As the prevalence of obesity increases throughout much of the world, there is also a pervasive and strong societal culture of weight bias. Weight bias is defined as negative attitudes toward and beliefs about others because of their weight. Weight bias leads to the stigmatisation of obese individuals and as research shows, this, in turn, can have a serious negative impact on their social, economic, psychological, and physical health.
Obesity carries with it one of the last forms of socially acceptable discrimination. Psychologically, the consequences of this discrimination for the recipients leads to a higher vulnerability for depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, poor body image and suicidal ideation. We have a culture that values thinness and perpetuates societal messages that obesity is characteristic of a defective person. This message propagates weight stigma, defined as the social rejection and devaluation that accrues to those who do not comply with social norms or expectations of weight and shape. So pervasive is this message in society, the obese person has also been conditioned to the internalisation of weight bias which affects emotional responses and triggers feelings of shame, blame, vulnerability, stress, depression, unhealthy coping mechanisms, and even suicidal thoughts and acts.
The research clearly shows weight bias and consequently, stigma, presents itself across society in the school and education system, employment and the workplace, and also in the healthcare system. Many well-educated professionals have a poor understanding of the complexity of obesity, its causes and perpetuation. Obesity is a chronic, complex disease and not a lifestyle choice. It is also intrinsically linked to genetic and biological mechanisms. The current narrative on obesity is to ‘blame the obese person’ through erroneous, assumptions and stereotypical notions that they are lazy, non-compliant, unintelligent, and lacking motivation and willpower.
Only through reflecting on the role we each play in contributing to weight bias and stigma (either consciously or subconsciously), can we examine where our knowledge about obesity came from and how we adopted that knowledge. Through understanding the lived experience of the obese person we can develop compassion and empathy, as well as more awareness of our own agency in changing the societal narrative on obesity. We can all let this inform how we think and speak about obesity in the future, as well as educating ourselves on the complexity of obesity and identifying opportunities for personal, professional and social change.
Leslie Hartley, WLSA Psychologist