Weight bias, or discrimination based on a person’s weight, is widespread in society. It can lead to unfair judgement, poorer health outcomes, and unequal access to opportunities.

Society judges people on their appearance. Unfortunately, there tend to be more negative attitudes directed at individuals of higher weights, which can lead to discriminatory treatment.

Additionally, people of higher weights can experience discrimination in healthcare settings. This undermines public health and can increase health disparities, social inequalities, and raise the risk of eating disorders.

Read more to learn about what weight discrimination is, how it can harm a person’s health, and what can be done to prevent it.

People of higher weights are more likely to experience weight discrimination.Share on Pinterest
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Weight discrimination is when someone receives different treatment than others because of their body weight. People of higher weights are often discriminated against at work, school, healthcare settings, and in interpersonal relationships.

This discrimination also includes weight bias, which is when people associate negative ideas and attitudes with overweight and obesity. Some examples of these ideas include thinking people are lazy, lack willpower, or are unintelligent.

In addition to harming a person’s mental health, these false beliefs about people of higher weights can lead to poorer health outcomes. Research shows that weight discrimination is linked to worse health outcomes and a greater risk of all-cause mortality. Additionally, it has been associated with weight gain and poor mental health.

Weight discrimination can occur in a range of settings. For some people, it starts in childhood during their education and extends into adulthood.


Many children experience bullying at school, and weight is often used as a motivator for this behavior. Although peers are often responsible for bullying, teachers may also victimize students. For example, physical education teachers may unwittingly bully children of higher weights.

Weight stigma does not end at school — and it can prevent individuals from progressing to higher education. According to a 2018 study, having overweight is associated with lower rates of attaining college degrees.


Weight discrimination can affect how likely someone is to be hired, and how they are treated at their job. It can affect other facets of employment, including:

  • career counseling opportunities
  • the interview and hiring process
  • salary
  • promotions
  • disciplinary actions
  • contract termination

According to one study of the hiring process, employers were more likely to rate overweight individuals as less suitable for work than individuals of moderate weight.

This discrepancy hits women particularly hard. A 2019 study of young individuals in work showed an association between having overweight and earning less money. Shockingly, it showed that as body mass index (BMI) increased, average pay decreased.


Weight discrimination is also prevalent in healthcare settings.

A 2005 study showed that 53% of people with overweight and obesity reported that doctors made inappropriate comments about their weight. People also reported receiving these comments from nurses, dietitians, and mental health professionals.

Additionally, research shows that primary care physicians have less rapport and open communication with people of higher weights. This is particularly concerning, as rapport building is essential to quality care.

They also spend less time with these patients, negatively affecting their health outcomes.

Weight stigma — from unfair hiring practices to poor healthcare treatment — can negatively impact a person’s physical and mental health. Some negative effects of weight discrimination include:

  • Low self-esteem. Weight-based bullying, as well as exclusion and lack of opportunities, can cause people to lose confidence in themselves. Negative comments about weight from family members, friends, and healthcare professionals can further their negative body image.
  • Worse mental health. Discrimination of any kind can harm a person’s mental health. People who experience weight discrimination are 2.5 times more likely to experience mood and anxiety disorders.
  • Weight gain. Weight-related bullying, according to research, actually causes people to increase the amount they eat. It is associated with higher cortisol levels, less self-regulation, and increased cravings, which can lead to weight gain.
  • Poor health outcomes. Weight discrimination is associated with worse healthcare treatment. Notably, research shows a connection between weight bias and poorer cardiovascular health outcomes.
  • Lower socioeconomic status. Research shows that people of higher weights are less likely to receive promotions and bonuses at work, and women in particular earn less than their moderate weight counterparts.

Many studies rely on people self-reporting their experiences, so it is difficult to accurately measure the prevalence of weight discrimination. Large-scale studies attempting to calculate this figure are lacking.

However, a large 2020 study of 3,800 adults in the U.S. found 57% of them had experienced weight stigma. The rates of stigma and teasing were higher for those with higher BMIs.

No, weight discrimination is not currently illegal.

In the United States, there are currently no federal laws protecting people from weight discrimination in the workplace, in education, or in healthcare settings.

The only U.S. state outlawing weight bias is Michigan. According to the Elliott Larsen civil rights act of 1976, employers cannot refuse to hire, terminate, or pay someone less because of their size or weight.

Globally, there are very few laws against weight discrimination. One study assessing public attitudes found that among participants in the U.S., Australia, and Iceland, 55–76% of people thought the government should pass legislation against weight discrimination in the workplace. Creating laws or policies of this nature is one way to reduce future unfair treatment.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) considers severe obesity a disability. Because of this, employers legally cannot discriminate against someone who is severely obese.

However, because much of the workplace discrimination flies under the radar, it is difficult to enforce the EEOC’s ruling.

Weight discrimination is pervasive. Like many stigmas, it is often acted out unintentionally due to unconscious bias. This does not make it okay — rather, it explains why such harmful behavior can continue unnoticed.

However, individuals may find it challenging to counteract weight stigma. Unrealistic beauty standards, unhealthy dieting messaging, and the idea that “thin is healthy” stand in the way.

Unlike defining characteristics — like gender, sexuality, and race — people may consider weight to be a changeable factor within someone’s control. Despite the fact that this is not always true, it fuels negative stereotypes that perpetuate weight stigma.

People suffering from weight discrimination should not be responsible for enacting change. It is up to each individual person to reflect on their actions and acknowledge their bias. Treating others with empathy, understanding, and respect is central to helping solve the issue.

Individuals can start by asking themselves questions such as:

  • Do I make assumptions about someone’s intelligence, character, health, or lifestyle based solely on their weight?
  • Am I comfortable socializing and working with people of any weight?
  • Am I sensitive to the needs and concerns of individuals of different weights?

Counteracting the stigma of weight bias needs to happen on a societal level, but that begins with everyone’s attitudes and opinions.

Weight discrimination can harm someone’s physical and mental health. People experiencing unfair treatment may benefit from support from loved ones, peers, and professionals.

People can contact the Obesity Action Coalition (OAC), a nonprofit organization that helps overweight and obese individuals advocate for themselves and find their voice. They offer a community of supporters, education, information, and access to qualified medical providers who can help an individual’s journey to better health.

Additionally, people can seek help from a mental health professional, such as a psychiatrist or counselor. They can help them work through difficult emotions and struggles.

Weight discrimination means mistreating an individual because of their weight. It often stems from weight bias or stigma, which is when people have negative beliefs about people of higher weights.

The effects of weight discrimination go beyond the immediate emotional distress a person may experience at the time. It can impact a person’s physical and mental health, interpersonal relationships, education, and employment opportunities.

Unfortunately, there are no U.S. federal laws protecting people from weight discrimination in schools, workplaces, and healthcare settings. People can still play an individual role in counteracting prejudice by treating everyone with equal empathy, respect, and kindness.