Weight stigma

The prevailing misconception that a person’s body weight is a matter of personal choice alone – that obesity is a choice that can be reversed easily and rapidly by eating less and exercising more – reinforces negative stereotypes of people living with obesity, portraying them as lazy, gluttonous and lacking willpower.

This stigma has a direct negative impact on the physical and mental health, as well as quality of life, of people living with obesity. It is also a major barrier to good public health policymaking, as stigmatised views about obesity have driven policymakers to pursue ineffective and unevidenced policies.  It is crucial that we develop a population-wide better understanding of the varied causes of obesity, meaning that weight stigma of any kind is eliminated in all settings and becomes socially unacceptable.

More information can be read be read in Chapter 2 of the Turning the Tide Report.

Turning the Tide

About weight stigma

Weight bias is defined as negative attitudes towards, and beliefs about, others because of their weight. Stigma can take place in a multitude of environments including; the workplace, health care facilities, educational institutions, the mass media, and interpersonal relationships. Weight stigma has been known to impact children as young as three years old.

Weight stigma exists because our society; blames the victim rather than addressing the environmental conditions that cause obesity; values thinness and perpetuates the assumption that a person’s lack of willpower is the reason for their obesity; and allows the media to portray people with obesity in a biased, negative way.

Evidence indicates that weight stigma can be harmful to individuals’ wellbeing, with psychological, behavioural and social consequences for those affected by obesity.

Psychological outcomes can include; depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, poor body image, selfharm and suicide. Behavioural outcomes can include; unhealthy weight control practises, bingeeating, and avoidance of physical activity and health screening. Social outcomes can include; social rejection by peers, poor quality of interpersonal relationships, potential negative impact on academic outcomes, the denial of jobs and promotions, the reduction of earning potential, biased attitudes from health care professionals, and stereotypes in the media.

Our approach to reducing obesity

Obesity Health Alliance members agree the following aims to reduce and address weight stigma:

  • We will use person centred language when describing individuals or a group of individuals (e.g. the number of people with obesity rather than the number of obese people).
  • We will avoid the use of stigmatising images in our own communications, websites and on social media and encourage the use of stigma free image banks such as the World Obesity Federation.
  • We will avoid the use of combative language such as fighting obesity, the battle with obesity while maintaining the seriousness of the impact of the condition.
  • We will avoid the use of humour or weight based stereotypes when referencing individuals with obesity.
  • Where appropriate, we will use positive terminology such as referencing the benefits of having a healthy weight.

As a coalition focused on influencing Government policy, we need to clearly communicate the impact of obesity, both to the individual and wider society, to parliamentarians and policymakers to ensure that reducing obesity remains a priority for Government policy. We endeavour to do this in a responsible way and will continue to draw on the experience of researchers and those with lived experience of obesity to help us shape our messages.