Can Obesity, Hunger, and Weight Stigma Coexist?

HungerWeight stigma is a global problem. The World Obesity Federation gets high marks for launching a global working group to develop a common understanding of this problem across diverse cultures around the world. Whenever a person encounters stigma due to size and weight, their health and wellbeing diminishes. But context matters. In some cultures, thinness may carry stigma too – perhaps even more than obesity. A difficult challenge ensues when obesity, hunger, and weight stigma coexist.

Weight Stigma: Never Helpful

Obesity is a problem of metabolism and fat tissue. It has an effect on body image, but body image is not the primary issue. Metabolic health is.

Yet it is very human to focus on appearance. So fatness brings stigma – not just in western countries, but also increasingly in developing countries. Alexandra Brewis and colleagues explain:

“Emergent evidence includes: implicit and explicit measures showing very high levels of weight stigma in middle and low-income countries, complex ethnographic evidence of widespread anti-fat beliefs even where fat-positivity endures, the globalization of new forms of ‘fat talk,’ and evidence of the emotional and material damage of weight-related rejection or mistreatment even where severe undernutrition is still a major challenge.”

Thus, it is quite possible for some people to prize fatness and others to despise it – all in the same culture. This creates challenges for human dignity and health.


One response is clearly not helpful in this situation: catastrophizing obesity. By that we mean exaggerating the harms of obesity to shock seemingly oblivious people into seeing their fatness as more of a problem. Some people call it tough love. One pundit even tried to package this concept and label it oblibobesity – to describe the poor fools who don’t know how fat they or their children are. It got pushback immediately and went nowhere. Thank goodness.

If the aim is to improve health and wellbeing, then our focus should not be upon fear mongering. Rather, all efforts should go toward offering people options that will improve their metabolic health and quality of life. We should work toward an environment that promotes health – not obesity or weight stigma.

We have a long and sorry history of dealing with obesity by telling people they’re fat, that it’s bad, and then expecting them to go away and fix it themselves. Without access to options that actually help.

Let’s stop repeating that mistake.

Click here and here for more on the global challenge of weight stigma. For more on the World Obesity Federation’s Global Stigma Working Group, click here.

Hunger, painting by Pavel Filonov / WikiArt

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July 13, 2021

2 Responses to “Can Obesity, Hunger, and Weight Stigma Coexist?”

  1. July 15, 2021 at 3:58 pm, Erica Hinckson said:

    May we know who is a member this working group and are all regions of the world represented? Anyone from New Zealand or Australia?

    • July 16, 2021 at 3:16 am, Ted said:

      Yes, Erica, the membership of this working group comes from all over the world, including folks from Australia and New Zealand. If you want more details, I encourage you to reach out to Ximena Ramos-Salas or Christine Chin. They are leading this effort.