Expert Opinion

Time to stop weight stigma in UK national newspapers

In this blog post, Dr Stuart Flint, Senior Research Fellow in the Carnegie School Of Sport, reflects on the dangers of weight stigma by UK national newspapers.

This week The Times printed a particularly stigmatising article about higher weight people entitled ‘Heffalump traps will clear the NHS of fatties’ (02 September, 2017). The publication of this piece is one of a long list of examples where UK national newspapers stigmatise higher weight people, use stigmatising language that is offensive and demeaning, and continuously endorse the standpoint that weight is controllable. There are over 100 causes of obesity many of which are uncontrollable, yet the public rarely receive information about these and are informed that weight is determined by an imbalance between energy intake (food and drink) and energy expenditure (physical activity).

Along with this highly simplistic and inaccurate picture that newspapers and other media project to the public, is the stereotypes of laziness and gluttony. Furthermore, national newspapers and other media, continue to use stigmatising images of higher weight people that are designed to reinforce stereotypes and present the person in a negative fashion. What also becomes apparent is that these newspaper articles are often commented on by the public providing the platform for fat jokes, stigmatising opinion, discriminatory disclosures, and caricatures of higher weight people. The continuous stigmatisation of higher weight people in media sources that are received by millions of people across the UK may lead to the formation of stigmatising attitudes, a belief that it is acceptable to have these attitudes and potentially lead to discriminate towards people based on weight.

In 2016, I published a study alongside Colleagues that examining the portrayal of obesity in UK National Newspapers over the course of a year which included The Times. The study demonstrates that the content used by national newspapers is stigmatising, that stigmatising terminology is used such as ‘fatties’, fat jokes and humour in opinion pieces from critics and columnists are common, and when reporting that a higher weight person has had a negative experience such as bullying or discrimination in work, newspapers do not take the opportunity condone such behaviour. This study also reported that 98% of the newspaper articles published over the course of the year portrayed obesity as controllable with only 2% mentioning an uncontrollable cause. The formation of stigmatising attitudes around weight are linked to beliefs about controllability. Research evidence demonstrates that the more a person believes obesity is controllable, the more likely they are to stigmatise higher weight people as they can assign blame to that person. Thus, the more information that the public receive which reinforces a belief that weight is controllable, the more likely people are to develop stigmatising attitudes and behave in discriminatory ways towards higher weight people. Research has demonstrated that higher weight people are discriminated in many settings including healthcare, workplace and schools.

What appears to be missing from the misguided piece in The Times and others, is a lack of appreciation for the reader. Weight stigma and discrimination are very real and are experienced by many people on a daily basis which may lead to internalisation of weight stigma, depressed mood, and maladaptive health behaviours. Contrary to many people’s beliefs, weight stigma does not just effect higher weight people. Weight stigma effects people of all body shapes and sizes including people classed as normal weight. Body image concerns and eating disorders have been on the rise for years and there has also been increased reports of excessive exercise which is linked to a belief that weight can easily be reduced by exercising. Weight concerns are often reported as amongst the primary reasons for unhealthy eating and exercise behaviours, and these concerns are likely to be intensified by weight stigma. We know that people of all ages and backgrounds report weight stigma and body image concerns. For example, children as young as 3 years old have reported body image concerns which is likely to have a number of implications. Thus, weight stigma and discrimination may have a myriad of consequences that are overlooked and in many instances fuelled by national newspapers and other media’s dissemination of articles such as ‘Heffalump traps will clear the NHS of fatties’ in The Times. It is time for UK national newspapers and other media to stop stigmatising people based on weight as it is likely that these articles are contributing to a lot of harm for the UK public.

Dr Stuart Flint

Dr Stuart Flint is a psychologist with a specific interest in the psychosocial effects of obesity; in particular obesity stigmatisation and discrimination, conscious and unconscious attitudes, body image, attitude and behaviour change and factors that influence exercise participation. Stuart previsouly lectured at Leeds Beckett.

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