World Obesity has launched a new Weight Stigma & Bias Working Group to (i) identify common understanding of bias and gaps in knowledge regarding its role in obesity in different populations and geographies, (ii) propose processes for reviewing the role bias and stigma may play in publications, programmes and messaging, (iii) and make recommendations for tailoring responses for different audiences and geographies through a position paper to help address the stigma faced by people living with obesity.
Weight stigma - discriminatory behaviour targeted at individuals because of their weight and size, is a significant issue for many people living with obesity. The position paper will build upon previous work and cover a range of topics relating to weight bias and stigma, including an understanding that weight stigma is more prominent in certain countries and cultures. The Working Group, Co-Chaired by Ximena Ramos-Salas (Director of Research & Policy of Obesity Canada) and Dr Christine Chin (Director of the Healthy Caribbean Coalition and Obesity Specialist), is comprised of an international team of patients, advocates, academics and healthcare professionals working in the fields of communication, clinical management, obesity research and education. The group has been formed because urgent action is required to address high levels of weight stigma experienced by people living with obesity in different parts of the world.
People living with obesity can experience hostile treatment such as negative comments and even physical assault. Discriminatory treatment can occur in a range of environments including the workplace, education and healthcare settings. Studies have shown that children living with obesity face higher levels of bullying and victimisation which can prevent them from progressing into higher education, leading to poorer employment prospects. Unfair treatment of people living with obesity has also been identified during recruitment and at work. Several studies have shown that in the workplace people living with obesity experience derogatory behaviour from co-workers and supervisors, differential treatment, and in some instances the denial of promotions and termination of employment. In such cases people living with excess weight are unfairly pigeonholed as lazy, undisciplined, or less competent by colleagues and employers.
Research shows that in some instances healthcare professionals allocate less time to speak to patients with obesity and instead of prescribing medication for ailments, they request that the patient make lifestyle changes. Weight stigma experienced in any environment can lead to depression, anxiety and low self-esteem. Another adverse consequence of weight stigma is the impact it can have on people who require medical treatment as people with obesity may be deterred from seeking medical care or taking part in physical activities. Yet at the same time, this experience varies in different parts of the world. Indeed, among some populations overweight is associated with success and wealth and considered desirable. Understanding these differences is vital to assessing how cultural perceptions may perpetuate the health issues associated with obesity.
Experts have suggested that the root cause of weight discrimination and the prevalence of negative stereotypes about people living with obesity stems from the fact that obesity has not been widely understood as a chronic disease, and instead is still erroneously labelled as a lifestyle condition caused by individual behaviour. Consequently, it is essential for both healthcare professionals and the general public to receive more education about obesity as a disease and a risk factor for other diseases, including cancer, diabetes and other NCDs. The role of the media is also crucial. News stories and opinion pieces about obesity can contribute significantly to social attitudes and misconceptions about obesity. Calls for the media to improve their coverage of obesity have so far, failed to create change. The Weight Stigma & Bias Working Group will examine the overall obesity narrative used by the media and recommend ways to also communicate about food and physical activity in constructive ways that do not perpetuate an oversimplified narrative.
The group will convene regularly online over the year, with subgroups focusing on specific topics and ensuring that it reflects a global voice. During the development stage of the position statement, members of the World Obesity Federation will be consulted and invited to provide case studies and personal stories from their own organisations. The pandemic has renewed focus on the obesity crisis and in some countries new policies are being developed, but it must be remembered that our ability to address rising obesity levels will depend in part on our success in tackling weight stigma.