Discrimination of any kind can harm your mental and physical well-being. Weight discrimination is particularly harmful because it’s still legal in most places. It can limit your job prospects, education, earnings, and social life.

And it does something more: Weight discrimination can harm your health.

This article explores the health effects of weight discrimination. It also provides some guidance about how to respond if you’re being targeted because of your weight.

Weight bias is a group of negative attitudes and judgments about people with obesity and higher body weights. Some experts also include people with disordered eating and very low body weight as well.

Weight bias is based on faulty beliefs like these:

  • People gain weight because they don’t have enough self-discipline.
  • People have excess weight because they don’t work hard or are lazy.
  • People only have themselves to blame if they have obesity.

In fact, weight gain can often be the result of a health condition, such as hypothyroidism or polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). Some medications can also cause unintentional weight gain.

Weight discrimination is what happens when someone acts on weight bias. In short, it’s about treating people differently based on their body weight.

Because weight discrimination can limit your opportunities, it’s considered a social justice issue as well as a health issue.

Weight bias is pervasive. Traditional media and social media are instrumental in spreading it, and weight bias can be found in schools, workplaces, and even healthcare settings worldwide.

While many other types of bias and discrimination are slowly improving, weight discrimination has gotten worse, not better, researchers say.

When you’re treated differently at work because of your weight, it can show up in lots of different ways.

According to research, people with obesity are 37 times more likely to report workplace discrimination, while people with severe obesity were 100 times more likely to experience weight discrimination at work.

Examples of weight bias in the workplace include:

  • not being hired for certain positions
  • receiving more negative performance reviews
  • being on the receiving end of derogatory comments
  • earning less money for doing the same or similar work as others
  • not being able to advance in the workplace at the same pace as your peers
  • being penalized for weight through company health benefits or other programs

For many people, weight bias and discrimination mean that work does not feel like a safe space. The environment can feel unsupportive and even hostile.

According to 2020 research, only one U.S. state — Michigan — currently has laws to protect people against weight discrimination. A handful of cities and towns have put anti-discrimination laws in place to deal with the problem, including:

  • Binghamton, New York
  • Madison, Wisconsin
  • Santa Cruz, California
  • San Francisco, California
  • Urbana, Illinois
  • Washington, D.C.

Some healthcare professionals have been trained to look at your weight as a sign of your overall health. Conversations about weight loss have been considered part of routine care.

However well-intentioned these measures have been, the result is that some people feel stigmatized in healthcare settings.

Newer guidelines recommend a different perspective. Research from 2017 published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends emphasizing physical activity for all people, regardless of their body mass index (BMI).

It’s important to understand that unfair treatment based on weight is associated with some very real health consequences.

You may avoid going to the doctor, even when you need care

People sometimes feel that their doctors and healthcare professionals treat them unfairly because of their weight.

According to a 2021 study, people who were overweight felt that weight stigma had affected how quickly and effectively they were treated and how much emotional support they received in the healthcare system.

If you think you’re going to experience bias or discrimination, you may avoid going to the doctor, even if you really need care. In that way, weight stigma may affect your access to quality healthcare.

You may not get quality care when you do go to the doctor

You’re not imagining it. In some healthcare settings, patients receive inferior care when they have obesity. Your healthcare professional may speak to you with less empathy and may spend less time educating you about health conditions.

In a research review spanning 17 years and 21 different studies, people with obesity said they had been treated with contempt and disrespect in healthcare facilities.

The study participants reported that their doctors often attributed their weight as being the cause of their symptoms, no matter what symptoms they reported.

In some cases, this disregard meant people didn’t get a correct diagnosis until much later.

If you feel like you’re not getting the care you need, you may want to consider looking for another healthcare professional.

You may develop some unhealthy coping mechanisms

Studies have shown that people who feel stigmatized because of their weight tend to do more comfort-eating as a result.

Weight stigma has also been linked to more binge eating and eating more convenience foods.

Processed convenience foods have been linked to a higher risk of developing conditions such as:

  • cancer
  • diabetes
  • gastrointestinal conditions
  • depression
  • high blood pressure
  • heart disease

You may experience the harmful effects of long-term stress

Stress is unavoidable — and, in fact, a little bit of stress here and there can actually be a good thing. But stress that goes on too long is as bad for your body as it is for your mind.

Researchers have found that people who experience weight discrimination have double the 10-year risk of high allostatic load. Allostatic load is the medical term for the pile-up of negative effects from chronic stress.

People with high allostatic loads have a greater risk of developing many types of health issues, including:

You may internalize the bias

Negative ideas about weight can seep into your self-concept over time. Researchers refer to this problem as internalized weight bias.

Studies show that roughly 40 percent of people with overweight and obesity have internalized weight bias, devaluing themselves as a result.

A number of studies have linked internalized bias to mental health issues such as:

You may exercise less

A 2017 study involving close to 5,500 participants found that people who had experienced weight discrimination were about 30 percent less likely to engage in a robust physical activity once a week, regardless of their actual BMI.

Other studies have shown that weight stigma is associated with avoiding the gym and group exercise settings.

Some people develop coping strategies that allow them to exercise without being in group settings where traumatic stigmatizing events have happened to them. For example, exercising at home can be a safer environment, where there’s less risk of being a target of discrimination.

Those strategies are important, since exercise can lead to a wide range of health benefits.

You may have an increased risk of a lower life expectancy

How damaging are the long-term effects of experiencing weight discrimination?

Researchers in a 2015 study found that living with weight stigma may be more harmful than obesity.

In the study, researchers analyzed the life spans of people in the Health and Retirement Study and the Midlife in the United States Study.

They found that people who experienced everyday discrimination based on their weight had a 60 percent higher risk of death in the time period they were studying.

This risk was independent of other factors such as a person’s BMI or tobacco use.

If you’re experiencing weight-related discrimination, the first thing to recognize is that it’s not your fault. As is true with other forms of discrimination, the problem lies with those who treat others unfairly — people who:

  • bully others in schools and on social media
  • create hostile work environments
  • shame and stigmatize, even in healthcare settings

Experts say a top-down societal change is necessary.

Whether or not you decide to participate in that societal change, there are steps you can take to identify and change biases that may have crept into your self-concept over time.

In a 2019 study that explored internalized bias, people who experienced weight discrimination found the following strategies helpful:

  • Create a counter-story. You can repair or replace the story you tell yourself about weight and weight bias. Some cultures pass down “master narratives“ about people with obesity. One such narrative is that people with obesity don’t get enough physical activity. Someone with a chronic health condition might replace that false narrative by focusing instead on their health journey. People who rewrite stories about their weight say it has helped them to “restore their identity” and “reframe their lives to create a healthier self.”
  • Look for a supportive place to share your story. Some study participants were able to exchange stories and share photos and other objects tied to memories. Sharing enabled people to find meaning in their experiences and learn from what others had been through. Look for support groups, either in-person or online, where you can share your experiences with others who have had similar experiences.
  • Recognize and resist stigmatizing messages. Media stereotypes and public health messaging around weight often contain bias. Messages that shame or blame are not healthy. You can learn to recognize, identify, and resist these messages. You can reframe damaging messages in ways that are kinder and truer. You may want to consider working with a therapist who has experience helping people who have obesity.
Obesity resources
  • MyObesityTeam is a social network for people living with obesity. It offers emotional support, advice, and insights on managing treatments for obesity.
  • The Obesity Action Coalition provides science-based education, tools, resources, and support for people with obesity.
  • ObesityHelp offers support for people with obesity, as well as resources and advice for those who may be considering bariatric surgery or other surgical weight loss options.
  • Obesity UK offers online community support groups as well as regional face-to-face support groups for people with obesity who live in the United Kingdom.

Weight bias and discrimination are harmful. When you’re treated differently because of your weight, it can raise your stress level and lead to poor health outcomes in the long run. You may also internalize negative weight-related beliefs in ways that end up damaging your mental and physical health.

To protect your well-being, it’s important to learn to recognize unhealthy messages about weight — whether they are coming from within or from the world around you. You can help create a kinder narrative that supports your health journey.