The Economic Effects Of Obesity

Connie K. Ho for

A recent study by the University of Manchester and Monash University, Melbourne found that obese women are more likely to be discriminated against when looking for jobs and more likely to be offered lower starting salaries then their non-overweight colleagues.

The report, published in the International Journal of Obesity, looked at anti-fat prejudice and a universal measure of bias to determine how job discrimination affected obese candidates. The researchers also analyzed if body image, conservative personalities, and social dominance orientation of participants could affect their views of obesity; this has similarly been seen in experiments regarding homophobia and racism. The study wasn´t originally advertised as a program that would look at obesity; it was publicized as a project on personnel selection.

“Participants viewed a series of resumes that had a small photo of the job applicant attached, and were asked to make ratings of the applicants suitability, starting salary, and employability,” explained Dr. Kerry O’Brien in a prepared statement. “We used pictures of women pre- and post-bariatric surgery, and varied whether participants saw either a resume, amongst many, that had a picture of an obese female (with a Body Mass Index 38-41) attached, or the same female but in a normal weight range (Body Mass Index 22-24) following bariatric surgery. We found that strong obesity discrimination was displayed across all job selection criteria, such as starting salary, leadership potential, and likelihood of selecting an obese candidate for the job.”

The results demonstrated that people who showed a higher measure of anti-fat prejudice tended to discriminate against obese candidates.

“The higher participants rated their own physical attractiveness and the importance of physical appearance, the greater the prejudice and discrimination,” commented O’Brien in the statement. “One interpretation of this finding might be that we feel better about our own bodies if we compare ourselves and discriminate against ‘fat’ people, but we need to test this experimentally.”

The study is one of the first to highlight obesity discrimination. It points out that people who are confident in their looks often believe that obese individuals deserve less privileges and opportunities. The researchers hope that the results of the project can assist in the development of policies and programs that can address issues of anti-fat prejudice.

“Our findings show that there is a clear need to address obesity discrimination, particularly against females who tend to bear the brunt of anti-fat prejudice. Prejudice reduction interventions and policies need to be developed. It’s also becoming clear that the reasons for this prejudice appear to be related to our personalities, how we feel about ourselves, with attributions, such as, obese people are lazy, gluttonous etc merely acting as justifications for our prejudice,” remarked O´ Brien.

Apart from job discrimination, obesity also leads to increased spending. A Reuters article found that there are higher medical fees, such as higher insurance premiums individuals have to pay, and higher transportation costs, as it costs more fuel to transport someone who is 250 pounds compared to someone who is 125 pounds.

“As committee chairmen, Cabinet secretaries, the head of Medicare and health officials see these really high costs, they are more interested in knowing, ‘what policy knob can I turn to stop this hemorrhage?'” commented Michael O´Grady of the National Opinion Research Center, co-author of a new report for the Campaign to End Obesity, in an interview with Reuters.

Public health professionals have compared the health epidemic of obesity to smoking, with both having effects of increased medical spending.

“Smoking added about 20 percent a year to medical costs,” Dr. James Naessens, a Mayo Clinic researcher, said in the Reuters article. “Obesity was similar, but morbid obesity increased those costs by 50 percent a year.”

On the other hand, the increased spending can be considered an economic boost. According to CBS News, due to obesity, there are wider stadium seats being built, new toilets in stalled in hospitals to withstand heavier weight, and wider doors constructed in buildings and public transportation options like buses and trains. With obesity, there is an increased amount of gas used as well.

“Growing obesity rates increase fuel consumption,” noted engineer Sheldon Jacobson of the University of Illinois in the Reuters article.

The effects of obesity will continued to be tracked in the next few years, and more will be known regarding the severity of it as an issue.