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‘Health Chatter’: Research Department of Behavioural Science and Health Blog



More evidence that ‘obese’ is becoming ‘normal’?

By Susanne F Meisel, on 12 January 2015

The ‘obesity epidemic’ is a recurring theme within the media. So we might assume that the Great British population is more informed than ever on the topic. However, when our researchers carried out a study among obese adults to find out how they perceived their own weight they uncovered some surprising results.

The researchers looked at data from two surveys, conducted 5 years apart in 2007 and 2012, in which 657 obese persons (established through self-reported height and weight) were asked to select a descriptor for their own body weight. They could choose from the options: very underweight, underweight, about right, overweight, very overweight, obese. The results showed that the proportion of obese adults selecting the term ‘obese’ to describe their body size was very low in both sexes: 13% of women in 2007 and 11% of women in 2012, and less than 10% of men at both time points.

Now, of course the term ‘obese’ goes hand-in-hand with stigmatisation, which might well explain the reluctance to use it. The researchers did take this into consideration and went on to look at whether people were more likely to use the less controversial term ‘very overweight’. However, among women there was actually a decrease in the use of ‘very overweight’ over time and the proportion of obese women describing themselves as either ‘overweight’ or ‘about right’ increased accordingly.

This begs the question: why are people reluctant to use the terms ‘very overweight’ or ‘obese’ when describing themselves? Well, stigma might well play a part. Stigmatisation of those who do not meet society’s ideals for body shape is fuelled by the media and pop culture and may be compounded by representations of obesity in the news media, which often use images of extreme obesity when discussing body weight. This presents a challenge for health professionals whose use of these terms can be perceived as insensitive. It could also be that as a nation we increasingly see obesity as the norm. As we have become ‘bigger’, the social construction of these terms has shifted, so people who fall within these categories feel ‘normal’ when they compare themselves to those around them. This could have some troubling repercussions if it means that people are less likely to try to adjust their health behaviours as a result.

Reinstating ‘normal’ as the ‘norm’ is a challenge and maybe the use of this, and the related weight terminology, needs to be reconsidered altogether. If it is to remain considerable work needs to be done to reduce the stigmatisation that surrounds these terms.

Article reference: Johnson F, Beeken RJ, Croker H, Wardle J:Do weight perceptions among obese adults in Great Britain match clinical definitions? Analysis of cross-sectional surveys from 2007 and 2012. BMJOpen 2014;4:e005561.doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2014-005561