Decoding Weight Stigma

In the past two days I've come across two different articles, and the difference in tone and language between them really struck a chord with me.

The first one that I read yesterday is titled "More than 2 billion people overweight or obese, new study finds". It can be summed up with "being overweight is bad and killing you", etc. etc. Here is the direct quote from this article that really struck me: "People who shrug off weight gain do so at their own risk -- risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, and other life-threatening conditions," said Dr. Christopher Murray, an author on the study and Director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington. "Those half-serious New Year's resolutions to lose weight should become year-round commitments to lose weight and prevent future weight gain."

I don't know about you, but I really find the tone of that quote quite accusatory, even shaming. It generates fear as well, and while I don't have the context around the quote, I feel like it communicates a lack of empathy for larger people - a kind of, "don't come crying to us when you die an early death from heart disease -  you were warned of the consequences of being fat and you ignored them" vibe.

And also, since when do we have a problem with people "shrugging off" weight concerns?  I don't think there is a huge majority of people not caring about their weight or not actively pursuing weight loss. On the contrary, pretty much almost everyone that I know is what I consider to be preoccupied and even obsessed with food and weight. The number of weight loss programs that are currently on the market dictates that there is a large demand, and they certainly don't appear to be losing money.

So does this quote imply that people who aren't losing weight just not trying hard enough? That's my take on it.

My response to that would be that people DO care about their weight and their health - our society never, for one minute, lets us forget or allows us to be oblivious to how much this supposedly matters to our health, happiness and well-being. People DO desperately want to lose weight, at all costs - not because this would automatically make them healthier or happier, but because it is simply what we are systemically taught we need to do in order to become healthier and happier, as this article reinforces. And, people DO fail at these attempts over and over again. The real problem, that doesn't get talked about enough, is that what we are prescribing for weight loss doesn't actually work!! The people that appear to be "shrugging it off" have more than likely been trying unsuccessfully for years and have finally accepted what society considers to be a shameful defeat.

Unfortunately, we hear this dialogue from doctors, health professionals, teachers, coaches, parents, family members, friends - all the time. We have gotten so used to hearing it that it doesn't even register as being, for lack of a better word, mean-spirited. It's all about personal responsibility right? If someone chooses to eat garbage and live a sedentary lifestyle, that's their prerogative, but they can't expect sympathy when they get sick.

Skip forward to the second article that I came across today, titled "Social Interaction is Critical for Mental and Physical Health". This article looks in detail at the literature showing that building meaningful connections with others and creating satisfying relationships are critical to health, well-being, and longevity. In fact, even those people with chronic disease and poor health habits that are associated with disease and mortality lived longer and had better quality of life than their "healthier" counterparts who were socially isolated. 

The last line from this article features this quote: For those seeking a health-promoting lifestyle, it’s not enough to focus on eating your veggies and getting regular exercise. Dr. Seppala advises: “Don’t forget to connect.”

What if the MD in this second article was quoted as saying "People who shrug off social interactions and building meaningful connections with others do so at their own risk" - placing blame on individuals for getting sick by not trying hard enough to connect with others (as if it was really that simple). Would we be as tolerant and accepting of this rhetoric as we are when it is targeted at weight? Would be just assume that a person is living this way because of their own choice to do so, or might we be a bit more open to other options? Would we consider why would someone might choose to socially isolate themselves? Is it possible that mental health issues might be at play, and if so, does that person deserve empathy and treatment options that go beyond "get out there and make some friends?"

Weight stigma hurts individuals and society as a whole. We need to be more mindful of the language that we use, and what we imply under the surface.