Health Buzz: Fat Stigma Spreading Across World

Can blaming people for being fat curb obesity? Plus, the obesity epidemic isn't just about willpower.


Study: Fat Stigma Spreading Across Globe

The 'fat stigma' is going global: Parts of the world that once viewed plumpness favorably now hold negative attitudes toward extra pounds, new research suggests. Anthropologists at Arizona State University asked 700 people in 10 countries or regions to answer true or false to statements like "Fat people are lazy" and "A big woman is a beautiful woman." The findings, they say, suggest that negative perceptions about overweight people are becoming a cultural norm. Fat stigma now exists everywhere, but is greatest in places that have traditionally considered larger bodies attractive, like Paraguay, American Samoa, and Puerto Rico, according to the study, published in the April issue of the journal Current Anthropology. "The change has come very, very fast in all these places," study author Alexandra Brewis, executive director of the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State University, told The New York Times. "The next big question is whether it's going to create a lot of new suffering where suffering didn't exist before. It's important that we think about designing health messages around obesity that don't exacerbate the problem."

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    Stigma can be a powerful force in changing behavior, and the obese are the new scapegoats for a lot of our ills. In 2008, a letter published in the Lancet noted that the obese contribute more than their thinner compatriots to food scarcity and global warming, given that they eat more and require more transportation energy to move themselves around. While the authors' intent was probably not to make the obese feel worse, the media translations of the study turned up headlines such as "Fat People Cause Global Warming, Higher Food Prices" and "Scientists Blame Fat People for Global Warming."

    You might think that the obese could use some blame. As obesity increasingly becomes the norm, maybe society has grown too accepting, U.S. News reports. Perhaps what is lacking is the same thing that helped smokers lose their butts: a healthy dose of social stigma. If only there were more shame in being fat, maybe more people would be motivated to lose weight. But in fact, researchers say, stigma does very little to motivate overweight or obese people to change.

    Why, first, are we increasingly intolerant of the obese even as more of us are joining their ranks? "At the same time that weight has gone up, we've had an increased emphasis on the thin ideal in society," says Janet Latner, a psychologist who studies stigma at the University of Hawaii—Manoa in Honolulu. People also see family and friends lose weight and believe that body weight is completely under our control. [Read more: Can Blaming People for Being Fat Help Curb Obesity?]

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    • The Obesity Epidemic Isn't Just About Willpower

      Obesity, not so long ago an issue of personal struggle with fatty foods and bulging waistline, has of late become Public Health Enemy No. 1, blamed for almost a third of the rise in healthcare spending. Overeaters now find themselves in the same category as smokers or drug addicts, tainted with the aura of moral weakness and lack of willpower. This perspective has begun to spawn tough-love policies geared to prod people into thinness, writes U.S. News's Bernadine Healy. Discriminating against the chubby in social and even employment settings seems to be gaining on the politically correct scale. And levying a "sin tax" on sweet treats, starting with sugary sodas and fruit juices, has a growing following on Capitol Hill.

      The sharpened focus on fatness isn't surprising: Overweight is far more pervasive than either smoking or addiction, affecting over 65 percent of the population, and true obesity has more than doubled since 1980, at a cost estimated at more than a hundred billion dollars a year. The obese have shorter lives and face more diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and cancer than the thin, not to speak of the psychological burden and often lowered self-esteem. But using blame and punishment to inspire willpower and discipline in citizens to curb their appetite, eat more fruits and vegetables, and exercise more is not likely to work. Why? Because it does not begin to take into account the biological complexity of obesity and the enormous biological differences among individuals that make weight loss a snap for some and a near impossibility for others. [Read more: The Obesity Epidemic Isn't Just About Willpower.]