By Susanne F Meisel, on 11 September 2014
Negative attitudes towards obese individuals therefore remain one of the ‘last socially acceptable forms of prejudice’ . One has only to glance at the ‘comments’ section of media reports discussing obesity to realise that obese people are openly subjected to labelling and stereotyping, and some outright abusive attacks. Unfortunately, stereotypes of the overweight and obese are held across all segments of society, including those working in health and social care .
Despite solid evidence (and frequent discussion on this blog) showing conclusively that whole host of factors contribute to excessive weight gain,currently, responsibility for maintaining a healthy weight rests solely with the individual. Therefore, people may think that stigmatising those who ‘refuse’ to conform to the ‘societal imperative’ is justified . Some may go even further and claim that stigmatising overweight and obese people would encourage them to lose weight. However, when our researchers looked at the scientific literature surrounding stigma and weight loss, there was little evidence showing whether this was actually true.
To find out whether weight and the experience of stigma are related in some way, researchers from our department looked at data from 2,944 UK adults over four years who participated in the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA), a study of adults aged 50 or older. Participants are weighed and measured every four years, and asked questions on a range of topics every two years.
To assess stigma, participants were asked how often they encounter five discriminatory situations: ‘In your day-to-day life, how often have any of the following things happened to you: 1) You are treated with less respect or courtesy; 2) you receive poorer service than other people in restaurants and stores; 3) people act as if they think you are not clever; 4) you are threatened or harassed; 5) you receive poorer service or treatment than other people from doctors or hospitals. Responses ranged from ‘never’ to ‘almost every day’. Participants who reported discrimination in any of the situations were asked to indicate the reason(s) they attributed their experience to from a list of options including weight, age, gender, and race. The researchers considered participants who attributed experiences of discrimination to their weight as cases of perceived weight discrimination. Because many participants reported never experiencing discrimination, the researchers divided responses to indicate whether or not respondents had ever experienced discrimination in any domain (never vs. all other options).
Of the 2,944 eligible participants in the study, 5% reported weight discrimination. This ranged from less than 1% of those in the ‘normal weight’ category to 36% of those classified as ‘‘morbidly obese’. Men and women reported similar levels of weight discrimination.
However, those who reported experiencing weight discrimination gained more weight than those who did not over the 4-year period. On average, after taking baseline differences in BMI, gender, age and personal wealth into account, people who reported weight discrimination gained 0.95kg whereas those who did not lost 0.71kg, a difference of 1.66kg.
However, because this study looked only at the relationship of perceived stigma and weight gain, we cannot conclude that stigma caused weight gain – it could also be that weight gain increased perceived stigma, or that a third factor influenced both weight gain and stigma. To conclusively establish whether stigma indeed causes weight gain, we would have to run a controlled experiment with at least two groups of similarly overweight people, where one group is subjected to stigma over a period of time, and the other one is not, and then measure their weight at the end of the study. Of course, such an experiment would be highly unethical, given the damaging effects of stigma on psychological health. Another limitation of this study was that discrimination was assessed two years after the initial weight measurements and two years before the final measurements, although the researchers controlled statistically for this.
However, regardless of its limitations, this study showed that weight discrimination is definitely not associated with weight loss. This means that there was no evidence for the idea that stigmatising overweight and obese individuals would motivate them to lose weight. in many cases, it may even hinder weight loss. Therefore, we should work towards removing prejudice and blame from weight loss advice and should focus on positively supporting those who are trying to lose weight. One way may be to teach active coping strategies and increasing acceptance-based elements into weight loss programmes because this has had some promising effects. Furthermore, we will need to continue highlighting the complex causes of obesity rather than relying on simplistic representations, and increase work to acknowledge and address weight-related stigma, to make the ‘last socially acceptable form of prejudice’ unacceptable.
Jackson, S. E., Beeken, R. J., & Wardle, J. (2014). Perceived weight discrimination and changes in weight, waist circumference, and weight status. Obesity, n/a. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/oby.20891/full