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Does the Prejudice against Obesity Motivate You to Lose Weight?

By , SparkPeople Blogger
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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DEFARGE2 1/23/2021
The prejudice is blatant and subtle. There's the family member or coworker that just rips on you all the time for being overweight. More sneaky is the subtle prejudice - the clothing makers who only make fashionable clothing in small sizes,but larger sizes are excluded. The subtle promotion pass over of employees who are highly competent, but overweight. The applicant who looks great on paper, but doesn't match the corporate facade. You know you've seen it, heard it. Report
Those to whom our weight is a problem don't really care about us. They just don't want their vision horizon cluttered with things they consider unattractive. Their desires about my weight are meaningless to me. Report
VHAYES04 11/25/2020
Ty Report
CECELW 11/12/2020
No! my health does Report
PIKA1319 9/24/2020
if you don't like the comments/looks/whatever, then do something about the issue that is causing you to receive those things! Report
Definitely not!! Especially since they don't even bother to actually measure body fat against muscle density. They just use their useless charts to slap labels on you. I used a body fat calculator and according to it I'm in an acceptable range but I was diagnosed as morbidly obese. My gyno was insultingly surprised that I'm not prediabetic. I started tracking my food and low and behold, I've been under eating. In one month of eating more, I'm much poorer and I've lost almost 5lbs. Doctors who are prejudiced should loose their license. Report
DANAEBOYCE1 8/18/2020
It never helped. I might have reacted by not eating for a day, only to emotionally eat everything in sight. Well meaning family members were the worst. Instead of offering a healthy snack when I wanted something unhealthy, I was just reminded that I was fat. My mom was the only one with a positive solution, but that addressed fitness, not food. I love to get exercise, but I still just eat so much. Report
LAWLI56 5/21/2020
My reaction to criticism about my weight when I was younger motivated me to eat more not less. It compulsively drove me to the fridge and cupboard. Of course at the time I didn't know I had an eating disorder which started when I was about 8 and wasn't diagnosed until I was 51. When I was 53 I had a gastric bypass but I didn't get the psychological help for the trauma at the heart of my eating disorder that I needed until 41/2 years ago so put about 50 lbs of the weight I initially lost back on, which I'm now dealing with. I know this is common amongst people who have bariatric surgery. You cannot ignore the cause and just treat the symptoms and expect everything to be fine just like any other illness but that's what doctors tend to do in my experience. I've become a Buddhist in the last 2 years as well so I've learnt to stop blaming myself and constantly ruminating on events that I had no control over as a child. I've also learnt to to love myself and not take the negative opinions of other people to heart because it says far more about them than it does about me. These opinions are so damaging to both the one who expresses them and the one being criticized. It seems in our modern society we have forgotten how to be kind to one another and I feel compassion towards them rather than anger. I finally feel at peace with myself and the world and don't need the crutch of overeating any more but it's still difficult to lose the result of years of self abuse. Report
PATRICIAAK 4/29/2020
:) Report
JWINKSLLC 4/21/2020
It's like telling a person that has no arms, "You have no arms." The overweight person already knows they are overweight. It helps no one. Report
SNUZYQ2 3/30/2020
I find that the stigma associated with obesity is never motivating. It's oppressive. Some doctors may seem to give up on their obese patients, but the really good ones never do. I guess the most important thing here is that we never give up on ourselves and that we emerge from the stigma onslaught loving ourselves and others more than we ever did before we became obese. We can do this! Report
Great article. When I was younger I couldn't get myself to go anywhere much less the gym! I was ridiculed everywhere, I just got to the point where I didn't care anymore. Report
I just stay hidden at home now. Report
Prejudice is a stressor. It is a trigger. It pushes an already stressed mind into survival mode - shuts down the prefrontal cortex. Rational thought goes out the door and you're flying on instinct. Survival instinct (which made perfect sense when the #1 cause of mortality was starvation) says: consume the fattest sweetest morsels you encounter and eat until it's gone, because food might not be available tomorrow. No, this is not rational. But when stressed enough, rational thought shuts down. It takes a special skill set to act counter to survival instinct. Sparkpeople could use articles on that topic ;) Report
I went to a new primary care doctor for a pre-ok work up to have reverse shoulder replacement surgery. The FIRST thing out of the doctors mouth was that I would be an ideal candidate for weight loss surgery! I should have left (he also had never heard of reverse shoulder replacement surgery!) but I really needed the work up to fix my broken shoulder. Report
I guess it was my own perception of myself. Report
thanks Report
Thanks for the great article! :) Report
Unfortunately obesity is the last acceptable prejudice in America. Because of that many of us overweight people find it harder to focus on losing weight & being healthier. No overweight person needs to have it pointed out to them, a lot of the time cruelly, that they are fat. They know they are fat. The ridicule we receive often drives us to eat more to soothe the pain of the insults. Report
Unfortunately obesity is the last acceptable prejudice in America. Because of that many of us overweight people find it harder to focus on losing weight & being healthier. No overweight person needs to have it pointed out to them, a lot of the time cruelly, that they are fat. They know they are fat. The ridicule we receive often drives us to eat more to soothe the pain of the insults. Report
I too have been on the receiving end of mean people when I was extremely obese. Now I’m obese and everyone thinks I look great. Truth is when people are condemning you for being over weight you just want to eat more. Report
I am on a mission to get healthy but I know other people looked poorly on me because of my weight. Report
This was not my motivation when I began my journey to become a healthier and happier me but it's worth sharing. Honestly, this devastated and humiliated me more than anything I can remember for a long time.
My husband was estranged from his father for the first thirty years of his life and has recently begun to build a relationship with him.
After meeting me a couple of times he told my husband not to bring me around anymore because he is a "fattist".
If he doesn't like me now, he would have really had disdain for me seven years ago when I was around 400 lbs :(
Now I'm at 220 and thought I was doing great. That one comment blew it all up for me for a while and I'm still very hurt about it but it IS terrific motivation to continue losing.
It was because of all the prejudice against obese people that the body positive movement was started. The ironic thing now is that the body positive movement has been overtaken by Pro obesity. As somebody who used to promote body positivity and I still do to a certain degree I've walked away from the movement because I don't like pushing obesity. I know from personal experience what it did to my body. Report
I find it ironic that doctors will tell people they have to lose weight but offer no assistance or direction for that to happen. Report
Thanks! Report
Thanks! Report
Thanks Report
I found the comparison between smoking and obesity very insightful. It got me to thinking about my own doctor and how he approaches both issues. When I first began seeing him I was a slightly overweight smoker. Over the coarse of seven years I became an obese smoker, topping the scales at 235 pounds. During that time, at every visit in fact, my doctor asked me how I was doing with my smoking. Was I ready to quit. But he never addressed my weight, even as my health issues began accumulating. I wish he would have. I was acutely aware that I was obese and it affected every aspect of my life. I was a physical mess with my out of control blood pressure, kidney problems, and high cholesterol, not to mention that I could barely walk due to the pain in my feet, knees and lower back. Mentally, I was so ashamed of my appearance that I stopped even trying to look nice and I used every excuse I could conjure up for never leaving the house. To me, I became 'that' fat lady at the buffet, so I stopped going out to eat with my husband, refused to get out and even try to walk because I felt the judgement (which was most likely non-existent, but never-the-less) of anyone who passed me. It didn't matter though, as I couldn't walk more than 100 steps without excruciating pain in my feet and lower back. My obesity was my prison. I knew it, but it overwhelmed me so that I honestly thought this was going to be me for the rest of my life. I finally reached the point where I realized that if I wanted things to change, I had to be the one to change it. During my next doctor's visit; after he asked me how I was doing with my smoking, I approached HIM about my weight. I explained to him that I knew it wasn't going to be easy and I needed his advice as to how to begin. Amazingly, he had some very good ideas. We set goals...very easy goals to begin with. Start out 10 minutes a day, five days a week on an elliptical (easy on the knees and feet) and make gradual, healthier changes to your diet. Come back in three months and let's see if you can lose 10 pounds. Five months and 40 pounds later, my blood pressure is normal, cholesterol...well, we're still working on that...kidneys are in good shape, nothing hurts...nothing!...and I'm walking 4+ miles a day. This all brings me back to my main focus however. As much as I love my doctor and appreciate his knowledge and encouragement throughout my weight loss journey to date, I wonder why he never mentioned that my steadily increasing weight might have something to do with my steadily increasing health issues. I wouldn't have been offended. I would have appreciated it way before I began hurting all the time. I might ask him about that at my next visit...after he asks me how I'm doing on this smoking thing. Report
It may be unfair but obese people definitely have less credibility than normal weight people. It's a complicated issue! Report
after blood tests came back somewhat abnormal my doctor said, “I can officially tell you that you need to lose weight now.” I was neither hurt or offended. I took her to heart and have lost 43 lbs. Too bad I had to wait for that comment to realize my health was at risk. I knew it was time long before that statement but just wasn’t ready to see the reality of the hazards. Report
Actually it makes me VERY ANGRY. Passionately angry! I was disrespected by doctors and people my whole life for being overweight. Finally at 460 pounds, everyone thought my only solution was weight loss surgery. Nobody would look into WHY I was overweight or WHY I couldn’t move. I changed hospital affiliations and found a doctor who did diagnostics and found my herniated disks, pinched nerve bundles, bad knees, degenerative disease, fibromyalgia and more. She got me physical therapy and a walker and treated me like a human. No weight loss surgery and SparkPeople flash forward and I’ve lost 220 pounds. I’m treated better now, but I feel sad and am an advocate for those who are not. Report
Very interesting article, I wished people would of told me when I was getting over-weight Report
A time came when I had to see a neurosurgeon for a surgery that would get me out of my wheelchair and I would be walking again and when he saw me he told me that he refused to touch me and the bottom line was that I was too fat and that I would not survive the surgery. When I told him that I wanted to explain a bit about myself and my journey he still told me that I was too fat and when my friend stepped in to give her two cents, he screamed at me that I was too fat and too old.

Well, guess what?! I am not too fat nor too old and this gentleman would not take the time to listen to me or hear me as he has his mind made up before I even showed up. Now, at the Mayo Clinic, they told me that I have great muscle tone, and they found a way that they would like to try before resorting to surgery and I am all game for that!

As for the adage of the childhood "Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me." is a LIE!!! Words, hurt and break you down quicker than sticks and stones will. Once something is said, you CANNOT take it back!!!!


- Nancy Jean -
GA Report
I admit, I'm a doctor avoider. Report
It's NOT prejudice, for heaven's sake! Obesity is a serious health epidemic, one tied to a multitude of debilitating issues, such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and arthritis, to name a few.

Let's substitute "smoking" for "obesity" for a moment. For the past several decades, a concerted effort on the part of health experts, coupled with very effective media campaigns vilifying smoking, has resulted in a sharp decrease in the number of individuals who currently smoke. NO ONE in his right mind would make a case that there was "prejudice" against smokers, or advocate for "Smoking acceptance!" Yet, in fact, there are a lot of health care practitioners who won't even broach the subject of weight with their patients for fear of offending them. (I come from a family of doctors, so I do know what it's like.)

Obesity probably is the biggest current health issue, and like smoking, it DOES affect other people too. Moreover, it is something we are ALL capable of improving -- but only if we stop making excuses for poor choices and quit being so sensitive all the time.

There will always be mean, nasty individuals who delight in hurling rude epithets at other people. Usually, those individuals are very insecure themselves. The best armor against them? That little playground adage from our childhood: "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me!" Report
Thanks for sharing Report
It definitely didn't help me. I had a friend who I worked out with and it was great at first we motivated each other to get to the gym. Then she was getting desperate to lose that last 10 lbs before her wedding so she stopped working out and started puking instead. She got pregnant on her honeymoon and refused to come work out anymore. I lost my motivation and stopped going. She had the audacity to turn to me one day and essentially say "I don't know if you realize it but you're fat." I was just like... seriously?! Just because I refuse to do the puking thing. A few months later we went clothes shopping and she said she was concerned because we wore the same size pants but it was okay for her to wear them because she was pregnant but I was just fat. Mind you at this point she was still heavily obese just not gaining much because she was still puking. Which her obgyn was very distressed about.
She made hurtful comments like these a lot of the time and her weight yoyo'd all the time because she would never stick with trying to lose the healthy way.
I finally decided I didn't need her in my life anymore and just stopped hanging out. I'm so much less stressed now and I'm actually hitting the gym and losing weight. Report
My doctor did just that. I lost about 16 pounds and was having a digestive issue. His response was "Are you sure it's just not something you ate?" I was devastated and cried in my car after I left. He made no mention of the weight I lost and chose instead to belittle me. Time for a new doctor. Report
*Sigh* No, the negative comments do not help. Do we need to accept that obesity is more complex than the "calories in/calories out?" Yes. Do we need to not tie self-worth to a scale number? Yes. Do we need to emphasize healthy lifestyle and not quack fad diets? Yes.

Do we put our head in the sand and pretend that weight has no effect on our health and quality of life? HELL NO!

My experience with the Fat Acceptance movement (particularly my sister, who is an evangelical convert) has been overwhelmingly negative. They seem more interested in trying to scold me for exercising and watching what I eat as though they have a vested interest in making sure I stay fat. (and they probably do, since everyone who gives up and accepts their ideas is a success). They tell me that wanting to lose weight is "internalized misogyny" and "accepting patriarchal oppression." No, it's not about a dress size or male attention. (For $#$%# sake, I married a cook.) It's because I have a laundry list of health issues running in my family and REALLY want to hold those off as long as possible. Yes, I'm working with my doctor on this. No, I'm not being pressured into this by a "fatphobic medical-pharmaceutical complex." Yes, I'm sore from last night's workout. No, I'm not interested in a lecture about how I'm "punishing myself for being fat and female" because I can lift double what I could six months ago.

For crying out loud, either help or get out of my way! Report
I was at my dentist's office, whom I considered a friend, when she told me that she was worried about my health. She scared me, said that I was getting congestive heart failure. But then she kept drilling me about how many calories a day, how many minutes exercise. When I said that I sometimes did water aerobics, she asked me if I felt funny wearing a swimming suit---the "you know, feel funny about the way you look". That was almost 2 weeks ago and I still feel resentful. She's been a wonderful dentist, but she was very hurtfull. She mentioned just skipping meals, going to one of those chains advertising their special meals, etc. I didn't say anything, but it has affected our relationship. I dread going for my next appointment the end of September

Flash forward, have lost 40 pounds. Can you believe that dentist never commented? No positivity, just the negative comments. After 21 years going to her, I'm ready for a new dentist, don't need that in my life. Report
My cardiologist wants me to get the gastric sleeve but I don't want to because I have trouble with keeping food in my system long enough to digest. Sometimes it only takes 4 hours and is in the toilet and it is not digested at all. The gastric doctor just poo pooed it and that is another reason that I will not get it done. If they don't take it serious about my concerns then why should I take them serious about it being safe for me. Report
It didn't motivate me What did motivate me was the fear of dying. Report
No, it never motivated me. But it is nice to see mainstream designers starting to make workout clothes in plus sizes. I've always said "fat people like to workout too!" Report
While living on the west coast, unkind remarks about my weight were common. They were hurtful & not motivating at all. When I moved to the mid west where the population is not as thin, no one sees me as obese. That acceptance has made changing my lifestyle so much easier. Report
YES. But, for me, that's far from being the whole picture. Report
Stigma only motivates individuals who value the other person's opinion. Most patients don't value a stranger's opinion, such as a medical professional you only see once in a while who doesn't know or love you as a person, very highly. Report
I think the social stigma of obesity has the opposite effect. Having been on the thinner side my entire life (except while pregnant when I gained up to 54 pounds), I always felt like I was overweight, even when I was 110 pounds or slightly less. My OB/GYN with my first pregnancy actually told me I was underweight and that was a huge thing for me because I didn't feel like I was since society always tells all of us that we are fat, even if we are not. Being quite a bit heavier than I was at 19, I have come to accept my weight as normal (normal BMI and all of that) and yet the media would still say that I am overweight. Thankfully, I have really great medical professionals in my life that never bother with my weight. My neurologist does tell me I need to exercise, but it's because cardio can be as effect as the best preventative medication for migraines rather than for weight loss. A good portion of my family is considered obese and I know they have had trouble at the doctor. My sister's blood pressure literally gets higher at doctor's appointments because she knows they will comment on her weight, which has been heavily impacted by the medication she uses. My mom and step-dad have both been told they need to lose weight, both just because of their size and to help with other medical conditions (high blood pressure and diabetes, respectively). The prejudice against obese people is not going to work. It further alienates them from the "fit" community and discourages them. For years, not being fit discouraged me from ever trying to be fit, and I didn't have more than 15 pounds to lose before gaining muscle was my only concern to achieve that. Instead of focusing on the negative, we should be focusing on the positive. Eating healthy, living actively, and building a supportive and inclusive community for people of all sizes and abilities should be our focus. If that is how our society worked then there would probably be a lot less obese people because there would be more education easily accessible, healthier eating choices for cheaper prices, and a better community with support that could encourage obese people to get healthier, even if that means they do not lose much weight but are still eating healthier and are more active. Different people have different bodies and sometimes those bodies come with conditions that make it difficult to lose weight or require medication that ends up in the person gaining weight. As a society, we should be accepting of that, too. Report
That never motivated me. What finally did was the personal acceptance that I had to make some changes for life to eat more healthy and move more. Knew that those changes would help with weight loss. Report
Believe me, I knew I was fat. I did not need people telling me. All it did was piss me off. I had a fat doctor telling me to lose weight - I laughed in his face and said he could diet with me. He did not appreciate that ha ha. I had to find my motivation within myself. There was no external influence strong enough to make me want to lose weight. Usually it had the opposite effect. Report
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