Expert Opinion

Ending weight stigma and discrimination in 2018

Stigmatisation and discrimination based on characteristics such as sex, ethnicity and mental health has become less acceptable in the UK.

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This has occurred for several reasons: 1) greater understanding and acceptance of differences in society; 2) increased protection for people who are the targets of stigma and discrimination; and 3) development of legislation that prevents people from engaging in stigmatising and discriminatory behaviour. However, weight stigma and discrimination are perceived as accepted, in some cases is encouraged and promoted, and continues to be widely reported and experienced by many people – predominantly by people who are overweight or have obesity. As long as weight stigmatisation and discrimination are perceived to be acceptable in our society, people across the weight spectrum will report and experience it.

We need to intervene with sources that contribute to the formation of weight stigmatising attitudes and behaviours. People of all ages and backgrounds report weight stigma and discrimination, and this has been evidenced in a range of settings such as the media, education centres, workplace and healthcare. Four sources are critical to the formation and maintenance of weight stigma attitudes and these have a role in reducing such attitudes:

  1. Media - producers and editors should provide an accurate portrayal of obesity rather than a sensationalist view which in many instances are far from reality; avoid stigmatisation and discrimination of people with obesity; use non-stigmatising images; and when reporting on weight stigma and discrimination, condemn the behaviours of others.
  2. Education – organisations should provide accurate learning opportunities for children and young people to receive a more balanced understanding of the causes and consequences of obesity. The rise in weight related teasing and bullying incidents calls for education centres to support accurate attitude and knowledge formation of weight; offer opportunities to learn about and challenge inaccurate information from different sources; and ensure that anti-bullying policy is appropriate to tackle weight based sigma and discrimination.
  3. Workplaces – settings should ensure that employees and applicants – irrespective of weight, receive equal opportunities. Workplaces related to the area of weight must avoid stigmatisation and discrimination of people with obesity, and use non-stigmatising images.
  4. Healthcare – professionals should receive greater training and education on the impacts of weight stigma to understand how their current attitudes and behaviours might be stigmatising, and unfavourable towards patient support or advice, and decisions regarding referral and treatment.

Stigma and discrimination is unacceptable towards people of any characteristic or disability, yet we continue to see weight stigma across society. It is thus critical that we end weight stigma and discrimination in 2018. We believe it’s important for people, organisations, and authorities speak out when they see or experience weight stigma and discrimination. The pervasive nature of weight stigma and discrimination warrants action.

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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