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Rudd Radar

Stigmatizing Obese Individuals is the Wrong Way to Address Obesity

January 24, 2013

Placing more stigma on overweight people may help curb obesity rates in the U.S., wrote bioethicist Daniel Callahan in an editorial in The Hastings Center Report. While Callahan applauded efforts to boost education, promote public health awareness of obesity, and curb marketing of unhealthy foods to children, he said that strategies to address obesity should also include stigmatization of obese persons.

“This proposal is problematic and concerning on many levels,” said Rebecca Puhl, PhD, Director of Research and Weight Stigma Initiatives at the Rudd Center. “Considerable research shows that when individuals are exposed to weight stigmatization, they are at heightened risk for depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and even suicidal behaviors, as well as unhealthy eating behaviors, binge eating, increased calorie consumption, and avoidance of physical activity,  which can reinforce weight gain and impair weight loss efforts.”

In addition, research by the Rudd Center shows that the American public does not view stigmatizing anti-obesity messages to be effective or motivating for improving health behaviors. People reported lower intentions to change their behavior in response to public health messages that shame, blame, and stigmatize them compared to messages that encourage specific behaviors to promote weight-related health.

“Callahan's argument that to successfully address obesity ‘it will be necessary to make just about everyone strongly want to avoid being overweight and obese’ fails to consider the already strong social pressure against obesity that exists in our society, and ignores the vital importance of the societal conditions that have created obesity in the first place,” said Dr. Puhl. “There is already extreme social pressure and stigmatization of persons who are obese, which has not helped to reduce prevalence rates of obesity.”