People Have Kinder Attitudes Toward Workplace Weight Discrimination Than You Might Expect

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A portly gentleman in a business suit, carrying an attache case and smiling broadly.
Photo: Harold M. Lambert/2005 Getty Images

This week, a group of men have reportedly been handing out fat-shaming cards to women on the London Underground. The men called themselves Overweight Haters Ltd, and the cards said things like, “It’s really not glandular, it’s your gluttony.” 

But these kinds of attitudes — and unrepentant fat shaming — may actually be in the minority, at least in the U.S. and a handful of other countries. A multinational study by the University of Connecticut’s Rudd Center for Food Policy, published today in The Milbank Quarterly, suggests that people are in fact considerably sensitive to weight prejudices — and that most of those surveyed would like to see increased laws and government policies to protect overweight people in the workplace.  

Using online surveys, researchers canvassed nearly 3,000 adults in the U.S., Canada, Iceland, and Australia, examining levels of support for legal measures to address weight discrimination. The Rudd Center selected these four countries for their comparable rates of adult obesity, similar social values of thinness, and per-capita incomes, and for having parliamentary or congressional democracies.  

As it turned out, many people said they want more protections for their overweight colleagues. At least two-thirds of participants across all four countries support making it illegal for employers to refuse to hire, assign lower wages, deny promotions, or terminate workers because of their weight. As you may know, two-thirds of Americans also happen to be overweight, and the Rudd study participants within the obese BMI range were more likely to support stricter laws than thinner individuals. Even so, the majority of U.S. respondents favored boosting current human-rights laws with anti-weight-discrimination language — some evidence, perhaps, of a less “fat-phobic” culture than it often appears.

Although the Rudd Center researchers also noticed an important factor that played into people’s decision: Respondents were more likely to champion anti-weight-discrimination laws if they believed obesity is caused by numerous factors outside of personal control, such as the economics of food, genetics, or emotional triggers for overeating. Those who placed more personal blame on overweight individuals — believing, for instance, that they are “lazy” or lack willpower — were less likely to want stricter laws.

So when people have oversimplified notions about obesity, they are less likely to want to change the status quo, Rudd Center deputy director Rebecca Puhl explained to Science of Us. On the other hand, increased education may lead to increased empathy.