Young Girl Reclining

Promoting Stigma for Seeking Obesity Care

New research in BMC Public Health raises important questions. Does news media frame obesity care for young persons in a way that promotes stigma? Does this reflect the bias of the media itself? Or does it play to the bias of the public that consumes this reporting?

Thematic Analysis of Reporting from 2014 to 2022

Sander Lefere and colleagues used inductive thematic analysis to news reporting in the U.S. and U.K. on adolescent bariatric surgery between 2014 and 2022. They found four major themes:

1. Burden
2. Moral outrage
3. Sensation
4. Ethical issues

The authors explained:

“Despite frequent citing of experts and studies on the efficacy, safety and unmet need for bariatric surgery, obesity and surgery in adolescents are often stigmatized and sensationalized, with prospective patients depicted as looking for an easy way out in the form of a solution brought by others (health systems, society, tax payers). This may increase the stigma surrounding adolescent obesity, and therefore limit the acceptability of specific treatments such as bariatric surgery.”

Amplifying Stigma for Obesity Care

We see these themes amplified in responses to the AAP guideline for pediatric obesity care. Many persons prefer to blame parents, children, and the food industry for serving up bad food to cause this problem. This is not a sentiment limited to Americans. Terhi Koivumäki and Piia Jallinoja analyzed online discussions in Finland and found the same attitudes in Finland – faulting parents and the food environment for obesity in young persons.

At the same time, others simply don’t believe obesity is a problem that requires attention in youth. Thus they attach stigma to the possibility of obesity treatment with medicine or surgery – even for children with serious medical needs. “That scares me,” says epidemiologist Paula Quatromoni, who sees medicine and surgery as startling or even radical options. Fat acceptance advocates say that obesity care is always harmful. Using phrases like “medical amputation,” they make it clear they believe no one should be offering or seeking medical obesity care.

Promoting Stigma with Very Different Agendas

So oddly enough, we have two very different groups of people promoting stigma for seeking obesity care. One group thinks it’s the wrong choice because obesity is a problem that people can solve merely by eating better. The other thinks it’s simply not a problem and they promote stigma for seeking medical help while they try to destigmatize the condition of obesity itself.

It makes our head spin.

Click here for the study by Lefere et al, here for the study by Koivumäki and Jallinoja, and here for further perspective.

Young Girl Reclining, painting by Émilie Charmy / WikiArt

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March 25, 2023