Overweight – an issue affecting us all.

On 3 May this year I posted an article about the nine protected characteristics of the Equality Act, asking why stop at nine.

Today I read an article on an NHS Choices website about doctors who discriminate against overweight people, entitled “Is your doctor fattist?” In its text, it explored the issue I recently discussed of unconscious bias, stating that “Explicit (conscious) feelings were judged by a direct question. More importantly, implicit (unconscious) feelings were judged by a web-based series of tests. Studying implicit feelings is arguably more important as many people may have deep-seated opinions, which, for reasons of social pressure, they are unwilling to admit to others (and possibly themselves)”.

The findings of the research suggest that doctors have a strong implicit and explicit preference for thin people, which the article goes on to explain is no different from the general public in society at large.

We do not have to be too clever in our searches to see what people are saying about others who are overweight. This is an example I found. “To be brutally honest, even in real life, I find it aesthetically displeasing to watch a very, very fat person simply walk across a room — just like I’d find it distressing if I saw a very drunk person stumbling across a bar or a heroin addict slumping in a chair.” Mike and Molly Show – Overweight Couples on Television – Marie Claire.

Is this the truth we all have deeply ingrained in our unconscious selves?

I remember in a group I was part of some years ago there was one person who was quite overweight and physically unattractive. When she joined, I recall with some embarrassment my initial reaction, which today I am not proud of. Now I understand I was responding to my unconscious bias. However, as I got to know her, I realised that she was one of the most beautiful people I had ever met; deeply sensitive and caring in the extreme. She demonstrated to me never to judge a proverbial book by its cover, a first hand lesson in tackling personal prejudices.

Over those months of sharing with her, and hearing her story, I became aware that she had lived an almost completely anonymous existence, as no-one had ever given the time or space to get to know her. As such, she was always the “unattractive fat one” who, unsurprisingly, never said anything. In group discussions, she became a pivotal character, with an opportunity to share, for the first time in her life.

How many beautiful people have touched our lives without us ever noticing? If doctors, as a small cross section of society, are prejudice against overweight people then presumably we all are. Not a very pleasant or reassuring thought. What happens in your workplace?

About equalityedge

I run Equality Edge and its unique and creative "Working with Difference" project. It supports employers and managers in gaining a competitive and cost saving advantage from meeting equality and diversity best practice obligations. Coaching and workshops are used to deliver organisational, team and leadership development, assisting in improving communication and the understanding of the impact difference has on workplace behaviour.
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13 Responses to Overweight – an issue affecting us all.

  1. Give me strength. I was overweight for most of my adult life but it didn’t stop me doing a damned thing (other than marathons and pole vaulting, obviously). All you’re doing is giving people a sense of entitlement, without being able to do a damned thing about (for example) the number of top jobs available. As a way to spread furrher misery among people who probably already have low self-esteem, I can’t think of an equal. Still, so long as you feel good about yourself as some sort of warrior against unfairness, press on.

    There can be no end to this social engineering. What should we sort out after unconscious bias against fat people? Bias against short people? People who have BO? People with short tempers? People with ginger hair? Ugly people? Vegetarians? People with bad teeth? Lazy people? Stupid people? Lefties? The Welsh?

    How many more gravy trains can the railway line support without them crashing into one another?

    Mike Buchanan

  2. Jose Jacobs says:

    Doctors have no idea of how to treat overweight people. I would love to sit down and talk to people who in fact need our help. As you know I help people with weight loss. I’ve given doctors my details and never get referrals. I don’t condemn but do get concerned because of health problems building up.

    There are many hidden problems that doctors don’t help with. I try to speak to people who don’t want to know – all they want is to have friends.

  3. Alyson Malach says:

    I took my grand children swimming last Saturday and on this visit I saw six very large black women in the pool. Everyone was looking at them and I reckon that each one of the on lookers were looking for different reasons. Neither of my grandchildren (4 and &) seemed to notice them and if they did they never commented. However, I found that I had a number of internal conversations with myself. First thought was the fact that they were all very large with one of them much larger than the others and needing help to get in and out of the pool. One of them was unable to swim and was being taught by one of the group. I wondered if she had ever visited a pool before or had her size prevented this? The other thought was, I had never, so close up, encountered anyone of this size.

    After the first 5 minutes I started to read an article on my phone and part way though noticed that one of the ladies was trying to attract my attention. I stopped reading and asked “ do you want me?” “yes” she said, and then went on to ask if I was filming her or taking photos with my phone. I was shocked at the question but could see that she and her five friends may have thought that I was taking photos because of the angle I was holding my phone.

    I reflected on the question and wondered how often in the past they had found someone secretly taking a photo of them to share with their friends for a laugh or for other reasons. Discrimination, on race, disability, sexual orientation and so on is unacceptable but so is discrimination because of your size, shape, where you live, accent etc. If we all stopped and thought about what we said/did the world would be a much more welcoming place

    • equalityedge says:

      Alyson, thank you for your comment.

      Your story emphasises why the sensitivity of mainstream society is so important. These were people, unprotected by equality legislation, that presumably, by their reaction, have been the subject of societal derision and focus of stares, taunting and laughter. For those of us that have never been in this position, we cannot imaging how hard it must be for them.

  4. Michelle Richardson says:

    I am overweight, and I do believe that being so can be a major stumbling block to moving to a position within another company. I am very lucky in the fact that I have worked in the same place for over 7 years, and have allowed the quality of my work speak for me – from starting at the bottom, I am now second in command within my workplace. However, I very much doubt that I would be given the opportunities I have now in a different company, where the people who decide whether to employ me or not do not know the highly motivated, dynamic ‘me’.

    Unfortunately, when people see a ‘fat’ person, they perceive a weak-willed, lazy slob who cannot take control of their eating habits, and therefore cannot be depended upon to do a good job in the workplace. I don’t blame people for making judgements, it’s something that we all do, no matter how much we try not to. I guess what I’m trying to say is that being fat doesn’t mean you that don’t have a whole lot to offer prospective employers, so look past the ‘fat’ and see the person and skills beyond.

    • equalityedge says:


      Thanks for your comment. Yes, it is up to employers to look past their prejudices when employing people. I wonder how things would be different if there was legislative compliance issues regarding a person’s appearance written into the Equality Act. I firmly believe that this is the tenth protected characteristic.


  5. Rather than engaging in Option A, a futile effort to make the world change, why not try option B? Lose weight, then the ‘problem’ will disappear. Reduce calorie intake, take more exercise. Really, this isn’t rocket science…

  6. Jasu Patel says:

    Modern culture dictates that ‘thin’ is beautiful. Models are encouraged to stay thin, magazines portray models who are thin and look beautiful in their latest fashions. Both young men and women models are always thin and of a certain height. Teenagers see these models on TV, on the cover of magazines and on posters. Therefore , they want to be like them! Society as a whole thinks that being thin is beautiful.

    Many teenagers suffer from bulimia nervosa, a psychological illness,often found in combination with anorexia nervosa in which bouts of compulsive eating is followed by self-induced ultimately involuntary vomiting. Many models have died as a result of this.

    We as a society need to be educated in this field and the medical profession can play an important part in bringing this about. They should not in my opinion ostracise fat people, who may have underlying issues causing their overweight.

    Some fat people have grown up in families, where healthy food consumption is not the norm.Children from these families do not know otherwise and as a result they grow up to be just like the adults in the family. Some people are so overweight that they are resorting to weight loss surgery, causing the NHS thousands of pounds, which is invariably the tax payers money, money that every working individual pays in tax and creates a ‘huge hole’ in the NHS Budget. These people need guidance and education on how to eat healthily and stay healthy by resorting to a healthy lifestyle..

    Doctors maybe biased towards fat people from the medical point of view. They are aware of the dangers to their patients health which can lead to diabetes, heart disease and even death. They may be dealing with obesity in the medical field in more ways than one. However these situations can be avoided if precautions are taken from the outset. Eating healthily, not drinking too much alcohol, eating a breakfast every morning rather than skipping it and eating very late at night just before going to bed. If food consumption is taken at regular intervals, it will give the body ample time to digest the food. At night food should be eaten at least four hours before bedtime and not after.

    Daily exercise, such as a brisk walk can become a part of the daily routine. Regular exercising, going tot he gym and even swimming can all be part of a daily routine, if there is a will to do so.
    This will lead to a good nights sleep..

    However the causes of obesity must not be ignored.Doctors and even hospitals should have open meetings for people to discuss these problems, together with like-minded people. Community Centres should be well equipped with information.

    People may suffer from binge eating due to stress in their lives, not being able to confide in anyone, As a result food consumption is increased as some people find this to be the only outlet and so the body gains the weight.
    Some individuals are genetically inclined to be fat as it is in their genes, which is passed on from their parents. They can try numerous methods of dieting, exercising and in some cases even taking the slimming pills. But, if they are prone to be ‘fat’ they will remain so. These people must not be frowned upon but respected just as anyone else. Many people I have met in my working situation, are the kindest gentlest souls. They are caring, considerate and would never hurt anyone.They are trustworthy too.

    So if you had a choice between having a friend or companion who is thin, elegant, who walks with ‘airs and graces’ and considers herself to be a ‘Paragon of Virtue’ but one you cannot trust. OR one who is fatter, but trustworthy, kind, caring and considerate. Who would you choose. I would choose the latter.

  7. Chris Markiewicz says:

    I was impressed with Alyson’s story of the swimming pool incident. Most specifically how one of the women dealt with it. She was concerned, approached Alyson and made an assertive enquiry as to what she was doing. This, I would say is far, far preferable to falling back on legislation. Had she taken the more “formal” route of calling the police or centre manager under the guise of being “protected”, I fear a costly and unpleasant process will have unfolded, leading to a win/lose outcome. Far better to enquire, as she did and get clarity, thus sorting the problem. Also, by so doing, she may start to break down the barriers – open hearted assertiveness is likely to create an open hearted response and more chance of mutual understanding.

    It is possible to be overweight and assertive (even with a doctor!). It is possible to be disabled and assertive. It is possible to be short and assertive. And so on for all “protected characteristics” etc.

    First port of call, I’d suggest is education rather than just legislation. Education for those in the “minorities” to help become more self assured and assertive along with education for the “masses” to help understand and recognize such people are not “freaks” or suchlike.

    I fall into protected characteristic territory myself, as I have a visual impairment.
    Do I want legislation to protect me? I’m not at all sure actually. Probably in extreme circumstances, such as where my personal physical safety is compromised. Otherwise,
    far more relevant is my ability to be assertive and be who I am despite my “disability”.
    Legislation may need to be there as an absolute last resort, but only that.
    Otherwise it’s education that will drive real, lasting change in attitudes and behaviours.

    Recently, whilst shopping in my local supermarket, a child asked her mother: “Why has that man got a white cane?”. The mother admonished her for being rude., I could have cried. Seeds were being sown of future ignorance and awkwardness around people who are “different”. Most children hold no such prejudices or distinctions – more, they are genuinely curious, they want to learn and understand and unfortunately, it’s the adults who stifle that by making it rude or inappropriate, thus fuelling the situation. I managed to cut in on their conversation and took a little time to explain the purpose of my cane to the young girl. Hopefully, that stood her in good stead when encountytering visually impaired people in the future.

    I’m optimistic though, things are changing, but slowly and perhaps things will take more time than we’d like – even 50 years ago, I probably would have been confined to an institution. We’re getting there, but I am not convinced that focusing mainly on legislation is ultimately the answer.

    By the way, Jasu – I thought your final paragraph hit the nail so squarely on the head. Well put!

  8. When people blame ‘culture’ (or the media) for obsession with slimness, they’re forgetting that culture flows from biology. People can’t transcend their biology, however much ‘education’, ‘sensitivity training’, blah, blah, blah etc goes on. For a woman to complain about men being attracted to slim women makes no more sense than a man complaining that beautiful women are attracted to rich or powerful men (if you doubt the latter phenomenon, I recommend half an hour strolling around Monte Carolo). Is that unfair? Of course not. It’s the way the world works. These attempts to deny we’re bioloogial creatures, above all, are futile and can only lead to misery. Let’s change ourselves, if we want or need to, and stop trying to change others.

    Mike Buchanan

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