The study was conducted by Dr Marita Lynagh, a senior lecturer at the University of Newcastle.
Lynagh’s research tested 240 trainee PE teachers and non-PE trainees for both explicit bias - that is, negative views they were willing to admit - and implicit bias, using word association to see what concepts they associated with excess weight.
The study found that the trainees almost expected obese children to underperform, even in things such as reasoning skills, which had nothing to do with weight.
But how do such harmful biases develop?
Lynagh told The Educator that, like other people, teachers “live in a world where anti-fat bias and discrimination exists across many settings and social arenas.”
“Our study was not able to determine if trainee teachers enter their training with pre-existing bias or if the training itself somehow fosters or accentuates weight prejudice,” Lynagh said.
Lynagh said teacher training programs should be encouraged to consider including some “conscious raising” so that as a first step, teachers can become more aware of their own biases.
While schools and their communities continue to encourage students to lead a healthier lifestyle, the evidence shows it is not working. In fact, such attempts to combat obesity may even be increasing the stigmas associated with it.
“Much of the attention on addressing the obesity epidemic has focussed on encouraging individuals to change their exercise and eating behaviour, sometimes known as 'victim blaming',” Lynagh explained.
“This approach doesn't acknowledge the many social, environmental and economic factors which are contributing to the obesity problem, with many of these beyond the control of any one individual.”
In Australia, 23% of children aged 5 to 14 years are overweight or obese.
Lynagh’s report said the rise in global obesity prevalence had been paralleled by “an escalation in weight-related stigmatization”.
Weight stigmatization is deﬁned as prejudice in which the attribute of being obese or overweight inﬂuences one’s expectations about the person, usually in terms of negative character assessments