Challenging Weight Stigma

Written by: Audrey Birt, Associate Director, the ALLIANCE

Published: 11/07/2019

Audrey talks about weight stigma, or ‘fat shaming’ as it’s known, and how it exists as a very real phenomena in our society today.

Regular readers of my blog will know that I’ve been through a lot recently and it’s not finished. With my fourth cancer diagnosis and surgery for an unrelated spinal growth my body has changed and I’m trying hard to believe it doesn’t matter but honestly, it’s hard.  I’ve gained weight because I’m no longer able to walk any more than a few steps before awful pain sets in. I also have to take two drugs that can cause weight gain.

I’m sharing that with you now not to ask for sympathy but to enable understanding of how someone like me can react to the recent and previous Cancer Research UK (CRUK) adverts (this link will take you away from our website).The campaign features images of cigarette packs against a stark grey background. The packs are filled with chips rather than cigarettes, with the label ‘Guess what is the biggest preventable cause of cancer after smoking’. The answer – according to the campaign – is ‘OBESITY’.

The CRUK advert was tested in the general population, but I don’t know if that extended to people with cancer. People living with cancer already feel all sorts of guilt about our cancer and CRUK as a cancer charity appear to be using blame tactics to shame us further.

Weight stigma, or ‘fat shaming’ as it’s known, is a very real phenomena in our society. From inequality in recruitment to stigma with hospital treatment, people who are overweight are judged. Many people with higher weight avoid attending doctors for advice as often their weight is blamed and it’s hard to be heard beyond that.

In Type 2 diabetes and arthritis, weight stigma is a huge issue. Many are trapped in a catch 22 of their condition reducing mobility and drugs that cause weight gain. In breast cancer most of the endocrine therapies commonly used cause joint pain. It’s just easier to blame people than tackle the obesogenic environment in which we live and properly engage with the many causes of obesity.

CRUK told me that their recent advert was intended to put pressure on government to do something about obesity in the population. However, obesity is caused by a wide variety of factors, and equating weight to smoking addiction reinforces a medical approach when in fact it’s so much more complex.

Ironically, CRUK research (this link will take you away from our website) shows that obesity is multifaceted and linked to the accessibility of healthy food, aggressive advertising, and added sugars hidden in our diets, as well as individual behaviour. But that’s not the only consideration. Recent research (this link will take you away from our website) highlights the links between poverty, inequality, and obesity levels. Dr Martin Cohen summarises this challenge:

‘We need to collectively tackle […] stressed communities characterised by insecure and erratic employment, inadequate education, stress, depression and a lack of social cohesion. That this requires an enormous shift in public priorities is only to be expected – but the consequences of not acting are far worse.’

Many weight re-education programmes fail to reduce long term obesity and can be associated themselves to long-term distorted eating patterns. There are also connections between obesity and childhood trauma (this link will take you away from our website):

‘Research suggests childhood sexual abuse increases the odds of adult obesity by between 31 and 100 percent (this link will take you away from our website). One study found that about 8 percent of all cases of obesity, and 17 percent of “class three” severe obesity, can be attributed to some form of child abuse (this link will take you away from our website).’

Our approach to obesity as a health and public health challenge needs to change, and consider all the contributors to increasing rates of obesity. Fat shaming must have no place in that, and public and third sector bodies must question whether their own approaches are at risk of harming the very people they seek to help.

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