The Immeasurable Power of Words: Weight Stigmas within Society
Author: Tara Coltman-Patel
Unfortunately, obesity is a highly-stigmatised condition and weight stigmas are pervasive within society. Those with obesity are frequently subject to prejudice and ridicule at home, school, work and even from healthcare professionals (Swift et.al 2013). Every day they face social rejection and are deemed lazy, unattractive, unmotivated and unhappy.
We live in a world where we are constantly reminded that obesity is a ‘crisis’, an ‘epidemic’, that it is crippling the economy and that it is a burden on society. These ideologies are disseminated throughout the news media, social media, by politicians and by healthcare professionals and they are the birth place of weight stigmas. Research has shown that these negative ideologies create a stigma that treats obesity and ugliness, laziness, a lack of moral character and unhappiness as synonymous concepts (Saguy and Almeling 2008, Malterud and Ulriken 2010). Something even more alarming is that many obese individuals feel unable to challenge weight stigmas, so they passively accept and sometimes believe them (Lewis et al. 2011, Holland et al. 2015). It is reported by the British National Obesity Observatory that because of this, weight stigmas can fuel overeating and binge eating habits, as those stigmatised can use food as an emotional crutch to escape the discrimination they face from society, but also themselves.
Weight stigma can manifest itself in several different ways. It can be overt, such as verbal and physical abuse, but it can also be indirect and subtle. News media is notorious for subtly stigmatising marginal groups within society (KhosraviNik 2009, Baker, Gabrielatos and McEnery 2013). Quite often it’s not what they specifically say, but it’s what their specific language choices imply. I’m going to expand on this premise in relation to my research into weight stigmas in British newspapers.
In Britain, the increase in the prevalence of obesity is paralleled by an increase in the number of newspaper reports about it in newspapers. In the last ten years, the number of articles published about obesity has increased by 38%. My data is comprised of every newspaper article written about obesity in a British national newspaper since 2006. 16,000 articles, 10 years and over 10 million words' worth of data.
The preliminary stages of analysis have already revealed interesting results. For example, 22% of the times that the word ‘obese’ occurs, it is preceded by the verb ‘are’.
One in eight people ARE obese
Children who ARE obese
How can you tell if you ARE obese?
It can be argued that obesity is a medical condition. Three years ago, the American Medical Association adopted this contention and the NHS in Britain recognises that obesity can be more complex than just overeating and a lack of exercise. Therefore, if obesity is a medical condition, it is not something that you ARE; it is something you HAVE. It is very rare that people are defined by a medical condition they have. You will never hear the phrases, ‘you are lupus’, or ‘you are meningitis’. However, when it comes to medical conditions that have negative stigmas and stereotypes attached to them, those suffering with them are often defined by them.
You ARE HIV positive
You ARE dyslexic
You ARE obese
Defining people as obese causes severe conflation and it insinuates that that is all they are. It becomes easy to issue blame, it implies that all negative weight related ideologies apply to them and it creates a very narrow and inaccurate identity for those that have obesity.
It is astonishing that one small three-letter word has the power to change the way an entire concept is represented. This one word is a language choice that is subconsciously made by the majority of people, not just journalists. I, however, would argue that the language we use when discussing this issue needs to be evaluated and more calculated so that we can use powerful platforms such as news media, which reaches out to a large audience, to educate as opposed to discriminate. Changing the language used in the media could be the first step in the right direction to changing the way we think about this issue and reduce the weight stigmas which are currently so predominant within society.
Tara Coltman-Patel is a Linguistics PhD student at Nottingham Trent University and runs a healthy lifestyle blog on Instagram (@taras_transformation).
Baker, P, Gabrielatos, C and McEnery T (2013). Discourse Analysis and Media Attitudes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Holland, K, Blood, R, Thomas, S and Lewis, S. (2015). Challenging Sterotypes and Legitimating Fat: An Ananlysis of Obese Peoples Views on News Media Reporting Guidelines and Promoting Body Diversity . Journal of Sociology. 31 (2), 431-45.
Khosravinik, M. (2009). The representation of refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants in British newspapers during the Balkan conflict (1999) and the British general election (2005). Discourse and Society. 20 (4), 477-98.
Lewis, S, Thomas, S, Blood R, Castle, D, Hyde, J and Komesaroff, P. (2011). How do Obese Individuals Perceive, and Respond to the Different Typed of Obesity Stigma that they Encounter in their Daily Lives? A Qualitative Study . Social Science and Medicine. 73 (9), 1349-56.
Malterud, K and Ulriken, K. (2010). "Norwegians Fear Fatness More that Anything Else" A Qualitative Study of Normative Newspaper Messages on Obesity and Health . Patient Education and Counselling. 81 (1), 47-52.
Saguy, A and Almeling, R. (2008). Fat in the Fire? Science, the News Media and the "Obesity Epidemic". Sociological Forum. 23 (1), 53-83.
Swift, J, Choi, E, Puhl, R and Glazebrook, C. (2013). Talking About Obesity with Clients: Preferred Terms and Communication Styles of UK Pre-Registered Dietitians, Doctors and Nurses. Education and Counselling. 91 (1), 186-91.
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