Promoting Health Stigma in Surprising Places

FriendshipHealth stigma is sneaky. Because of that, it pops up in places where we never expect it. For example, we find the wellness section of the New York Times offering advice to dump friends with depression or obesity. Obesity researchers use stigmatizing cartoons to tell us about their good work. Perhaps these people don’t even know they’re promoting health stigma.

On the bright side, FDA seems to get it. When the agency approved a new obesity treatment this week, it used appropriate imagery in tweets and respectful language in its press release. To keep stigma out of messaging is not really such a high bar to meet. We hope the others will figure it out and stop promoting health stigma.

Dump Your Friends with Health Problems

This one was frankly shocking. Writing in the “wellness” section of the New York Times, Kate Murphy suggested weeding out some of your friends after the pandemic. There’s nothing wrong with picking and choosing your friends carefully.

Except for one thing. She suggests that you might not want to be too close to someone with depression or obesity:

“Because they are front and center, foreground friends are the ones who have the most profound impact on your health and well-being, for good or ill.

“Indeed, depressed friends make it more likely you’ll be depressed, obese friends make it more likely you’ll become obese, and friends who smoke or drink a lot make it more likely you’ll do the same.”

Cheryl of Yorktown commented on this and captured our feelings perfectly:

“At some point, scrutinizing ‘friends’ for their value to yourself and how perfectly they suit your needs is a bit grotesque, and way too calculating.

“Taking a look at what you bring to relationships is maybe the best first step.

“In ether case, apply a large dose of compassion – for others and yourself.”

Yes, grotesque sums up our thoughts about advice to shun friends with a health problem. There is no more perfect way to promote health stigma. If you want a twist of irony, consider this: Murphy is selling a book about about listening and why it matters.

Headless Belly Cartoons

This mistake should be easy to avoid. Images of headless bellies are not helpful for communicating about obesity. So we can’t figure out why the Pennington Center is doing this and promoting it on social media. Such images are always stigmatizing and never acceptable.

This is not a mysterious fine point of stigma research. Advocates and scholars have written about it for years and years. All of the major professional, research, and advocacy organizations have published guidelines for media portrayals of obesity. Headless images of people with obesity are simply unacceptable.

The FDA gets it. We know that many people at Pennington do, too. So without a doubt, whoever’s behind this unfortunate imagery can do better.

Promoting Health Stigma Is Never OK

The bottom line here is  simple. Health stigma harms people. Health communicators should double check everything they do to make sure they’re not promoting it. No excuses will do.

Click here for the unfortunate article by Kate Murphy and here for research on headless depictions of people with obesity.

Friendship, painting by Pablo Picasso / WikiArt

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June 6, 2021