What are weight bias and obesity stigma?

Living with obesity means more than just managing the physical challenges of a chronic disease. It also means handling the negative – and often ill-informed – attitudes of other people. If you have obesity, being treated unfairly because of your weight can have serious physical and psychological consequences. Weight bias and obesity stigma are important terms for understanding why this happens, but what do they really mean?

  • Weight bias means holding negative attitudes and beliefs about someone because of their weight1. Negative attitudes could include stereotypes, or prejudice towards people with obesity.
  • Weight bias can also be internalised by people living with obesity – for instance by holding negative beliefs about themselves because of their own weight or size2.
  • Weight bias can lead to obesity stigma – like a label that gets attached to an individual who is then unfairly treated because of it3.
  • Obesity stigma often results in exclusion and inequality4 – for example, when people with obesity do not receive the same job or educational opportunities, or even quality of healthcare, as people who do not have the disease.

Where do people experience weight bias and obesity stigma?

People with obesity are routinely stigmatised by educators5, employers6, the media7, friends and family8, and even by doctors and other health care professionals9. Although men and women experience obesity stigma, women tend to have more eating-related health problems and to internalise weight bias more than men10.

Popular attitudes and beliefs about people with obesity – that they are lazy, or lack willpower – contribute to weight bias by oversimplifying the causes of the disease. As well as being ill-informed, these attitudes imply that easy solutions – "eat less, move more" – bring quick results. This sets unrealistic expectations while hiding the complex challenges people experience when trying to change their behaviour.

Such attitudes also focus on "individual willpower" while ignoring important biological, social and environmental factors11.

 

Watch and learn more about weight bias and stigma


What are the consequences of weight bias and stigma?

What are the consequences of weight bias and obesity stigma?

Like other forms of discrimination (for instance, on the grounds of race, class, ability, gender or sexual orientation), weight bias and obesity stigma result in inequality, and this can be just as damaging as the physical effects of the disease itself12.

For people living with obesity, discrimination on the grounds of weight often means a lower income, fewer job and educational opportunities, and poorer healthcare. It can also result in serious psychological problems, including depression, anxiety, eating disorders and low self-esteem13.

Weight bias and obesity stigma are specifically associated with:

  • Poor self-image and body dissatisfaction
  • Low self-esteem and self-confidence
  • Feelings of worthlessness and loneliness
  • Suicidal thoughts and acts
  • Depression, anxiety and other psychological disorders
  • Eating disorders
  • Avoidance of physical activity
  • Stress-induced illnesses
  • Avoidance of medical care
  • Self-shaming

Obesity perspectives

My obesity journey: from poor self-image to plus size model!

Hear Vicki Mooney's perspective on obesity, as she talks about weight loss, surgery and empowering other women to feel good about their bodies.

 

Listen to the podcast

 


Treating obesity

Treating obesity

Obesity is a serious chronic disease that requires treatment. Diet and exercise are important for losing weight, but are not always enough to maintain weight loss.

 

Learn about obesity treatments

 

 

What is obesity?

What is obesity?

The underlying cause of obesity is an energy imbalance between energy consumed and the way the body uses this energy, but that's only one part of the story.

 

Understanding obesity

 

 

References