Weight Stigma Is Discrimination - It's Time We Stop Blaming People With Obesity

Blame masks the real drivers of obesity and creates major barriers to people getting the help they need to address the disease
gpointstudio via Getty Images

Obesity is a global issue. Since 1975, it has nearly tripled worldwide, with more than 650 million people now living with obesity. Sadly, no country is currently on track to meet the WHO target to halt the rise in obesity. While this increase is in large part due to its complexity and many interlinking causes, most of the current public discourse is fairly one-dimensional, centering on ‘eat less, move more’ as a panacea and with blame still placed largely on the individual. The language and images used throughout society, and in particular in the media, often suggest that people with obesity are lazy, greedy and lack willpower. This widespread - yet often subtle - bias has in turn led to weight stigma.

Weight stigma was the theme of 2018 World Obesity Day on 11th October and the topic we addressed at our global summit in Windsor, UK last week. People shared their experiences of weight stigma and the negative consequences they experience based entirely on their weight. This is a topic that’s poorly understood by many and is a global phenomenon.

Weight stigma is discrimination. Let’s end it.

Stigmatising people because of their weight is discrimination. Individuals are being blamed for obesity and for their weight, which not only masks the real drivers of obesity but creates major barriers to people getting the help they need to address the disease. Decades of public health research show that obesity is complex and that there are multiple causes. Stigmatising people with obesity further undermines their health and well-being. We don’t blame people with cancer or heart disease but we do seem to blame people with obesity. It’s time this ended.

There have been huge strides made across the globe in tackling other forms of discrimination. It’s now time we all call out and share examples of weight stigma when we see it in our media, workplaces, healthcare facilities, schools and, yes sometimes, even in our own homes.

So how big is the issue? Weight discrimination is a serious matter across the world. Polling in three countries: Brazil, South Africa and UK shows that people are more likely to be discriminated against because of their weight than they are for other reasons.

The media play a huge role in influencing and forming our perceptions. Weight stigma in the media has a proven ability to reinforce negative perceptions leading people to label people with obesity as unhealthy and unattractive. Obesity is a complex disease and we are calling on the media to avoid images showing body parts in isolation such as the abdomen, individuals in sedentary position such as lying down or watching TV, facial expressions of sadness, apathy or distress or people measuring themselves. These images stigmatise people with obesity, rather than support understanding of this multifactorial disease process.

In contrast, providing images of people with obesity smiling and taking exercise avoid the stereotypes associated with the disease and will encourage individuals to identify and seek help for their weight management. Similarly, avoiding derogatory terms and instead using “people first” language will empower people, rather than perpetuate myths.

Our research finds that weight stigma and bias, although with some country and cultural differences, is a worldwide issue. The countries with the highest rates of stigmatising imagery we found were Italy, Hong Kong, South Africa and Morocco. Better news is that Japan used the least amount of damaging photography followed closely by Brazil and New Zealand.

A call to end stigma in itself is not enough: we all have an obligation to communicate responsibly to help treat this disease. By being deliberate in the terms and images used, the media have in fact been an instrument in helping to tackle discrimination rather than perpetuating it. Using similar tactics, the media can help us take the first steps to end weight stigma.

Johanna Ralston is the CEO of the World Obesity Foundation