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As of 2021, weight-based discrimination remains one of the only lasting legal and socially-accepted forms of discrimination in the United States. Being that the majority of Americans are now considered overweight or obese, this is of particular importance. Some readers may be inclined to believe that fat people are not deserving of legal protections. We have been told that fatness represents a disgusting moral failure, and to be fat is to be unhealthy, but is this the truth? The answer is no.

Fatness is not a moral failure, nor is it an end-all-be-all determinant of physical health. The idea that it is represents a fatphobic notion perpetuated through propaganda. This belief must be removed from our society, lest fat people continuously be subjected to dangerous prejudice and discrimination.

Weight is not a moral failure, but a complex combination of genetic and social factors. Although it has been documented that a higher BMI is associated with health risks, this is not a phenomenon that extends to every fat person. A study by Dankel et al. (2016) provides support for the fat-but-fit paradigm, which suggests that cardiorespiratory fitness mitigates the negative effects of high BMI on mortality. Of 11,057 American adults evaluated, only inactive individuals were at significantly higher risk of mortality, independent of BMI. Further, for several chronic illnesses, obese individuals have a better prognosis than normal or low weight individuals. These studies suggest that weight alone cannot fully describe an individual’s health. Yet, the vehement belief that fat is never fit persists.

When we consider why this belief persists, we cannot ignore propaganda perpetuated by government-funded media campaigns. If you have been living in the U.S. for a long period of time, you have likely been subjected to media advertisements regarding the “obesity epidemic,” a narrative created by the Department of Health and Human Services in the early 2000s which insists that fatness is a disease to be eradicated.

To assert that these campaigns actively contributed to negative perceptions of fatness in the U.S. is not simple conjecture. Research demonstrates that media bias directly impacts people’s perceptions of fatness. A study by Frederick et al. (2020) found that, when presented with news articles framed as fat-negative, participants scored higher on a multitude of bias categories, including antifat attitudes and perceived health risks of obesity. With this and current obesity statistics in mind, it is clear that DHHS succeeded not in decreasing obesity rates, but in perpetuating fatphobia.

Indeed, while both implicit and explicit bias for most social-group attitudes has decreased since the early 2000s, anti-fat attitudes have increased. These attitudes have had a direct impact on the lives of fat people in the U.S. through physical and mental health disparities and economic, educational and social inequalities. For example, earlier this week, a study published in BMC Public Health reported that adults classified as obese who experienced weight discrimination were at higher risk of chronic pain than those classified as normal weight. This suggests that the emotional toll of weight discrimination alone may be enough to manifest negative consequences.

As this issue grows, researchers have documented unprecedented support for weight-based anti-discrimination policies this year, particularly regarding bullying and employment. It is crucial that we continue to advocate for weight-based protections. This might manifest itself in various ways. In addition to the anti-discrimination policies mentioned, research is beginning to support interventions to reduce anti-fat attitudes and practices in medicine.

A study investigating the efficacy of obesity sensitivity training on U.S. nursing students’ discriminatory beliefs and actions toward fat people found that obesity sensitivity training significantly reduced negative stigma. While this shows promise, obesity sensitivity training has yet to be implemented on a systemic level. Further, given what we know about the effect of fat-negative news framing on anti-fat attitudes, it is crucial that the media plays a part in ending fatphobia and weight discrimination.

In sum, weight is not a moral failure, cannot alone predict an individual’s health outcomes, and must cease to be a discriminatory factor. As solutions to fatphobia and weight discrimination become clearer, I urge readers to join the fight to end this form of bias.

Jennifer Hernandez is currently a student in Cal State Bakersfield's M.S. in Counseling Psychology program.