11 Oct 2018 World Obesity Guest Blog: What can we do to #EndWeightStigma?
Marita Hennessy is a Health Research Board-funded SPHeRE PhD Scholar within the Health Behaviour Change Research Group at NUI Galway. For her doctoral studies, she is focusing on early life obesity prevention, and specifically how interventions delivered during the first 1,000 days can be optimised and integrated into routine care. Her research interests include obesity, weight stigma, food poverty, men’s health, health behaviour change interventions, knowledge translation and implementation science.
Each year on 11 October, World Obesity Day is marked to stimulate and support solutions to help people achieve and maintain a healthy weight. There is a different focus each year, and this year the focus is on weight stigma. Why you might ask?
Not a day goes by, but we see or hear stigmatising portrayals of people with obesity in the media (1). Negative, prejudicial attitudes toward people with obesity are widely held and socially acceptable (2). Research estimates that almost 1 in 5 people with a BMI of 30-35kg/m2 experience weight stigma, and this rises to over 2 in 5 for people with a BMI >35kg/m2 (3). Such stigma, and in some cases discrimination, is experienced in many aspects of daily life, including employment, education, and health care (4), as well as in interpersonal relationships and the media (5). There are many negative health consequences of weight stigma including medication non‐adherence, mental health, anxiety, perceived stress, antisocial behaviour, and substance use (6), as well as weight-related health correlates and behaviours such as maladaptive eating behaviours (binge eating and increased food consumption), physical activity, weight status (weight gain and loss, and development of obesity), and physiological stress responses (7). While many perceive that stigmatization of people with obesity might be an effective way of reducing obesity levels, this is not the case: stigmatisation of individuals with obesity threatens health, generates health disparities, and hinders obesity intervention efforts (2).
Countering weight stigma and weight bias is something that I, and many others, are very passionate about. For example, earlier this year, the Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology published a call to the media around weight stigma and discrimination. A group of colleagues and I also recently issued an open letter in response to stigmatising media portrayals of obesity. We all need to advocate and act to end weight stigma. This includes researchers, the media, health professionals, government, members of the public and patients.
What can we do?
- Use non-stigmatising images of people with obesity in reports, presentations, websites, media reports and other materials. Such images are free to download from the World Obesity Image Bank, the Rudd Center Media Gallery, the Obesity Canada Image Bank, and the Obesity Action Coalition Image Gallery. We can also encourage others to do so also, e.g. along with a press release, send a link to the image bank(s) or some of the photos to media outlets.
- Use non-stigmatising language when communicating about obesity. This includes using people-first language which emphasises the individual, not the disability / disease. By placing the person first, the disability / disease is no longer the primary, defining characteristic of that person. For example, use language such as “people affected by obesity” or “people with obesity”. As a researcher I am increasingly struck by the lack of person first language in academic journals, even in research that focuses on weight stigma. I am trying to highlight this and engage with other researchers and journals to change how we talk about obesity in the scientific literature, and hopefully introduce people-first language into guidelines for authors in journals in which they do not already exist.
- Talk about it! Engage with others around the topic of weight stigma – colleagues, researchers, the media, health professionals, government, members of the public and patients. Lots of people have different views in this area; it is important that we engage in constructive debates to understand where others are coming from, share our views, and work together to find ways forward to end weight stigma.
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Marita Hennessy @MaritaHennessy