This Weight Stigma Has Become a Global Health Problem, Studies Say
What's one thing that even many health experts are guilty of? Fat-shaming.
When you step on the scale at the doctor's office, a health care professional will likely evaluate your weight based on your body mass index (BMI). If you're not an athlete or naturally muscular, you may be considered overweight or obese by this metric—even if you eat healthily and work out all of the time.
If you're a proud member of the fat community, do you feel supported by your doctor? Do you feel accepted by colleagues at work? What about your family and friends? According to new research, a majority of overweight adults have experienced fat-shaming—and their experiences with stigma have had a negative effect on not only their self-worth but also their willingness to seek out health care assistance.
The impact weight stigma has on people's lives
More than half of the nearly 14,000 WW (formerly Weight Watchers) members surveyed between May and July 2020 say they experienced fat-shaming from family, friends, doctors, classmates, and even coworkers. Moreover, fat-shaming isn't only a problem in the U.S.—it includes adults living in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, and the UK.
"Stigma is an enemy to health," Rebecca Puhl, the lead author of two new studies on the topic and the deputy director at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut, told CNN Health. "And just like mental health, weight stigma is a legitimate public health issue, and we need to legitimize it in a way that really hasn't been done yet."
The causes of obesity are extremely complex, and they're often outside of a person's control. According to Puhl, diet and exercise are only one part of the equation—not the whole picture.
"We certainly have created a society that facilitates obesity, with an emphasis on fast and highly processed foods and a lack of physical activity," Puhl said. "And we're ignoring all the other pieces of the puzzle such as genetics, environment, biology, agriculture, prices of food, food deserts, and accessibility."
Unfortunately, the weight-related stigma began at a very young age for many, and from members of their own households. In one of the studies, which was published in the International Journal of Obesity, between 76% and 88% of those surveyed had experienced weight-shaming primarily during childhood or adolescence from a parent, sibling, or other family members. Between 71% and 81% of survey participants also said they were bullied or teased by classmates in school for their weight.
In adulthood, between 54% and 62% of respondents said coworkers had fat-shamed them in the workplace. Even friends tend to express their input about weight, with 49%-66% of respondents saying they experienced negative comments.
Health professionals also play a role in fat-shaming
In a second study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, Puhl and her colleagues used the same dataset to find out if participants also felt judged by their doctors. They found that between 63% and 74% of those surveyed across the six countries felt belittled because of their weight while at the doctor's office.
"They would get less frequent checkups with the doctor," Puhl said. "They were more likely to view that their doctors were negatively judging them about their weight and that their doctor had less respect for them and didn't listen to their needs."
Much like any global health problem, stigma won't be wiped out overnight. Many changes need to be enforced at home, including shifting the focus of the conversation away from the number on a scale.
In order to enact true change, we need to look beyond fat-shaming at home and in the classroom. Federal and state governments should play a role in fighting the stigma, according to Puhl. For more, be sure to check out Most American Children Are Deficient In These Four Major Nutrients, Says New Study.