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A new study published this month in the International Journal of Obesity by an international collaboration of researchers from New Zealand, Australia, the UK and Hawaii, has shown that discrimination against obese people is occurring in the work place. Researchers used a newly-developed measure of anti-fat prejudice, the universal measure of bias (UMB), to predict workplace discrimination against obese people. Lead researcher Kerry O’Brien, from Monash University in Australia, said the nature of the study initially was concealed from the participants to avoid biased results.

Under the guise of a personnel selection task, 102 participants were asked to give an assessment of obese and non-obese women applying for a managerial position. Participants viewed resumes that had attached either a photo of a pre-bariatric surgery obese woman (body mass index (BMI 38—41) or a photo of the same woman post-bariatric surgery (BMI=22—24). Results showed that obesity discrimination was widespread, and was displayed across all selection criteria, such as starting salary, leadership potential and likelihood of selection for the job.

The fact that overweight and obese people are discriminated against is nothing new. Back in the1980s, research showed that strong prejudice against obese people is evident in children as young as 6 years of age.

Further research in the 1980s found that this discrimination continues into adult life, with obese people attaining a lower social class than comparable non-obese people. The social handicap of obesity in this study was independent of parental social class, intelligence or education and the authors emphasise the importance of changing public attitudes to obesity.

Now, over 25 years later, it seems nothing much has changed, despite the increasing prevalence of overweight and obesity in New Zealand and across the world. The results from this latest study, say the authors, provide support for the use of this type of research to assess, understand and reduce anti-fat prejudice and discrimination.

This whole issue has been widely reported by the media, both in New Zealand and overseas; with articles in the New Zealand Herald the Australian Herald Sun and the UK Daily Telegraph.

You would imagine that overweight and obesity being so common in this day and age, that there would be more compassion, understanding and support in our society, but this latest research suggests this is not the case.

Clearly there is an urgent need for promoting improved diet, exercise and behaviour modification as a way of tackling the ever-increasing problem of obesity in New Zealand. But in the meantime, we need to reduce anti-fat sentiments in the population, and particularly in the workforce, where valuable skills and human resources may be going to waste as a result of inappropriate discrimination.