Why Everyone Seems to Hate Fat Kids

As biases against gay people decline, prejudices against overweight individuals have increased at similar rates.

Americans are expressing less bias against gay people and minorities. That’s the good news. The bad news? We’re rapidly becoming even less tolerant of obesity, age, and disability, according to a new Harvard University study that examined the prejudices of more than four million people.

“Age, disability and body weight attitudes haven’t changed,” Harvard’s Tessa Charlesworth, study coauthor, told NPR. “Actually, body weight attitudes even showed a slight tendency that they’re becoming worse over time.”

Explicit biases are well-documented in the research, as are the problems they cause. But there are often simple solutions to straightforward problems. Once a society refuses to accept explicit, outright acts of prejudice, such actions taper off over time. Implicit bias—prejudices that even those who hold them are unaware of—are far more insidious. Multiple studies have demonstrated that white individuals are more likely to interpret black people’s faces as angry, for instance. These implicit biases are a tougher nut to crack, and the subject of this new Harvard study.  

For the study, Charlesworth and her team measured the levels of implicit biases based on sexual orientation, race, skin tone, age, disability, and body weight for 4.4 million people, between 2007 and 2016. Participants paired words like old, young, overweight, gay, and disabled with words that have positive or negative associations. Responses were timed and, the faster the answer, the stronger the positive or negative association. Explicit biases were also measured.

As expected, explicit and implicit bias are both largely on the decline. “Our analyses revealed that all self-reported attitudes about age, disability, body weight, race, skin tone, and sexuality have moved towards less prejudice over the past decade,” Charlesworth said in a statement. Explicit bias towards gay and lesbian people declined the most, at 49 percent, and implicit bias against the LGBT similarly dropped. Explicit bias against obesity, on the other hand, decreased by only 15 percent—and when it came to implicit bias, prejudice against overweight people actually increased

“From about 2004 to about 2010, body weight bias actually increased by 40 percent. So almost as large of a change in the opposite direction from sexuality attitudes,” Charlesworth says. She speculates that the increase may be due to the perception that weight can be controlled. 

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“We are more likely to make the moral judgement of, ‘Well, you should just change’.”