Weight-related stigma is a burden around the world and has negative consequences everywhere

Lazy. Demotivated. No self-discipline. No will.

These are just a few of the common stereotypes rooted in American society about people who have a higher body weight or a larger body size. Known as the weight stigma, these attitudes cause many Americans to be blamed, teased, intimidated, abused, and discriminated against.

There is nowhere to hide from the stigma of weight in society. Decades of research confirm the presence of weight-related stigmas in workplaces, schools, health care facilities, public facilities and the media, as well as in close interpersonal relationships with friends and families. It’s everywhere.

I am a psychologist and researcher at Rudder center for food policy and obesity in University of Connecticut. For 20 years my team has studied weight stigma. We examined the origins and prevalence of weight-related stigma, its presence in different societal contexts, the damage it causes to people’s health, and strategies to combat this problem.

We conducted a recent international study that clearly shows that weight stigma is widespread, damaging and difficult to eradicate. This societal devaluation is a real and legitimate experience for people from different countries, languages ​​and cultures.

A persistent American bias

Among American adults, weight stigma is a common experience, with up to 40% of them reporting past experiences of teasing, unfair treatment and discrimination based on weight. These experiences are The most widespread for people with a high body mass indices or these with obesity and for women. For young people, body weight is one of the most common reasons for teasing and bullying.

The fact that more than 40% of Americans are obese did not soften public attitudes towards people in this group. Although societal attitudes towards other stigmatized groups have become less prejudicial in recent decades, there have been few changes skewed weight. In some cases it gets worse.

The dominant views that people are personally responsible for their weight, despite a lot of scientific evidence the complex and multifactorial causes of obesity, are one of the reasons why the weight stigma persists. This mindset is hard to change given America’s celebration of thinness, negative media portrayals of people with bigger bodies, and a thriving food industry. These factors reinforce the mistaken premise that body weight is infinitely malleable, just like a lack of legislation to protect people from discrimination based on weight.

Contrary to public perceptions, the stigma of weight does not motivate people to lose weight. Instead of that worsens health and reduces the quality of life. the harmful impacts of weight stigma can be real and lasting. They range from emotional distress – depressive symptoms, anxiety, low self-esteem – to disorderly eating, unhealthy eating behaviors, reduced physical activity, weight gain, increased physiological stress, and avoidance of health care.

A shared fight

The stigma of weight is not unique to America. It exists around the world. However, few studies have directly compared people’s experiences with weight stigma in different countries.

In our recent study, we compared experiences of weight stigma in six countries: Australia, Canada, France, Germany, United Kingdom and United States. These countries share similar societal values ​​that reinforce personal blame for body weight and do little to challenge weight-related shame and abuse. The participants were 13,996 adults (approximately 2,000 people per country) who were actively trying to manage their weight.

The biases experienced by people due to their heavier weight or height were found to be remarkably consistent across the six countries, with more than half of study participants – 58% on average – experiencing related stigma. by weight. The most common interpersonal sources of weight-related stigma were family members (76% -87%), classmates (72% -76%), and doctors (58% -73%). These experiences were most frequent and distressing during childhood and adolescence.

Many incorporated these stigmatizing experiences into how they felt about themselves. In this process of “internalizing weight bias”, people apply negative societal stereotypes to themselves. They blame themselves for their weight and deem themselves inferior and deserve societal stigma.

We knew from our previous research that the internalization of weight bias has adverse health implications, and that was also true here. In all six countries, the more people internalize the weight bias, the more they gained weight in the past year, used food to cope with stress, avoided going to the gym, had an unhealthy body image and reported higher stress. These findings persisted regardless of people’s body size or their previous experiences of stigma.

In addition, in the six countries people with greater internalized weight bias reported worse health-related quality of life and health care experiences. They avoided receiving health care, had less frequent checkups, and reported substandard health care compared to people who had less internalization.

The unique multinational perspective of our study reveals that weight stigma is commonly experienced, often internalized, and linked to poor health and health care in people trying to manage their weight. In that sense, dealing with the stigma of weight seems like a collective struggle, but it is a struggle that people are probably struggling with on their own.

Reasons to be optimistic

While there is still a long way to go to eliminate weight stigma, changes in societal attitudes are underway. In recent years, the the misdeeds of “big shame” have received increased public attention, as has the body positivity movement. Both are helping to escalate calls for efforts to end unfair weight-based treatment.

The medical community is also increasingly recognizing the need for action. In 2020, more than 100 medical and scientific organizations from nine countries signed a joint statement of international consensus and commit to drawing attention to the stigma of weight and its negative impact. These medical experts aim to change the blame rhetoric and help tackle the stigma of weight in media, public attitudes, and healthcare.

Our research shows a broad and substantial public support for policies to combat discrimination based on weight. In a series of national studies, we found that over 70% of Americans support adding body weight as a protected category, alongside categories such as race and age, to existing rights laws. civic states. They also support new legislation to make it illegal for employers to discriminate against employees based on weight.

This would legitimize the stigma of weight as both a social injustice and a public health issue.

I believe broad and collective action is needed to resolve this problem, both in the United States and abroad. While it might sound difficult, it’s basically pretty straightforward: it’s about respect, dignity, and equal treatment for people of all weights and sizes.

Rebecca Puhl is a professor of human development and family science and associate director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut.

This article was originally published on The conversation.

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