The Last Safe Prejudice

It's still okay to stigmatize overweight individuals—and that's not okay

Posted Sep 09, 2015

By Kristin Nicole Dukes

It is almost impossible to browse the internet or watch the news without encountering a sensational headline about the American “obesity epidemic.” We have become all too familiar with the statistics about the prevalence of obesity and the associated consequences: More than one-third, or 78.6 million, of American adults are obese.  Obesity-related conditions including heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes are some of the leading causes of preventable death among US adults.  Despite widespread messages about the negative health consequences of being obese, these numbers continue to rise. One common approach to obesity reduction has been to call for behavioral change—that is, for weight loss through diet and exercise.

We are reminded daily of ways to reduce and control our weight. Commercials for programs like Jenny Craig, Nutrisystem, and Weight Watchers flaunt celebrity and layperson weight-loss success stories. Popular shows like NBC’s "The Biggest Loser" and TLC’s "My 600-lb Life" suggest that with a little willpower, dedication, regimented diet and exercise—and in more extreme cases, bariatric surgery—anyone can lose weight.  Magazines like Heath, Fitness, and Shape are dedicated to weight-loss tips. Even general interest magazines like Cosmopolitan, OK!, and People are filled with weight-loss tips.  Have a smartphone? There are dozens of weight-loss apps right at your fingertips.

But are these weight-loss messages, tips, and tools helping or harming? Unfortunately, popular weight-loss messages often have the unintended consequence of propagating obesity stigma. Obesity stigma is negative weight-related attitudes and beliefs manifested in stereotypes, rejection, and prejudice towards individuals because they are overweight or obese. As one of the “last safe prejudices” (Smith, 1990), obesity stigma is pervasive in our society (Puhl & Brownell, 2001).

In the workplace, overweight applicants and employees are viewed as lazy, as lacking in self-control, and as less conscientious, competent and productive. These negative attitudes have far reaching implications for hiring, wages, and promotion. In healthcare, medical professionals often hold negative and discriminatory attitudes toward overweight individuals. Overweight patients report overall poorer quality treatment stating that they feel disrespected by healthcare professionals, perceive that they are not taken seriously, and are reluctant to discuss weight concerns with their healthcare providers (Mold & Forbes, 2013). In the media, overweight and obese individuals are frequently portrayed in a negative, stigmatizing manner with detrimental implications for public perceptions of obesity and obese individuals. Obese characters are more likely to be shown overeating and unsuccessful in interpersonal interactions and relationships (Heuer, n.d.).

Rather than promoting a healthy lifestyle and motivating change, popular weight-loss messages instill and reinforce negative beliefs about obesity and have limited impact on people’s attitudes about their personal health and well-being. These messages have the relentless tendency of shaming and blaming overweight people. Further, experiencing obesity stigma increases the likelihood of engaging in behaviors counterproductive to weight loss such as unhealthy eating and decreased physical activity (Pearl & Lebowitz, 2014; Puhl, Peterson, & Luedicke, 2013).

So how do we create weight-loss and obesity reduction messages without reinforcing obesity stigma? Psychological research provides several recommendations: 

  • Limit Focus on Personal Responsibility: Messages focusing on factors contributing to obesity other than personal responsibility and blame can increase individuals’ belief in their own ability to lose weight without perpetuating obesity stigma. For example, acknowledging the financial barriers to obtaining healthier food options and supporting access to these options is more encouraging and less harmful than focusing solely on the food choices a person makes.
  • Emphasize Health: People are more amenable to lifestyle changes when an emphasis is placed on health and well-being rather than weight. For instance, focusing on the holistic benefits of physical activity rather than myopic emphasis on exercise for weight management.
  • Include a Plan of Action: Messages that provide a very specific plan of action are more effective than those that offer general guidelines. For example, giving precise information about types and quantities of food someone should consume versus instructing someone to generically eat less sugar or fat.
  • Push Back Against Media Stereotypes: Recognize and push back against stereotypical portrayals of overweight individuals and obesity. Encourage and celebrate diverse non-stereotypical depictions of overweight individuals varying in age, gender, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, profession, etc. We have the freedom to consume non-stigmatizing media and the power to shift protrayals through our choices.

Given the negative health outcomes associated with obesity, focus on and concern with growing rate of overweight and obese individuals in our society is understandable. However, it is essential that we find effective, non-stigmatizing ways to communicate weight-loss messages. We must direct our energy toward motivating healthy lifestyle changes without stigmatizing obesity. Additionally, combatting prejudice against overweight individuals is a worthwhile goal. Take a stand against weight-based stigma, stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination. Educate yourself about the social and psychological implications of obesity stigma. Obesity stigma should not be a safe prejudice.

Kristin Nicole Dukes, PhD
Assistant Professor of Psychology 
Simmons College 

For more information about obesity stigma and its consequences, explore the following resources:

Obesity Action Coalition:

Association for Size Diversity and Health:

Council on Size and Weight Discrimination:

Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity:

The Obesity Society:


Heuer, C. (n.d.) “Fattertainment”: Obesity in the media. Obesity Action Coalition

Mold, F., & Forbes, A. (2013). Patients’ and professionals’ experiences and perspectives of obesity in health-care settings: a synthesis of current research. Health Expectations, 16(2), 119-142

Pearl, R., & Lebowitz, M. (2014). Beyond personal responsibility: Effects of causal attributions for overweight and obesity on weight-related beliefs, stigma, and policy support. Psychology & Health, 29(10), 1176-1191

Puhl, R., & Brownell, K. (2001). Bias, discrimination, and obesity. Obesity Research, 9, 788-805

Puhl, R., Peterson, J., & Luedicke, J. (2013). Fighting obesity or obese persons? Public perceptions of obesity-related messages. International Journal of Obesity, 37, 774-782

Smith, S. (1990). Sizism: One of the last “safe” prejudices. The California Now Activist, 5, 2–3