The Social Stigma of Obesity

art-482-01Tackling obesity begins with overcoming any bias or prejudice against overweight or obese people

In planning and implementing initiatives that tackle obesity, relevant stakeholders need to take account the social stigma that overweight and obese individuals face in their lives.

Obesity stigma refers to social stereotypes or prejudice associated with obesity and those affected by it. It is the result of weight-based bias or discrimination against overweight or obese individuals, either by others or within individuals themselves.

Obesity stigma can lead to actions that exclude and marginalise people with obesity, such as being discriminated in the workplace, bullied in school or given inadequate health care.

When internalised, this stigma can be detrimental to affected individuals physically and psychologically, such as increased depression and anxiety, disordered eating, and low self-esteem.

This can discourage them from seeking medical care, eating a proper diet, and other activities that can improve their overall health, thus increasing their risk of mortality.

Among the most common narratives contributing to the stigma of being overweight or obese are the oversimplification of the causes of obesity, the suggestion that easy solutions to get leaner will guarantee fast and sustainable results, and the focus on individual behaviours and perceived failures.

Stereotypes on people who are overweight or obese are also perpetuated by media portrayals, while many online discussions especially in social networking sites tend to be critical about people and their weight and/or eating behaviour.

Such narratives set unrealistic expectations, fail to highlight the challenges overweight or obese individuals face in making a change for the better, and most importantly neglect other factors contributing to obesity, including biological, social and environmental.

Therefore, stakeholders must show more empathy and consideration in supporting affected individuals to lead longer and healthier lives, while recognising and overcoming any negative beliefs or attitudes they have towards them.

The World Health Organisation suggests tackling obesity based on these public health objectives: taking a life-course approach and empowering people; strengthening people-centred health systems and public health; and creating supportive communities and healthy environments.

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