Weight stigma: What is it and how to reduce the negative effects?

Megan Smith
 min read

Weight stigma is the very real targeting of individuals because of their weight.

Weight stigma: What is it and how to reduce the negative effects?Obesity is a complex problem depending on many factors whose prevalence has increased considerably.

As a whole, overweight individuals are often perceived differently, simply based on weight. The connotations are negative. Public awareness and understanding should be enhanced through all sorts of media and social policies. Individuals are affected and weight stigma has a real-life effect on them.

People who are obese frequently experience stigma related to their body weight, referring to negative attitudes and beliefs about body weight expressed in the form of stereotypes, prejudice and unfair treatment of overweight or obese people. 

This stigmatization can manifest itself in inappropriate verbal comments such as mockery, insults or derogatory remarks, social exclusion and physical assault.

It can also have damaging consequences for the psychological and physiological health of obese people, including an increased risk of depression and anxiety.

Weight stigma: Introduction

The objectives of this article are:

  • To identify strategies to minimize the prejudice associated with body weight to limit the negative consequences for people with obesity.
  • To better understand the phenomenon of body weight stigma and its consequences.

Why are obese people stigmatized?

There are several reasons why body prejudices exist, including inadequate representation in the media and misperceptions about the causes of obesity.

Inadequate representation in the media

The way obese people are portrayed in different media can contribute to fostering and maintaining the stigma associated with body weight.

Obese people are often personified as lazy, lacking in self-discipline, or unattractive and are often the butt of bad jokes.

Currently, no studies are available on the effects of body weight stigma in the media on public attitudes and behaviors toward obese people.

However, the popularity of television shows, movies and comics reflecting overweight prejudice suggests that it is socially acceptable.

Obesity-related misperceptions

Many people mistakenly believe that it is easy to control their body weight, but research has shown that most people who have been on a diet do not maintain the weight they have lost over the long term.

Obesity is a problem involving several factors that influence energy intake and expenditure.

Suppose obesity is perceived as a condition whose causes are easily controllable by the individual. In that case, obese people are more likely to be held responsible for their condition and stigmatized.

Conversely, obese individuals are likely to be judged less harshly if causes beyond their control, such as genetic predisposition or environment, are also recognized in the equation.

Thus, obesity prevention programs that focus solely on individual behavior changes, without also including larger-scale changes in social and physical environments, may increase the stigma associated with body weight.

Why is body weight stigma a concern?

It has a detrimental effect on the emotional and psychological well-being and quality of life of people with obesity, including an increased risk of depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts and behaviors.

Obese people would perceive their bodies more negatively and have lower self-esteem than those who aren’t.

Damaging consequences on the physiology

It can also have negative consequences for the physiological health of obese individuals, including reduced physical activity.

A study of American women showed that being made to feel ashamed of their body weight affected their motivation to be physically active.

The use of health services by obese individuals may be compromised to avoid the stigma associated with body weight.

For example, results from another study including overweight and obese women showed that their body weight was a barrier to attending a routine screening examination as they expected to receive unsolicited advice to lose weight.

Unhealthy eating behaviors

Some unhealthy eating behaviors that can exacerbate obesity can result from weight.

A study assessed the experience of body weight stigma of almost 2500 overweight or obese women undergoing weight loss and their strategies to cope with it.

The results showed that when stigma was applied to them, almost 80% of the women responded by eating more and about 75% refused to continue their efforts to lose weight.

How can we minimize body weight stigma among the population?

Communications to the public about obesity should focus on positive images and messages to build self-esteem rather than stereotype, blame or misinform.

How do you minimize body weight stigma in the media?

A more positive portrayal of obese people may be helpful to challenge body weight stereotypes.

It is important to properly represent obese people in the media, especially by suggesting that we avoid images that focus solely on the overweight of obese people, isolating certain parts of their bodies.

Specifically, the images chosen should include men and women of all ages, various appearances, and different careers, activities, and lifestyles.

Weight stigma: Conclusion

The perception of the causes of obesity may explain the presence of stigma related to body weight which has many damaging consequences for the psychological and physiological health of obese people.

Several strategies can reduce the stigma associated with body weight when developing obesity prevention programs for health professionals in their practice and for the media.

Body weight stigma is a complex and under-researched topic, yet its consequences are far from negligible.

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About Megan Smith

Megan has been fighting overweight and her plus size since her teenage years. After trying all types of remedies without success, she started doing her own research. Megan founded PlusSizeZeal.com to share her findings. She also developed various detailed buying guides for plus-size people in order to make their lives easier and more comfortable. Read More