Revealed: why slim people dislike the overweight

From the taunting of the chubby child in the playground to cruel jibes at fat people in work and social settings, few could doubt there is widespread prejudice against the overweight. However, according to research reported in Evolution and Human Behavior some people suffer abuse because being too fat is mistaken by the brain for a sign of disease.

Researchers say the immune system can be triggered into action at the sight of obesity because it doesn't like the look of what it sees, and associates it with infection.

Just as it orchestrates attacks on viruses and bacteria and triggers nausea at the hint of bad food, so it sends out signals of disgust in some people at the sight of an obese body that is designed to encourage avoidance and survival.

The finding comes just days after research in The New England Journal of Medicine suggested that obesity is contagious, in a social rather than bacteriological sense.

"Antipathy toward obese people is a powerful and pervasive prejudice in many contemporary populations. Our results reveal, for the first time, that this prejudice may be rooted in multiple, independent mechanisms. They provide the first evidence that obesity serves as a cue for pathogen infection,'' say the University of British Columbia researchers.

They say a behavioural immune system appears to have evolved in humans that is designed to detect body signs that are related to disease, like rashes and lesions. The sight of them triggers disgust as well as negative attitudes and avoidance. The system errs in favour of over-reacting because failure to react to a real danger could be fatal.

Researchers carried out a number of experiments, including word associations and tests where they compared the reactions and views of men and women to obesity.

The results show that people who agreed with comments such as "it really bothers me when people sneeze without covering their mouths" were more likely to agree with statement such as "if I were an employer looking to hire, I might avoid hiring a fat person". The greater the fear of disease, the stronger the negative feeling about obesity.

But Clarissa Dickson Wright, the surviving half of the Two Fat Ladies cookery duo, said the research merely served to cover up the general prejudice of narrow-minded people. "In the 1960s there were a lot of bigoted people who were anti-black, anti-Jewish, anti-everything but when they couldn't get away with that any more they turned into food-Nazis instead and began attacking people who were fat," she said. "I suspect that this is what really drives people to be negative about fat people rather than an unconscious reaction.

Ms Dickson Wright said there was an aversion in America about even using the word "fat", as she found when her programme was shown there.

"Reporters asked me: 'How do you feel about the title of the show?' and I said: 'Which part? There's two of us and I hope you're not suggesting we're not ladies.' They just couldn't say the word."

"It's a way to put sexism on the agenda," said Beth Ditto, the lead singer for The Gossip.

"All this stuff completely negates what feminism stands for, and you can't act like that's not connected to other issues."

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Arts and Entertainment
The teaser trailer has provoked more questions than answers
filmBut what is Bond's 'secret' that Moneypenny is talking about?
Sport
footballDoes Hodgson's England team have an identity yet?
News
news
Sport
Lewis Hamilton secured his second straight pole of the season
f1Vettel beats Rosberg into third after thunderstorm delays qualifying
Travel
travel Dreamland Margate, Britain’s oldest amusement park, is set to reopen
News
Founders James Brown and Tim Southwell with a mock-up of the first ever ‘Loaded’ magazine in 1994
media
News
Threlfall says: 'I am a guardian of the reality keys. I think I drive directors nuts'
people
Voices
voices The group has just unveiled a billion dollar plan to help nurse the British countryside back to health
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

    £32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

    £18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped commission: SThree: Does earning a 6 figu...

    Recruitment Genius: SEO Executive

    £18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

    Recruitment Genius: New Lift Sales Executive - Lift and Elevators

    £35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A challenging opportunity for a...

    Day In a Page

    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss