Obese people target of discrimination

Published 02 November 2016

New research by the University of New England show people who are obese, face immense prejudice within the community.

Associate Professor Einar B. Thorsteinsson from the School of Behavioural, Cognitive and Social Sciences said 81% of the 450 participants surveyed had negative attitudes toward obese people.

This prejudice towards obesity combined with the fact that research has found it is harmful to people’s health, confirms the importance of interventions aimed at reducing it.


The participants in the survey were aged 18 to 78 years of age with 72 men and 375 women. Education levels among the group were high, with 17% having a postgraduate degree, 36% with a Bachelor’s degree.

Researchers hypothesised that participants’ levels of prejudice toward obese people is related to positive beliefs about their own exercise and healthy eating control.

“Those participants who had positive beliefs about their own exercised and had healthy eating habits were less prejudice towards obese people. This may indicate underlying happiness and wellbeing that in turn promotes increased tolerance and less prejudice towards people that are different. If you are happy about your own situation you may feel sorry for those that are less fortunate than you. So the healthier a person rated their weight, the lower their level of prejudice,” according to Assoc/Prof. Thorsteinsson.

Additionally, participants who had a positive weight perception had increased positive beliefs about their own exercised and healthy eating habits.

The World Health Organisation (2015) reports that worldwide obesity rates have nearly doubled since 1980. In 2011-12, 68% of Australian adults were overweight or obese.

Assoc. Prof Thorsteinsson says as rates of obesity have increased, so too have people’s experiences of prejudice with the view that obese individuals are responsible for their obesity.

“When overweight participants are primed with weight-related stereotypes their intentions to improve their dietary and exercise-related behaviours are diminished. Being reminded about your ‘shortcomings’ may cause increased levels of stress, increased negative self-assessment, such as thinking about past failures to improve health, and increased unhappiness about current body image,” said Assoc/Prof. Thorsteinsson.

While the research evidence suggests that genetic and environmental factors outside the individual’s control can impact a person’s weight there are also perceptions that weight is manageable through healthy eating and being active. Researchers wanted to consider how weight attributions influence people’s health.

Assoc/Prof. Thorsteinsson says western culture is facing a dilemma whereby the cultural value for thinness is pitted against rising obesity rates.

“Research is urgently needed to tackle the ubiquitous, publicly acceptable, and ultimately harmful practice of prejudicing people who are overweight or obese.”

“The evidence that prejudice directed at obese individuals is present in Western society is generally well documented. Research has found that this prejudice can be harmful, potentially reducing a person’s ability to perform the healthy behaviours necessary to lose weight.”

The effect of weight controllability beliefs on prejudice and self-efficacy is published in the PeerJ.