Perceptions of Obesity

Dr Phil Fat ShamingIf you’re even remotely active in the health and wellness community, I am sure you have heard, read, exercised or been subjected to some form of “fat shaming”.  And, these misguided attempts by public entities, weight loss profiteers or dietary evangelicals to humiliate obese individuals into weight loss can have a profoundly adverse effect on those at the receiving end of such trauma.

Here and here are examples of Blue Cross/Blue Shield “shaming” American into action.

Here is a website specifically geared towards “shaming” parents about their lifestyle choices and their impact on their kids.

Although I am vehemently opposed to bullying obese individuals into losing weight, a new study suggests that these tactics actually fall in line with public perception and the negative stereotypes associated with being overweight.  According to PLOS One, an open access online journal, “negative stereotypes…[associated with obesity]…such as lack of self-discipline are pervasive,” and “character-based adjectives, such as having no self-control and being self-indulgent, are seen as fitting,” for overweight individuals.  These well-documented perceptions are pretty crummy in-and-of themselves, but they also have the potential to exacerbate the weight stigma by enhancing psychological problems, worsening unhealthy eating behavior and deepening social inequality.

Weight stigmatization is not an entirely new concept, but no formal studies have been conducted to investigate the prevalence of weight bias, the attributes often associated with obesity, and the age and gender of the individuals increasingly subjected to stigmatizing behavior.  Well, until now and the results ain’t pretty.

99% of people rate obese individuals negatively and study participants believe that individual responsibility (in the form of overeating and lack of activity) is highly attributable.    And, although less accountability was assigned to children because of perceived parental influence, children were found to be subject to a higher degree of weight stigmatization than older adults.   Surprising?  Maybe not, because increasing awareness of the prevalence of obesity and its potentially devastating effect on public health may be driving the subconscious tendency to reproach overweight children and passively push people to modify their behavior in accordance with social norms.

Solutions that can improve public perception of obesity in a non-traumatizing way while simultaneously encouraging people to maintain a normal weight are going to be hard to accomplish.  However, education on the complexities of obesity, the current food system, and obesity intervention are the most viable options.  But, the effort required to educate society on the whole and change cultural, social and individual beliefs is inconceivable and, in my opinion, would prove futile.  Therefore, efforts to reduce stigmatization must be directed towards the overweight individuals themselves to improve self-esteem and motivate them to escape ridicule.  By no means am I validating the negative perception of obesity, but I believe that in this case the power to change the current condition lies in the individuals being subjected to discrimination, not in the individuals doing the discriminating.

Obesity is a complex issue influenced by individual and social circumstance and riding ourselves of the condition is the only way to eliminate the stigmatization associated with being overweight.



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© Matthew Lovitt and TwelveWellness, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Matthew Lovitt and TwelveWellness with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.