World Obesity Day 2020: Taking a stand against weight stigma
We may claim to be above judging someone by their weight but the fact is that if someone is overweight we will make unfair assumptions about them.
Talking snidely about someone who is overweight is so pervasive in the global community that it is usually brushed off without reproach or another thought. We may claim to be above judging someone by their weight but the fact is that if someone is overweight we will make unfair and unpleasant assumptions about them. As our understanding of obesity deepens, it becomes apparent that the stigma associated with it is not just cruel and debilitating, but at odds with the biological reality of the condition as well.
From this year onwards, March 4th will be observed as World Obesity Day. To mark the occasion, over 100 medical and scientific organizations have signed a statement identifying unscientific public narratives of obesity as the major proponent of weight stigma.
The hope is that the backing of so many heavyweight organizations will initiate a dialogue against weight-based discrimination and help bring about policies that level the playing field.
What is weight stigma and what are its effects?
Weight stigma is discrimination or stereotyping based on a person’s weight. Overweight people are considered lazy, unmotivated, gluttonous and are supposed to have poor willpower and self-control. This flies in the face of current scientific evidence that suggests obesity is a multidimensional disease that has, amongst other things, biological, genetic and social determinants.
Those who are bullied about their weight are more likely to be depressed, develop psychological and physical problems and, ironically, are more likely to develop eating disorders as well. This suggests that societal expectations of body norms have real, pathological effects.
How do all those involved with the pledge hope to bring about change?
The study, which was published in the journal Nature Medicine and headed by King’s College London, identifies some key avenues responsible for the spread of harmful stereotypes.
For starters, the media portrayal of obesity is often cruel and unscientific. Look at your favourite sitcoms, dramas or mainstream movies; actors that are overweight rarely get lead roles and are usually included in scripts to be made fun of or for comic relief. Even news media has the tendency to misunderstand the complexity of obesity and repeat the stance of society; that being overweight is a lifestyle issue that a strict dietary and exercise regimen can definitely fix.
Secondly, health professionals themselves were implicated by the committee. The study suggested additional training modules detailing the complications of obesity and sensitivity training as well.
The largest source of weight stigma is, of course, society. Similar to healthcare professionals, mass social mobilizations and information dissemination programs need to be undertaken to educate the public of the evils of fat-shaming and far-reaching effects it has. On the more technical side, the public needs a more thorough understanding of what obesity means on the biological and genetic level as well.
Sensitizing people about obesity is an extremely challenging task and it will likely be a very long time before the stigma is reduced in a meaningful way. Since change begins from the self, take this opportunity to educate yourself about obesity and encourage your peers to practice more empathy as well.
For more information, read our article on Obesity.
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