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Weight Stigma Hurts People and Outcomes – How Every Individual Can and Should Speak Out

By Jeemin Kwon

To commemorate World Obesity Day, we are raising attention on terribly stigmatizing language around obesity and weight

We can’t talk about type 2 diabetes without also talking about obesity – but how we talk about them matters, too. The links between these two conditions are stark: More than 80% of people with diabetes in the United States are either overweight or obese. For people without diabetes, being overweight increases risk for type 2. We need to be able to talk about weight, and more importantly we need to find ways to do so that don’t stigmatize people both with and without diabetes.

It is World Obesity Day on October 11, and groups like the World Obesity Federation are advocating for ending weight stigma and helping people live healthier and happier lives. Rebecca Puhl, Deputy Director at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity writes that we must remember “the social and personal obstacles that individuals with excess weight or obesity face. Bias, stigma, and discrimination due to weight are frequent experiences for many individuals with obesity.”

What is weight stigma?

Weight stigma is all the negative behaviors and attitudes directed at people solely because of their weight. These include common stereotypes about people who are overweight, such as they are lazy, unmotivated, and unintelligent. Weight stigma is present in workplaces, schools, healthcare settings, the media, and just about everywhere else. For those who struggle with their weight, it can feel inescapable

Weight stigma makes it less likely for people who are overweight to seek medical care, even for issues like cancer treatment that have nothing to do with their weight. As with all stigma, weight stigma makes people more likely to have mental health issues like anxiety and depression. In short, stigma leads to worse health outcomes – something that’s proven true again and again by other examples, including HIV/AIDS, mental health, and diabetes.

What can we do to reduce weight stigma?

Use people-first language. Much like how  “person with diabetes” is preferable to “diabetic,” saying “person with obesity” instead of “obese” helps acknowledge that a person is not singularly defined by their weight.

Going further, language such as “high BMI” and “high weight” are better than terms like “obese” and “morbidly obese,” which already have a tremendously negative connotation in both the non-medical and medical communities.

Recognize that weight loss is not easy or completely under the control of an individual. It’s incorrect to assume self-control, diet, and exercise are enough to prevent or reverse obesity. While diet and exercise are important factors that can help with weight loss, it’s important to consider genetics and a person’s environment. Many people with obesity live in what are known as obesogenic environments, such as an area where fast food is cheaper than healthy food, or one where driving is encouraged over walking. Such environments make it difficult to make healthy choices.

To help identify your own potential bias, it is helpful to ask, “Do I make assumptions based only on weight regarding a person’s character, intelligence, professional success, health status, or lifestyle behaviors?”

Additional resources:

  • Obesity Action Coalition – a non-profit organization advocacy group focused on improving the lives of people affected by obesity

  • Recently, the Huffington Post published a most valuable story on how pervasive nature of weight stigma and the negative impact on people’s interactions with healthcare providers, strangers, and even friends and family

  • Click here to view a “mind map” created by the World Obesity Federation – it’s an easily digestible survey of the causes, effects, and perpetrators of weight stigma

  • Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity – research and policy initiatives to promote solutions to childhood obesity, poor diet, and weight bias