Science Says Our Prejudice of Overweight People Is Actually Getting Worse

Yet at the same time, we're becoming less racist and homophobic.

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Well, we've got good news and bad news. According to new research from Harvard University, Americans have become less biased towards others on the basis of their race and sexual orientation in the last decade, which is obviously a major win for progress. The bad news? In spite of all of the efforts of the body positive movement, there's actually been an uptick in our collective bias against people based on their weight.

The study, which was published in the journal Psychological Science, analyzed 4.4 million online tests of explicit and implicit attitudes toward people based on sexual orientation, race, skin tone, age, disability, and body weight over the course of 13 years. What they found was that, in general, people are becoming less biased on an explicit level when it comes to all six categories. But when it comes to implicit biases—the ones we're not aware of—it's a different story.

"Contrary to the assumption that implicit attitudes don't change, we found that actually, three out of the six implicit attitudes have shown change," Tessa Charlesworth, a PhD student in Psychology at Harvard University and the lead author of this study, told "Sexuality attitudes, at an implicit level, have changed by about 33 percent over the past decade, whereas race and skin-tone perceptions also changed, just at a slower rate: about 17 percent for race attitudes and 15 percent for skin-tone attitude."

But implicit biases haven't changed very much for age or disability, and "actually, body weight attitudes even showed a slight tendency that they're becoming worse over time." Specifically, the percentage showing pro-thin (vs. fat) preferences increased from 75 percent in 2007 to 81 percent in 2016.

This is particularly bad news, given that research shows Americans are getting heavier with every passing year, with a recent CDC report even claiming that the average American is now technically obese.

The finding was a surprise for Charlesworth and her colleagues.

"[It's] striking because it counters the simple narrative that everything's getting better," she said. "There are some things that are getting worse. And, of course, the question might be: Why? What is specific about bodyweight attitude?"

Her theory is that people often view bodyweight as something that people have control over and are therefore more likely to be judgmental about it. She also believes it may have something to do with the negative way in which we tend to discuss bodyweight as of late, given the national discussion over the obesity epidemic.

But that's all speculative, and Charlesworth is currently working on a new paper that will seek to explore why it seems some attitudes are changing in America whereas others are not, and whether these changes are happening to all Americans or just certain demographic groups.

Cheeringly, it seems that "the decline in anti-gay bias seems to be more of a cultural or period effect, something that's happening to everyone in society, rather than just to specific groups." With race and skin tone, however, "the younger generation seems to be driving the change," as they found there "was slower change among Generation Xers and baby boomers."

By its very nature, an implicit bias is a prejudice you may not even be aware that you have, so if you want to really go digging into your subconscious, you can go to Project Implicit to take an online test gauging your implicit associations about race, gender, sexual orientation, self-esteem, anxiety, alcohol, and more. And for more on unconscious biases, check out the Secret Ways People Judge You on Your Body Type.

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Diana Bruk
Diana is a senior editor who writes about sex and relationships, modern dating trends, and health and wellness. Read more
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