How Common Is Discrimination?

Posted: October 8, 2014 in Fat Acceptance, SCIENCE!
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

So I just came across this article titled: Weight Discrimination Is Surprisingly Rare, Study Finds. My typical reaction to news articles about studies though is “is that really what the study found?” because news articles are terrible at reporting such things.

In this case, going based solely on the information provided in this article- no, that really isn’t what the study found.

The biggest problem is that this study was based on self reports of discrimination.

The participants — nearly 3,000 men and women 50 and older — were asked how often they encounter five discriminatory situations: “In your day-to-day life, how often have any of the following things happened to you: (1) you are treated with less respect or courtesy; (2) you receive poorer service than other people in restaurants and stores; (3) people act as if they think you are not clever; (4) you are threatened or harassed; and (5) you receive poorer service or treatment than other people from doctors or hospitals. Responses ranged from ‘never’ to ‘almost every day’.”

But there are a lot of problems with this. How do you know if you are being treated more poorly than other people?  Sometimes you might know because a person treats you obviously rudely and you can see that they treat others differently.

But what if you can’t see how they treat others? If a doctor treats you rudely, are you going to assume you’re being treated more rudely than other patients or assume the doctor is just generally rude? Anecdotally, it’s my experience people are more likely to just assume the doctor is generally rude.

And that assumes behavior that is clearly rude and can be easily identified as such.

Look at studies of attitudes and behaviors of physicians and you can see that many do report bias against fat patients and treat them differently. “More than 50% of physicians viewed obese patients as awkward, unattractive, ugly, and noncompliant.” Along with having more negative views of overweight and obese patients, doctors have also been shown to have less emotional rapport with overweight and obese patients. When medical students were asked to provide recommendations for virtual patients, identical except for weight/BMI, “[s]tudents revealed more negative stereotyping, less anticipated patient adherence, worse perceived health, more responsibility attributed for potentially weight-related presenting complaints and less visual contact directed toward the obese version of a virtual patient than the non-obese version of the patient.” Weight has also shown to relate to what activities doctors spend time during visits on, with doctors spending less time educating obese patients about their health. And this is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of research showing weight bias among health care providers.

But if you are a patient how will you know if your doctor is spending less time educating you on your health condition than their thin patients? How do you know your doctor has more emotional rapport with thin patients? If your doctor never explicitly states anything negative about you or your weight but in subtle ways treats you differently due to negative bias how would you know you are being treated that way because of weight? In fact- often they don’t even realize they are treating patients different or even that they posses these biases. We all typically have biases we are not consciously aware of, yet they still impact our actions.

So expecting to capture this all in self-reports is misleading.

If you go by self-report we would miss a lot of discrimination, not jut of weight, but lots of issues.

It reminds me of something that happened in high school that I will never forget. Me and a few friends were heading out to hang out in Canada, and crossing the border. After we got through the checkpoint area I commented on it being so ridiculous the way the officers at the border acted suspicious of us and our relationship to each other (friends). I’m white, one of my friends is Indian and another is black and Puerto Rican. They told me I was crazy, that’s just standard “dong their job” for people who work at the border. And it dawned on me the difference in our perception- it was ridiculous to me because I knew from experience that if I was in a car with only other white people, they would not have acted that way. My friends had never been with an all white group crossing the border, because their presence would have automatically made the group no longer all white. If the only experience we have is with our own identify present, we can’t always know how our identity influences it. That’s why studies that actually document the differences are helpful.

Look at any area of discrimination and you will find that. We don’t always know it’s happening or why it is. If I get passed over for a job I have no idea if it’s because there was someone more qualified than me, or I’m being discriminated against due to my gender, or I’m being discriminated against due to my sexual orientation (which an employer can learn from googling me, or can assume by seeing that I’ve work with lgbtq organizations on my resume), or I’m being discriminated against because of my weight, or any other reason actually! I just know I never got called back for the job.

You cannot expect to capture the true frequency of discrimination based on self-reports.

Even the study’s authors offer another potential issue with the self-report data:

Jackson added that “research suggests that many overweight people don’t perceive themselves to be overweight, perhaps due to normalization of carrying excess weight. If people do not perceive themselves to be overweight one might expect them to be less likely to attribute experiences of discrimination to their weight.”

As well, they did not only study overweight and obese patients so the results are also including individuals who are “normal weight”.

I also see no indication that they analyzed the data by gender, which is significant since women are more likely to experience discrimination due to weight than men.

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Comments
  1. Thanks for sharing this, even though I’m kind of having a rage aneurysm right now. You pointed out a major flaw with the study, but here’s another one: all the study participants were over 50. I’m not saying weight discrimination doesn’t happen to that age group, but that particular age group was socialized very differently, and thus to have a fair, unbiased study, a variety of age groups should be represented. I have access to this journal because I’m a student, I’m going to have to go read the original study. Sometimes mainstream media grossly misreports things. I hope that’s what happened here.

    • ebay313 says:

      Yes, that is absolutely another huge issue. And one that facets into the self report issue. It may also be that weight discrimination varies across age groups but for sure how people perceive it will too! (Also possible that folks over 50 are more likely to attribute things to age. than weight.)

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