It’s no secret that being obese can make you the target of some very negative and stigmatizing attitudes. Many people have been subjected to public ridicule and cruel remarks, lost jobs or promotions, and even been blamed for large-scale social problems like climate change and rising health care costs—all because of their weight.
As reported in this article, even doctors and health policy professionals get in on the act. Ms. Brown reports that, in one study, more than half of the 620 doctors questioned said they viewed obese patients as “awkward, unattractive, ugly, and unlikely to comply with treatment.” Another study shows that higher BMI scores translate into doctors having less respect for patients and spending less time with them during appointments.
With all the evidence that, in most cases, obesity is a complex condition caused by the interaction of many different genetic, biochemical, and environmental factors, you’d think that medical professionals, especially, would be less likely to fall into the trap of viewing obesity as some sort of character flaw and stigmatizing obese patients.
Ms. Brown raises the possibility that many health professionals and policy makers believe that being stigmatized can motivate people to lose weight and improve their health. But, as she notes, the question is whether this approach actually works.
Most of the evidence seems to say “No.” Being on the receiving end of judgmental or stigmatizing attitudes is highly associated with depression, anxiety, and other emotional problems, and many people are motivated to avoid situations where they experience these attitudes. People who feel judged by their doctors may simply avoid going to the doctor, even when they really need to. Others may internalize the negative judgments aimed at them, becoming their own harshest critics and worst enemies. This rarely leads to positive choices and actions.
Dr. Peter A Muenning, a professor of health policy at Columbia University, told Ms. Brown that being stigmatized can actually make people sick: “Stigma and prejudice are intensely stressful. Stress puts the body on full alert, which gets the blood pressure up, the sugar up, everything you need to fight or flee the predator.” Over time, chronic stress can lead to high blood pressure, diabetes, psychiatric disorders, and other problems—the same conditions often associated with obesity.
Ironically, the social stigma attached to obesity may actually be aggravating the situation and contributing to the negative health consequences of being overweight.
As Ms. Brown describes in her article, even well-intended efforts to combat the “obesity epidemic,” especially childhood obesity, can backfire and produce negative consequences. For example, conducting school-based campaigns to prevent teenage obesity can make overweight students feel stressed for making the same lunch choices as other students, and fail to get thinner students to examine their own eating habits and make healthier choices.
Maybe we need to put less emphasis on obesity as the problem, and more on building and maintaining healthy lifestyles for people of all weights and sizes, as advocated by The National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance
What do you think? Have you been on the receiving end of the obesity stigma? Does that help motivate you to make changes, or does it just raise your stress level and cause more problems than it solves? What do you do to overcome the negative feelings associated with being stimatized?
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