Dr Saliha Afridi, director of Light House Arabia in Duba Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai: Societal stigma of overweight people is a real and unresolved problem that has left people being discriminated against in multiple settings by various individuals, a Dubai-based expert said.

The worldwide phenomena often makes people think it’s socially acceptable to stereotype and discriminate against people who are overweight, a psychologist told Gulf News.

Dr Saliha Afridi, director of Light House Arabia in Dubai, said weight bias is widespread in society, occurring in employment, education, media and health care settings.

“As a society, we have tackled many forms of discrimination such as gender, religion, race etc but we have not tackled the obesity stigmas,” said Dr Afridi. “It is possible that many believe that individuals who are overweight are just ‘lazy’ and ‘undisciplined’ when in actuality, the reasons for being overweight are complex.”

She added that people may think because it is a choice that obese or overweight people are making “that they actually ‘deserve’ or ‘earned’ the negative comments/teasing/insults.”

The prejudice against overweight people as employees affect hiring, promotions, wages, and termination decisions, Dr Afridi pointed out. Overweight individuals are often judged as poor supervisors, having poor personal hygiene, less ambition and less productive, she said.

Origin of bias

Like many theorists and researchers, Afridi blames the origin of weight bias on the media, which has played a big role in promoting a thin ideal. Compounding this issue is social media, that has opened more doors in perpetuating biases of what is attractive and unattractive.

Turning the tide

Dr Afridi says change begins with education and instilling the right values by parents and schools apart from the media.

“The media can help by displaying a range of body types and also show overweight individuals playing different type of roles, but I think we need to teach children and adults that it is not right to ridicule anyone,” she said.

Many people are overweight for reasons other than lack of discipline. Eating disorders, socioeconomic status, genetic or environmental factors can also play a role in an individual being overweight.

Experts believe parents have a lot of power and responsibility to change the future. Raising children who are value-centred and socially responsible starts at home and can be shaped by the education system.

“We need to be aware of our biases towards certain groups of people that we may be communicating to our children without even knowing it. For example, saying ‘Do I look fat in this?’ or constantly commenting on the way we look and our weight and diets could convey to kids at a very young age that “being fat is bad”,” she continued.

Speaking the language of healthy versus unhealthy foods and behaviours instead of using the language of thin and fat is required to get rid of this bias, she suggested.

Impact on overweight people

As a result of such biases, many overweight individuals face psychological, social and physical implications, said Dr Afridi.

Many report clinically significant symptoms such as anxiety, depression, addictions, low self-esteem, poor body image, feelings of hopelessness and helplessness.

Dr Afridi said some avoid going out to public places, disengage from social relationships or have poor quality of social relationships.

“They disengage from activities that are physical in nature, engage in self destructive behaviours, binge eat as a form of punishment. They may have also have higher rates of unemployment, less access to healthcare and lower socio-economic status as a result,” she said.