Weight stigma has been defined as social rejection toward people who do not fit societal expectations regarding weight and body shape. Discrimination toward people in larger bodies is pervasive. People in larger bodies tend to be bullied, receive less support from parents and teachers to attend university, and have lower income levels relative to their thinner peers. Weight stigma is also present among healthcare professionals, which leads obese patients to feel unwelcome, stigmatized, and avoid doctor visits. Providers’ own anti-fat biases have been associated with misdiagnosis of eating disorders. Weight stigma among providers drive stereotypes that only thin individuals experience eating disorders. Therefore, individuals in larger bodies are less likely to be diagnosed and are not able to receive proper diagnosis and treatment.
The current study examined how weight stigma impacts eating disorder diagnosis and confidence in people’s diagnoses. To do so, we surveyed a typical sample and a sample of medical professionals. We hypothesized that obese patients would be less likely to be diagnosed with an eating disorder in comparison to underweight patients. Further, we predicted that participants would less confident in their diagnosis of obese patients even when they did diagnose. We predicted this would be especially true for people higher in pre-existing weight stigma. Weight stigma may present barriers to early and proper diagnosis and our results suggest needs to reduce discrimination towards larger weight individuals especially among healthcare professionals.
Consistent with our hypothesis, participants were more likely to diagnose underweight individuals than obese individuals with an eating disorder. Moreover, participants were more confident with their eating disorder diagnosis if the patient was underweight. However, inconsistent with our predictions, people higher in weight stigma were more likely to diagnose patients with an eating disorder (in both weight conditions) rather than less likely to diagnose people in the obese condition. We suspect that this may be because they are using the diagnosis as a way to justify exhibiting their prejudice in a way that does not appear to others as biased. We hope our research can help reduce weight stigma in healthcare and in general settings so higher weight individuals with eating disorders can receive the treatment they deserve.