Article 3

2019-11-25 Zenia Simonella

Obesity: Stigma Becomes Dehumanization

About one month ago, the Italian Association of Dietetics and Clinical Nutrition held an "Obesity Day" (, and in the conference organized in Rome on that occasion, presented the "Bill of Rights and Responsibilities of Persons with Obesity." The opening of the Bill is as follows: "The rights of persons with obesity are the same human and social rights as those of persons without obesity."

Why did they feel the need to write a "Bill of Rights and Responsibilities of Persons with Obesity"?

The main goals of the sponsors were: to enhance people's sensitivity to issues of health; and above all to combat discrimination against people with obesity. In the world, the obese population is 12.8%, while the percentage of adults who are overweight is 39%; in Italy, the percentage of obese adults is estimated to be around 10.8%.[1]

The way to deal with obesity, as a social problem, and the attitude towards people with obesity have not always been the same in history: "The difference is made by the weights and measures, that at different times and places, are chosen to set the threshold of normality."[2] Discrimination towards people with obesity began to emerge with the economic boom and the birth of the consumer society, that changed the relationship between individuals, now consumers, and the satisfaction of their needs. Today, more than in the past, obesity is a strongly penalizing condition: while in the global village we rely "on material parameters and quantitative, and almost biometric indicators (to govern our life), what is decisive is no longer the person, but the efficiency of the body machine."[3] Being in shape and in good health becomes an obsession, and the body rises to be the measure of all things:

The postmodern body is first and foremost a receiver of sensations, it imbibes and digests experiences; the capacity of being stimulated renders it an instrument of pleasure. That capacity is called fitness; obversely the ‘state of unfitness’ stands for languor, apathy, listless-ness, dejection, a lackadaisical response to stimuli; for a shrinking or just ‘below average’ capacity for, and an interest in, new sensations and experiences. "Being depressed" means not having the desire to "go out and have fun." In one way or another, the most common and worrying disorders are the disorders of consumption.[4]

This obsession has transformed a problem linked to the health of people who are overweight or live with obesity, into a sort of planetary epidemic,[5] generating "obesophobia." Moreover, in individualistic cultures such as that of the United States, obesity is seen as a personal fault, when in reality it is strictly linked to socio-economic status and other characteristics of the person (gender, age, and ethnicity, categories that intersect with the individual's social condition). For example, in the United States, where the percentage of people with obesity is about 36.2%,[6] long-term unemployment increases the likelihood of becoming obese, such that the percentage goes from 22.8 among people unemployed for a few weeks, to 32.7 among those who have been unemployed for more than 52 weeks.[7] In addition, the percentage of people with obesity of Hispanic origin (47%) or those who are black (46,8%) is higher than that of non-Hispanic whites (37.9%).[8] These are people who generally have a low level of education and employment, and this social condition more frequently pushes them into the trap of obesity (for example, through the consumption of junk food). In Italy as well – and in Europe – obesity is strictly linked to social condition: less-educated people who belong to less well-off groups have double the likelihood of becoming obese compared to others, and their children are on average more obese than those of others (29.5% versus 18.5% of obese children of parents with a high-level degree). People with obesity are found more in the South, in small towns, and in peripheral areas of metropolitan cities,[9] showing the link between social and spatial inequality, which by now is well-known in the literature.

Studies show that in the labor market, obese people are less likely to find a job, to get a raise, and to obtain promotions. In the recruiting and selection process, obese people are evaluated as worse than non-obese candidates with the same levels of education and skills.[10] In a recent study reported on by Marino Niola,[11] 93% of human resources directors interviewed admitted that they are influenced by the candidate's size during selection. In the workplace, every day, obese people more frequently report forms of micro-aggressiveness and discrimination with respect to other categories.[12] Obese women are still penalized more than men.[13] In addition to historically being at a greater disadvantage in the labor market, the stigma of weight is added to that of gender, as it is strictly linked to physical appearance, an issue which is particularly strong for women, as we know (

Obesity is seen as a problem close to that of disease and disability, to the point that in August 2019, the Supreme Court of the state of Washington declared discrimination against an obese person to be illegal, considering obesity similar to disability.[14]  

Stereotypes regarding obese people are very widespread. An analysis of English newspapers conducted by some researchers[15] showed that obesity is represented as a case of moral degeneration. Other stereotypes regard their representation as lazy individuals, lacking will, not intelligent, dirty, immoral, and without self-control.[16] Stereotypes regarding obese people and their stigmatization is a pervasive, but common phenomenon. An uncommon element that emerges in recent studies on obesity as stigma, that raises worries, is the phenomenon of de-humanization of obese people, the attitude through which they tend to be represented as closer to animals, and thus are seen as less human. The issue of de-humanization of stigmatized groups is already known in the literature, especially in relation to the ethnic question.

One of the most serious consequences of this attitude is the increase of minority stress and of aggressiveness to the point of complete social exclusion of the members of the stigmatized group.   

[1]Data taken from the Italian Obesity Barometer Report (2019):

[2] M. Niola, "Umiliati e obesi," in Archivio antropologico mediterraneo, XXI, 2019, n. 20. p. 3.

[3] Ivi, p.7.

[4] Z. Bauman, Dentro la globalizzazione. Le conseguenze sulle persone. Roma-Bari, Laterza, 1998, p. 58

[5] World Health Organization, Obesity: Preventing and Managing the Global Epidemic, Report, 2000.

[7] S. Crabtree, "Obesity Linked to Long-Term Unemployment in U.S.," Gallup, June 18, 2014

[8] C. M. Hales, M. D. Carroll, C. D. Fryar, C. L. Ogden, "Prevalence of Obesity Among Adults and Youth:

United States, 2015-2016," NCHS Data Brief, No. 288, October 2017

[9] Italian Obesity Barometer Report (2019), p. 48.

[10] R.M. Puhl, "Bias, Stigma, and Discrimination," The Oxford Handbook of the Social Science of Obesity, October 2011

[11] M. Niola, "Umiliati e Obesi," in Archivio antropologico mediterraneo, 2019, XXI, n.20. p. 8.

[12] D. Carr, M.A.Friedman, "Is obesity stigmatizing? Body weight, perceived discrimination, and psychological well-being in the United States," Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 2005, 46(3), pp. 244-259.

[13] R. Pingitore, B.L. Dugoni, R.S. Tindale, B. Spring, "Bias against overweight job applicants in a simulated employment interview," Journal of Applied Psychology, 1995, 79(6), pp. 909-917

[14] "Washington State Supreme Court Determines Obesity Discrimination Unlawful," DiversityInc, August 1, 2019

[15] S.W. Flint, J. Hudson, D. Lavallee, "The portrayal of obesity in U.K. national newspapers," Stigma and Health, 2016, 1(1), pp. 16-28

[16] R.M. Puhl, C.A. Heuer, "Obesity Stigma: Important Considerations for Public Health," American Journal of Public Health, 2010, 100(6), pp. 1019-1028,