Deborah Carr talks with
ScienceWatch.com and answers a few questions about
this month's Fast Moving Front in the field of
Psychiatry/Psychology. The author has also sent along
an image of her work.
Article: Is obesity stigmatizing? Body weight,
perceived discrimination, and psychological well-being in
the United States
Journal: J HEALTH SOC BEHAVIOR, 46 (3): 244-259 SEP
Addresses: Rutgers State Univ, Inst Hlth Hlth Care Policy
& Aging Res, 30 Coll Ave, New Brunswick, NJ 08901
Rutgers State Univ, Inst Hlth Hlth Care Policy & Aging
Res, New Brunswick, NJ 08901 USA.
Rutgers State Univ, Dept Sociol, New Brunswick, NJ 08901
Rutgers State Univ, Dept Psychol, New Brunswick, NJ 08901
Why do you think your paper is highly
Obesity is a tremendous social and health problem in the United States
today. About 60% of Americans are overweight, and one-third are obese.
Although the physical health consequences are widely documented, we still
know relatively little about the social and psychological consequences of
Although our casual observations of the world may lead us to conclude that
overweight people are treated more poorly than thinner people, relatively
few studies have examined this issue rigorously.
Moreover, most studies of obesity focus on small, non-representative
samples of overweight persons, typically those who signed up for a
weight-loss program. Our study is based on a random sample of Americans of
all shapes and sizes, thus we can compare overweight and obese people with
their thinner counterparts.
Does it describe a new discovery, methodology, or
synthesis of knowledge?
Many studies of weight discrimination ask members of the general population
whether they find overweight people to be competent, attractive, and the
like. That's how discrimination is often measured.
Graph of the odds of reporting workplace
discrimination, by body mass index and occupational
We took a reverse approach—asking individuals whether they had ever
experienced both institutional (e.g., employment, medical) and
interpersonal (e.g., teasing, rudeness) mistreatment, and to what would
they attribute this experience—such as their race, their gender, or
body weight. We then evaluated whether these responses varied based on
one's body mass index (BMI), a standard measure used to calculate the ratio
of one's weight to height.
Would you summarize the significance of your paper
in layman’s terms?
We found that overweight and obese people reported significantly more
employment discrimination, healthcare-related discrimination, and multiple
forms of interpersonal mistreatment compared to persons of "normal" weight.
Additionally, we found that the social disadvantages that come with a high
body weight are even more extreme for upper-middle class persons, such as
white collar workers. As Figure 1 shows, white-collar workers who are
extremely obese—with a BMI of 35 or higher—are more than twice
as likely as their thinner counterparts to report work-related
However, among persons in less prestigious jobs, obese and non-obese people
don't differ in terms of discrimination experiences. These findings suggest
that some cultures disdain obesity more than others.
How did you become involved in this research and
were any particular problems encountered along the way?
I became involved in this because I'm interested in the ways that physical
appearances shape one's everyday life experiences. One of the major
difficulties is that we don’t have direct measures of discrimination
(e.g., formal claims to personnel officers) but rather one's perceptions
that they’ve been mistreated, and one's own explanation for why they
were discriminated against.
Although some critics may quibble with the use of self-reported
discrimination data, I believe that if someone perceives that they are
mistreated, then that is an important outcome in and of itself. If an obese
person feels mistreated by his or her doctor (regardless of what the doctor
is actually doing), then he or she may stop seeking timely health
care— which could have dire physical consequences.
Where do you see your research leading in the
I'm very curious to explore whether the stigma of obesity increases or
decreases over time. It's possible that as more and more people become
obese, the stigma (and accompanying mistreatment) will decline. More people
will have an obese friend, sibling, coworkers, and the like, and as such
they may be more sympathetic.
On the other hand, if obesity rates remain particularly high among ethnic
minorities and the poor, we may see an even greater stigma—where thin
middle-class whites discriminate against those who face the multiple
disadvantages of minority ethnic status, low socioeconomic resources, and
excessive body weight.
Do you foresee any social or political implications
for your research?
Yes. My study finds strong evidence that overweight and obese people are
discriminated against, especially in terms of hiring and promotions in the
workplace. However, overweight persons are not a protected group, according
to the "Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990."
Although healthcare policies typically target obese people, with
recommendations on how to lose weight, my findings suggest that policies
should also target those who do the discriminating. Many of the harmful
social and interpersonal consequences of obesity come at the hands of
Deborah Carr, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Sociology
New Brunswick, NJ, USA Web