Challenging perceptions of fat people

February 5, 2018

It is human nature to associate things in our environment. Sometimes those associations are driven by our hands-on experiences or through other mediums like the media. But how can we challenge ourselves to be more empathetic and less critical? Researchers at the University of Washington, University of Virginia, Harvard University, and Yale University are studying these associations with Implicit Association Testing (IAT). Basically, they want to determine whether there are more positive or negative associations with certain groups in our population. I looked specifically at the test for weight; where researchers are attempting to identify a preference for thin or fat people.

After taking the test, you are given a score and are also shown where others score. I was very surprised to see 75% of respondents had some automatic preference for thin people over fat people. That means of the 1,121,747 people who took the test online, 841,310 people associate more negative words like "disgusting" with fat people. Only 15% of respondents had no preference bias for either group.

Fat-bias results from Harvard IAT

To me this suggests a huge problem with the perception of fat people in our society. To the point where heavier job seekers, especially women, have only 15% chance to be selected for a job. What's troubling is this test was designed to cull out automatic perceptions as opposed to conscious decisions. An otherwise empathetic and neutral individual may have subconscious feelings about fat people. Of course this extends to other groups too; groups based on race, sexual orientation, and religion, to name a few.

Be part of the solution to fat-bias

What can you do to help? Recognize your own biases. Challenge them. Ask yourself "why" you feel a certain way. Expose yourself to the other side. Be thoughtful when you interact with people. And try to remember that things like size, race, religion are all just labels that people use to classify one another, but in reality every individual is unique and has something to offer this world.

You can take the IAT here: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html

In good health,

Francesco

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