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What can you tell about a person with obesity by looking at them?

It’s been called the last acceptable form of discrimination and spans work, relationships, healthcare, and education. It’s not often spoken about, but for people who are overweight and obese, discrimination and weight bias is a very real experience. How often have you heard an overweight person described as lazy, low in self-discipline or overindulgent?

Although the negative health impacts of obesity are often discussed at length, it’s not often that the social and psychological aspect of obesity is explored. Accordingly, researchers from the University of New South Wales and the University of Maryland undertook a set of studies to understand the relationship between social status and obesity stereotypes. Their primary research questions were:

Does obesity act as a status cue?

Is there any connection between social status and stereotypes associated with obese people?

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To test this, two studies were undertaken. The first was to understand what connection, if any, there was between obesity, social status, stereotypes and perceived controllability of weight. The second study then tested whether perceptions of a particular person were altered based on their body size and social status.

The first study was conducted amongst 81 undergraduate students as part of their introductory psychology class. The study took the format of a series of questionnaires, assessing perceptions of social status, influence, and traits that might apply to thin or obese people. Finally, the Anti-fat Attitudes Scale was tested to understand the extent to which obesity was perceived to be under personal control.

Analysis of the results from study one showed that:

  • Participants perceived people who are obese as having lower social status than people who are not obese;
  • Participants were aware of the cultural stereotypes typically associated with people who are obese (e.g. lazy, sloppy); and
  • Participants perceived people who are obese as having lower social status than people who are not obese.
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123 undergraduate students participated in this study in exchange for course credit. Participants were provided with a pack including an “employee profile card” describing a particular person, and a questionnaire. The employee described was male, and included basic personal details. However the employee’s information was adjusted to either show a higher-status job.

(Surgeon) or lower status job (hospital cleaner). The image of the employee was also adjusted to show them as lean and as a heavier weight (“heavyset”). Participants were surveyed to understand their perceptions of the employee’s character traits, competence, and warmth. Additionally, participants were asked to indicate the perceived social status of the employee (considering aspects of control, power and prestige).

The results revealed that:

  • The heavier target was considered less lazy when described as a surgeon than when described as a cleaner;
  • The lean surgeon was rated as less sloppy than the lean cleaner; and
  • The heavier target was rated as less competent than the lean target.
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These studies show that the perception of people who are overweight and obese is affected by bias – and that people who are overweight or obese are seen as having lower social status than people who are not overweight or obese. The authors conclude that these results indicate that obesity is used as a cue to draw conclusions about a person’s social status.