Rebecca Puhl

Rebecca Puhl: Finding a Path to Less Weight Stigma

One of the highlights of ObesityWeek 2018 was Rebecca Puhl’s award for scientific achievement. Not just because we admire her and her pioneering work on weight stigma. But also because she rewarded us. She delivered an inspiring lecture on finding a path to less weight stigma. Stigma researcher Angela Alberga explains:

It was incredible to see her distill so much work into a 30-minute lecture. We sat in awe, realizing how prolific she has been and how much impact her research has for people living with obesity.

Beyond the work she distilled, she offered a blueprint for reducing weight stigma at every level. She made it easy to follow because she applied a social ecology framework. She started with individuals. Then she moved through every level of our social environment.

1. Individuals

Among individuals, research tells us we can’t expect to eliminate bias. It’s part of the human condition. Interventions might raise relevant knowledge. But the impact on bias is small.

So the best target is to help individuals cope. Good obesity care can help patients adopt healthier coping strategies.

2. Interpersonal

At the interpersonal level, families have an important role. Unfortunately, families can be a source of stigma. But with family-based obesity care, it’s possible to reduce this problem. That’s because support and education for parents can help them play a positive role.

3. Institutional

Beyond the interpersonal, institutional approaches offer potential. Anti-bullying programs at school should confront weight-based bullying. Healthcare settings and medical schools can root out the bias against large patients. It’s been all too common. And finally, the workplace has a role. Employers can promote respect for physical diversity. At the same time, they can take action against weight-based harassment.

4. Societal

In the broader context of society, Puhl sees much opportunity. Media images and messages are important. Collections of stigma-free images are helping. But we need broader awareness and use of them. Media guidelines point the way. Still, we can do more to reduce implicit bias in messaging about obesity.

5. Policy

Puhl sees growing support for public policies to protect against discrimination. Public accommodation is one issue.  Some airlines are doing more to accommodate larger passengers, but some are going the wrong way. Another issue is disability policies. Despite some progress, it needs ongoing attention. Finally, Puhl tells us that employment discriminations laws enjoy consistent public support.



This is an ambitious vision at every level. And so, we’re grateful for the visionary.

Click here for the slides from Puhl’s lecture.

Rebecca Puhl, photograph © UConn Rudd Center

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November 26, 2018