fewer romantic interactions, fewer positive interactions, and were less likely to date, talk about dating, or have sexual encounters than thinner television characters. Overweight females receive less physical affection and are more often the object of jokes than thinner female counterparts. Eating was the only activity that heavier characters engaged in more frequently than thinner characters on television. These data are powerful indicators of how inaccurate stereotypes are reinforced through television.


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