By Erin Drinnin, United Way of Central Iowa on Monday, February 3, 2020

4 ways to understand weight stigma 

How you can promote a more supportive health community

Augustus Gloop from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Ursula from the Little Mermaid. Chunk from Goonies. What comes to mind when you think of these TV characters?

Characters affected by obesity in popular media are often portrayed as rude, aggressive, unintelligent, unhealthy and the target of ridicule and bullying. On news stories about weight or obesity-related conditions, often only a person’s body is shown and not their face.

weight stigma

If you haven’t noticed these trends, it’s not surprising. Weight stigma and bias are so common in our society that we often don’t know when we’re exposed to it. Yet, weight stigma can actually perpetuate and worsen health conditions for the children and adults we know and work with in our community.

Here’s what you need to know in order to promote a healthier, supportive community:

Weight stigma can impact how we see others

Weight stigma is the social devaluation and denigration of people perceived to carry excess weight. This stigma can cause us, consciously or unconsciously, to be biased toward, stereotype, judge, and discriminate against individuals who affected by overweight or obesity.

Bias shows up in our assumptions about people – maybe that they are affected by overweight or obesity because they are lazy, unmotivated or lack self-control. This can lead us or health professionals to shame people as a way to “motivate” them to ____________ (Fill in the blank: make better choices, be healthier, lose weight).

Our approach to addressing weight can have unintended consequences

Shame shows up in many ways – name-calling, expressing disgust, questioning someone’s choices – and causes someone who is affected by overweight or obesity to feel unworthy or flawed as a person. Shame does not motivate behavior change and can instead increase negative health outcomes.

weight stigma

Adapted from "Weight Stigma: Five Unspoken Truths," October 11, 2018, by Tara Coltman-Patel.

Studies have shown that people who are affected by overweight and obesity are often treated differently by their peers, teachers, caregivers, and family members, as well as by health care professionals.

This weight stigma, bias and discrimination can lead to:

  • Binge eating, emotional eating, and disordered eating
  • Avoidance of P.E. and other physical activity opportunities
  • Cancelling health care appointments or delaying care because of feeling blamed or dismissed
  • Lower confidence in physical abilities
  • Social isolation
  • Psychological effects, including depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, poor body image, self-harm behaviors and suicidal tendencies
  • Lower quality of health care

Addressing weight stigma starts with ourselves

So now that you know about weight stigma and its negative consequences, what can you do about it? First and foremost: Check your own beliefs, attitudes, and actions. Do you make assumptions regarding a person’s character, intelligence, professional success, health status, or lifestyle behaviors based only on weight? As a caregiver, are you role modeling healthy behaviors and messages?

It is also important to recognize and acknowledge that weight is influenced by many factors, and obesity is a complex disease condition. Use empathy. Consider that someone may have already experienced discrimination or shame from others.

Resources can help you promote positive health outcomes

If you work in a school or child care setting, or are a health care provider, check out these resources for best practices you can implement, including using accurate and sensitive weighing procedures, and using messages and materials that combat stereotypes: 

When we know better, we do better. When you see or experience weight stigma, educate others about it and suggest more positive messages and approaches.

Erin Drinnin is the Community Impact Officer for Health at United Way of Central Iowa.