At the Huffington Post, UCLA sociologist Abigail Saguy weighs in on weight-based stigma. Saguy notes that while there are health risks associated with obesity, stigma and bullying directed at overweight individuals may prove just as harmful as excess weight.
In particular, stigma may exacerbate health concerns by discouraging obese women from receiving routine or preventative health care:
For many women, the place where they feel their dignity most crushed is in the doctor’s office. In fact, scores of studies show that “obese” women are less likely to get Pap smears and other medical screens because they experience the doctor’s office to be a hostile environment. And they are not delusional. Study after study shows that medical professionals—in the United States and abroad—believe that their heavier patients are weak-willed and non-compliant. Other women and men are denied health care coverage because they are “morbidly obese.” When lack of screening contributes to higher rates of cervical cancer among “obese” women, we can say that our attitudes about fatness are literally making us sick.
And, Saguy says, public health campaigns aimed at reducing obesity may be adding to the problem:
Just this month, L.A. County launched a new obesity awareness campaign titled “Choose Less, Weigh Less.” News reports on the initiative included photos of headless torsos with overflowing guts. The efficacy of such programs remains unproven. However, there is growing evidence—including from experiments I have conducted with psychologist David Frederick and UCLA sociology graduate student Kjerstin Gruys—that such messages worsen weight-based stigma. In our experiments, people who read news reports that discuss obesity as a public health crisis were more likely to agree with negative stereotypes of fat people as unlikeable, untrustworthy and less intelligent than thinner people, compared to people not having read such articles.
Such studies suggest that in the fight for improved health, shedding weight-based stigma may be as or more important than shedding pounds.