Canadians who live with obesity may face wide spread weight bias and weight discrimination from strangers, educators, employers, health professionals, media and even family and friends. Weight bias refers to the negative attitudes and views about obesity and people living with obesity. (Side note, weight bias can occur across the weight spectrum for both “overweight” and “underweight.”)
Obesity is a chronic condition that can be caused by multiple factors like psychological factors, genetics, hormones, and environmental factors, to name a few. Unfortunately, people often think that individuals living with obesity are responsible for their weight because they either eat too much or don’t exercise enough. This belief is what drives weight bias, stigma and discrimination. This can affect individual’s access to education, employment and medical care. It is an added burden to the person’s health and ultimately can be a barrier to weight management. The recent Dietitians of Canada conference featured a session on weight stigma. During the talk they shared of a client who was living with obesity. On several occasions the client had gone to her health care providers who dismissed their concerns about their health as “this patient just needed to lose weight.” In this particular case, it turned out that the patient was palliative.
The consequences of being denied jobs, rejected by peers and treated unfairly because of one’s weight can have serious and negative impact on their quality of life. Weight bias can have psychological, social and physical health consequences. This includes feelings of shame and blame, anxiety, depression, poor self-esteem and body dissatisfaction. This can lead to unhealthy weight-control behaviors.
As a society, we should be able to respect people of all shapes and sizes. We should put down our own biases on what “healthy” is and stop berating others because they look a certain way. We should stop pointing out if someone weighs too much or too little. We should stop calling people “fat”. We all have fat, just like how we have toes; you’re not a toe. We should model compassion to people of diverse body sizes, especially in front of our children because children are also stigmatized for their weight and learn from our behavior. Weight is not a reflection of personal characteristics and there may be biological or environmental limitations that prevent individuals from being able to lose weight. Ask yourself, “Am I making assumptions about a person’s character, intelligence, success, or health status based on their weight?” If you answer yes, then you need to check yourself. The bottom line is that people need to be treated with dignity and respect regardless of their body size.
If you are looking for more tangible actions to address weight bias, participants at the Canadian Weight Bias Summit in May 2016 agreed the following discrimination reduction messages and strategies:
- Weight bias and obesity discrimination should not be tolerated in education, health care and in the public policy sectors;
- Obesity should be recognized and treated as a chronic disease in health care and policy sectors;
- In the education sector, weight and health need to be decoupled.
- Create resources to support policy makers.
- Use personal narratives from people living with obesity to engage audiences and communicate anti-discrimination messages.
- Develop a better clinical definition for obesity. Messages and strategies should be implemented and evaluated using consistent theoretical frameworks and methodologies
Angel Fonseca is a Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator at NorWest Community Health Centre.
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