Plague Hospital

The Language of Weight Stigma and Bias

How Everyday Language
Casually Stigmatises Obesity – And What to Do About It

Obesity is a highly stigmatised condition. Those with obesity are frequently subject to prejudice and ridicule at home, school, work, and even from health care professionals. Every day, they face social rejection and are deemed lazy, unattractive, unmotivated and unhappy. Alarmingly, many obese individuals feel unable to challenge such stigma, so they passively accept and sometimes believe it.

We live in a world where we are constantly reminded that obesity is a “crisis”, an “epidemic,” that it is crippling the economy, and that it is a burden on society. These ideologies are disseminated throughout the news media, social media, by politicians, and by healthcare professionals – and they are the birthplace of weight stigma.

Weight stigma can manifest itself in several different ways. It can be overt, such as verbal and physical abuse, but it can also be indirect and subtle. My research focuses on the subtle and subconscious language choices that do not appear stigmatizing on the surface and my results are drawn from a data set of 16,500 British newspaper articles about obesity.

The “Epidemic”

Obesity epidemic” was one of the most frequently used phrases in the newspaper articles. And it is not just limited to the press – it’s a phrase that is used widely in a range of contexts, often in everyday speech by everyday people.

The word “epidemic” is used as a metaphor to highlight the rising prevalence of obesity. But the definition of “epidemic” is the widespread occurrence of an infectious disease.

Couple Taking a Walk, photograph by
World Obesity Image Bank.

I would argue that this generates a level of fear and anguish toward obesity, perhaps suggesting that you should avoid obese people. It also obscures the fact that obesity is incredibly complex. Becoming complacent with such language choices has led to divisive and negative attitudes toward those with obesity.

The “obesity epidemic” is only one of the many negative language examples I have found. Even more subtle, subconscious, and potentially stigmatizing is the coupling of the words “are” and “obese” in statements such as “One in eight people ARE obese”; “Children who ARE obese”; and “How can you tell if you ARE obese.”

The “Are” Problem

The word “obese” occurs 24,011 times in my data. On 28% of these occasions, it is preceded by the verb “are.” So what’s the problem, you might be wondering?

Well, it can be argued that obesity is a medical condition. Three years ago, the American Medical Association adopted this position and the NHS recognizes that obesity can be more complex than just a result of overeating and a lack of exercise.

So if obesity is a medical condition, it is not something that you “are,” it is something you “have.” It is rare that people are defined by a medical condition they have. You will never hear the phrases, “you are lupus,” or “you are meningitis.”

But there are important exceptions. Tellingly, the medical conditions that are used alongside the verb “are” are those that are also unfairly stigmatised.

♦ You ARE HIV positive.
♦ You ARE dyslexic.
♦ You ARE a leper.
♦ You ARE obese.

Defining people as obese causes severe conflation and it insinuates that that is all they are. It becomes easy to issue blame, it implies that all negative weight related ideologies apply to them, and it creates a very narrow and inaccurate identity for those who have obesity.

These examples were extracted from newspaper articles, but they are language choices that are subconsciously made by the majority of people, not just journalists. It is astonishing that phrases we use without the intention to stigmatize have the power to change the way an entire concept is represented and viewed.

Pervasive, Stigmatizing Language

I would argue that the language we use when discussing this issue needs to be evaluated and more calculated so that we can use powerful platforms such as news media, that reaches out to a large audience, to educate as opposed to discriminate. The language we use represents the way we think, and the language we read, hear, and digest shapes the way we think.

The ConversationIt is a powerful tool and highlighting examples of our complacency with it could be the first step in the right direction toward changing the way we treat this issue and reducing the weight stigmas which are currently so widespread in society.

This article, by Tara Coltman-Patel, was originally published on The Conversation here under a Creative Commons license.

Plague Hospital, painting by Francisco Goya / WikiArt

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September 16, 2017

3 Responses to “The Language of Weight Stigma and Bias”

  1. September 16, 2017 at 8:27 am, Angela Meadows said:

    I will reproduce (some of) the comment I left on the original article, with some minor additions pertinent to the CH blog:

    The words “obese/obesity” represent a medicalisation of body weight/shape that many would consider inappropriate. While I realise that you, Ted, define “obesity” as a level of adiposity that causes illness, this is by no means universal, or common, and is not the sense in which it is used in the media articles that Dr Coltman-Patel is analysing. These texts discuss obesity as defined solely by BMI. Thus, while the analysis of “epidemic” language in these texts and the harm it perpetuates is valuable, it does not address the issue of positioning higher-weight individuals as a medical problem based solely on their weight.

    Myself and a colleague have also written on the use of terminology in weight stigma research itself and in clinical practice (free full-text: http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01527/full). In this piece we discuss the problems with the word “obesity” itself, and some possible alternatives, and also the problem with person-first language (“person with X”).

    And a recent analysis of the use of person-first language by Morton Ann Gernsbacher also found that PFL is used unevenly, usually for “conditions” considered problematic and socially undesirable, and may further entrench negative attitudes and stigmatisation (free full-text: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/jcpp.12706/full)

  2. September 16, 2017 at 8:53 am, John DiTraglia said:

    I used to say “obesity epidemic” all the time until I read Roxane Gay’s book “Hunger”

  3. September 16, 2017 at 11:14 am, Ted said:

    Thanks, Angela. As I’ve mentioned before, obesity and body weight are related, but not synonymous. We have enough confusion about obesity without stirring in more.

    BMI is to obesity what temperature is to an infection.