Eyeing a Goal

New Research at ECOICO: Progress in Reducing Weight Bias?

At ECOICO 2020 today, we’re releasing new research on weight bias. Specifically, we surveyed adults in the U.S. and U.K. about their beliefs regarding obesity and the people who have it. We looked for indications that these beliefs might have changed between 2017 and 2020. In fact, we did find some indications of progress toward reducing weight bias in the U.S.

We did not find such evidence in the U.K. Rather, we found that people in the U.K. were more likely to reject the idea that obesity is a medical condition and to blame the individuals who have it.

Progress in the U.S.

Figure 2: Medical Narrative for ObesityIn 2017 and again in 2020, we asked adults in both countries if they agreed or disagreed that obesity is a big problem because people get blamed for it instead of receiving the medical help they need for this disease. In 2020, agreement with this idea went up among U.S. respondents. But not with U.K. respondents. Also in 2020, U.S. respondents were more accepting of the idea that obesity is not necessarily the fault of people who have it. In the U.K., people more strongly reject that idea.

Along with a number of leading researchers and advocates, we find both encouragement and challenges in these findings. This is progress toward a goal to end weight bias. Much work lies ahead.

Stuart Flint, University of Leeds

Flint conducts research on weight stigma and how the media perpetuates it. So these findings did not surprise him:

Weight stigma is widespread and these experiences harm both physical and mental health. So the decline in weight stigma in the U.S. is much needed and encouraging. It is essential that we learn from these changes. What actions in the timeframe of the study may have influenced this reduction?

The findings in the U.K. are unsurprising. In some instances we see weight stigma encouraged here. So this study reminds us that we need greater efforts to reduce weight stigma in the U.K. Evidence has continually shown weight bias is high in the U.K. People experience stigma and discrimination across many settings. Thus many groups are aiming to reducing weight stigma. For instance, the UK Obesity Policy Engagement Network and the All-Party Parliamentary Group on obesity have set weight stigma reduction as a key target.

Rebecca Puhl, University of Connecticut Rudd Center

Puhl is among the most distinguished researchers on weight bias and stigma. She looks at these results with the perspective of many years of research:

Clearly, there is still much work to be done to eradicate weight stigma in the U.S. But it is encouraging to see these findings suggest that blaming people for their weight is on the decline. These numbers may drop further with more social awareness and education. The harmful impact of  weight stigma is great.

Fiona Quigley, University of Ulster

Quigley is a PhD researcher who focuses on health communication. She sees work to be done:

It is not surprising that there is still a way to go in the U.K. Despite many U.K. leading researchers and clinicians in this area, getting through to policy makers and government is proving really challenging. I think, as was said in the ECO stigma workshop, we have to work from the bottom up. Rather than getting accused of “normalising obesity,” we need to normalise compassion and care for those who seek help. It is not too much to ask.

Francesco Rubino, Kings College London

Rubino led the publication of a recent global commitment to end weight stigma. He brings perspective from personal and professional experience:

As someone who has lived and worked in both countries (U.S. and U.K.) I know, first hand, that none of the two countries (nor any others) are immune to weight bias. I had a perception, however, that your data seem to confirm, that explicit weight bias is more prevalent and acute on this side of the pond, where both language and images stigmatising people with obesity seem to be more tolerated than elsewhere. Your data suggest that at least n the USA the situation may be improving, however it is in my opinion difficult to say if such improvement is meaningful. I am afraid the figures you show suggest that the problem of weight bias is still too prevalent in both USA and UK. There is still a lot of work to do.

Joe Nadglowski, Obesity Action Coalition

Leading one of the world’s most effective patient organizations in obesity, Nadglowski brings unique perspective:

While this progress against explicit weight bias in the U.S. is promising, people with obesity have been dealing with the impact of bias and internalizing it for a very long time. We need to continue educating the public about the seriousness of obesity and the reality that obesity is not completely an individual’s own fault. This is a complex chronic disease with many factors that affect a person’s experiences.

Click here for the e-poster on this research from ECOICO 2020 and here for reporting on this study from the Telegraph. For a cogent explanation that blame is not a strategy for dealing with obesity, click here.

Eyeing a Goal, photograph © World Obesity / Obesity Image Bank

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September 2, 2020