Stigmatization of Obesity–What Can I Do?

I sent this tweet on Wednesday while reading for my Pathophysiology of Obesity class:


Our lecture on Wednesday focused on the stigmatization and discrimination that obese people experience, and I actually found myself tearing up in class. As someone who was formerly overweight and borderline obese, it makes me really sad and physically ill to think about the emotional turmoil that overweight and obese people endure in America today.  Overweight and obese people are people, first and foremost. Why is it socially acceptable to make fat jokes or searing comments at their expense? We won’t put up with derogatory comments regarding someone’s religion or ethnicity, but it seems to be par for the course to hear a few fat jokes or body image jabs throughout the day. Prejudice and discrimination in all forms flat-out should not be tolerated.

Here are a few of the key points that we covered in class.

Why are overweight and obese people stigmatized?

  • Many people subscribe to the attribution theory when it comes to obese people, which is based on the belief that they get what they deserve. They choose to overeat, so they get what’s coming to them. It’s not that simple. Various genetic, environmental, and psychological factors can cause someone to become overweight or obese. It’s also very interesting to note that most people are more accepting of an obese person upon learning that the person has a documented medical condition such as a thyroid disorder that causes him or her to be obese.
  • Our culture is obsessed with the thin ideal.
  • Overweight and obese people are generally portrayed negatively in the media, ingraining a sense of acceptability to stigmatize overweight and obese people in viewers. Remember Ursula, the overweight octopus villain in The Little Mermaid? We’re planting these images in our children early.

How does stigmatization occur?

  • Negative Stereotypes—obese people are more likely to be categorized as lazy, sloppy, and lacking self-control than their non-obese counterparts.
  • Discrimination
  • Unequal treatment
  • Ridicule

Source: Kopelman, Peter. Clinical Obesity in Adults and Children. 3. Blackwell Publishing, 2010. 25-35.

*If you are interested in specific studies documenting the stigmatization of obese and overweight individuals, I highly recommend visiting the website for the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. 

It was hard to listen to the lecture and hear the facts when I could associate a personal story to each of these categories of stigmatization. The memories of being picked last for teams in gym class, getting teased about my weight by classmates, and hearing teachers and other adults make negative comments about my teenage body and eating habits brought this topic a little too close to home. I was ready to peace out of the classroom.

But then we got to the “what can we do about the problem when we become health care professionals” section of the lecture. What can I do about the problem today? It certainly isn’t helping anyone if I run away from the situation.

Instead, I refuse to witness stigmatization passively. When I hear a negative comment regarding someone’s weight or body, I will start a dialogue with the commenter—what is the purpose of the comment? What exactly are you trying to say or portray?

Above all, I choose to be a friend and advocate. I know how difficult and isolating it can be to be overweight, and sometimes I just want to run up and hug people and tell them they’re worth it, just the way they are. While that isn’t exactly socially acceptable, I can portray this attitude in my everyday life and actions.

My professor mentioned to us that when we are dietitians, we should want overweight and obese people to leave our offices feeling empowered to make a change rather than ashamed of their bodies. That statement really resonated with me—I want people to feel empowered to make a change for their life because they love who they are now, not because they don’t. Does that make sense?

To be honest, I’ve been feeling a little down since Wednesday’s lecture—it hurts to relive those memories, and part of me wonders if I am still looked down on today by some people simply for having a history of being overweight and obese. Thinking about the proactive approach that I can take today to fight stigmatization makes it hurt a little less.

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