obesitystigma.info — a medical perspective on obesity stigma

Obesity Stigma and Size Acceptance


1. People seem to think obesity is a big deal. Two thirds of American adults are overweight or obese — everybody panic!

2. Obesity stigma is prejudice against overweight and obese people. It's a real thing in the world, especially the world of healthcare. It turns out lots of doctors think obese people are lazy, weak-willed, stupid, annoying, incompetent, non-compliant, and generally icky.

3. People justify these beliefs by claiming that obesity is under personal control. See, it isn't like race, because I am not white on purpose. But being fat is a choice. So if fat people didn't want to be discriminated against they could just stop being fat. (Kind of like how poor people should just work harder and pull themselves up by their boot straps.)

4. Nope, turns out that obesity is not a choice. Turns out nothing else you thought you knew about obesity is true, either:

5. Our society's prejudice against fat people comes from our psychological need to protect ourselves from the possibility of bad things happening to us. In our society, thin = beautiful, and therefore being fat is a bad outcome. Rather than just feel sorry for fat people, we need to insulate ourselves against the threat they represent. We need to convince ourselves that the universe is a just place, that hard work pays off, that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. Ergo, fat people must be bad.

6. Obesity stigma is a problem because it is a prejudice just like sexism, racism, and homophobia and it has no place in a just society. A full two thirds of the US adult population are victims of obesity stigma, so the effects are wide-spread. These effects include psychological distress as well as more concrete discrimination in the areas of education, employment, housing, parental rights, and others.

7. Obesity stigma is a particular problem for doctors because it means we are violating the principles of beneficence and non-maleficence. Our current treatment of obesity (nagging patients about dieting and exercising) does not work and is often actively harmful to patients' overall well-being. Fat patients find the experience of coming to the doctor to be so shaming (what with the nagging, lack of appropriate waiting room chairs, gowns, exam tables, and blood pressure cuffs, and mandatory weighing) that they avoid seeking care altogether.

8. For physicians and other healthcare providers, the solution lies in embracing the principles of Size Acceptance and practicing a medical model known as Health At Every Size (HAES). HAES is a new approach to fat patients that emphasizes overall well-being rather than weight loss. The core principles of HAES include, "accepting and respecting the diversity of body shapes and sizes; recognizing that health and well-being are multi-dimensional and that they include physical, social, spiritual, occupational, emotional, and intellectual aspects; promoting all aspects of health and well-being for people of all sizes; promoting eating in a manner which balances individual nutrition needs, hunger, satiety, appetite, and pleasure; and promoting individually appropriate, enjoyable, life-enhancing physical activity, rather than exercise that is focused on a goal of weight loss."

9. Health At Every Size interventions have been proven to be effective in improving psychological markers of well-being, decreasing disordered eating behaviors, and improving cardiovascular markers of health such as cholesterol level and blood pressure. Furthermore, no randomized controlled trial of HAES has shown weight gain to be an effect, and several such studies have pointed to HAES leading to modest weight loss. (Not that we care about the weight loss, but just in answer to all the critics who think intuitive eating will lead to weight ballooning out of control — it doesn't.)

10. In addition to using HAES interventions with individual patients, physicians should also combat obesity stigma in their roles as practice managers and community health advocates. (For example, resisting public health messages that participate in fat-shaming in the name of advocating for personal responsibility.)

11. In conclusion, obesity stigma is bad, doctors have been responsible for perpetuating it, and now it is our responsibility to fight it.

Click here to read the complete paper: Obesity Stigma and Size Acceptance by Marian Royer Zuses, MD, MPH.

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