Too often, conversations around health, disease risk and obesity are broken down into numbers – percentages and rankings that can feel as sterile as they do judgmental. As World Obesity Day rolls around, Vitality joins the call for open and empathic discussions regarding obesity.
Dancing around the issue at hand won’t do – weight stigma is harmful. Period. The American Psychological Association found that “sizeism” puts people at risk for disordered eating and weight gain, an ironic and overlooked correlation. Shaming people with a higher body weight also increases the risk for mental health issues, including substance abuse and lower engagement in healthy behaviors like physical activity and preventive care visits.
Doctors, family members, friends and even our self-talk can create experiences of weight stigma and discrimination based on size. These experiences are harmful in the short and long-term and will require a multifaceted approach to create a landscape safe for people of all sizes. One reason size bias lives on is due to the idea that “tough love” comments are hard to hear but will eventually end up helping a person reduce their BMI in the future, but studies show this isn’t the case. From bullying in children and adolescents to a documented decrease in quality of life for adults, weight stigma is a prevalent public health issue that does not improve a person’s health.
Another driving factor behind weight stigma is the perception that a person can “just go on a diet” and navigate their way out of obesity with a bit of grit and determination. Obesity doesn’t have one singular cause, and risk factors are complex, including both systemic variables as well as a person’s history, genetics and lifestyle. The answer is not simple, and weight bias makes obesity exponentially harder to navigate. Without an intentional shift to more positive discussions and comments we cannot effectively and compassionately support those living with obesity. On March 4, let’s commit to shifting the narrative to provide a welcoming platform for discussion free of judgment, shame and shortsighted opinions.
Tips for Talking
Whether sparking a one-on-one conversation, adding to a group discussion or addressing conversations in your head (we admit it: we talk to ourselves, too!), these tips can help foster more fruitful and supportive discussions about obesity.
- Ask Permission and Use Open-ended Questions
- Before initiating a conversation, it’s important to ask a person if it’s ok to open the discussion about weight and if it’s a good time to do so. If receptive, start with open-ended questions rather than fact-sharing. A simple “would you mind telling me about your health journey?” or “is there anything you like to share today?” can initiate a quality, judgment-free conversation and help a person living with obesity feel heard and respected. If you need help getting started, these Conversation Cards are a perfect choice.
- Address Weight Bias
- Our culture has engrained negative weight-related attitudes and judgments toward those living with obesity, a viewpoint perpetuated by pop culture and research shows even doctors and dietitians are not immune. Begin to see your bias in a new light and understand that obesity is not a personal choice. Reducing bias can foster healthier conversations about obesity and ultimately improve outcomes in the long run.
- Adopt “Person First” Language
- We know language matters. Make an intentional shift to describing a person with a characteristic rather than letting the characteristic define the person. “A person with obesity” is more respectful than “an obese person,” just as “a person with diabetes” is more respectful than “a diabetic.”
- Ask How to Give Support
- Resist the urge to rattle off ideas and suggestions when discussing obesity. Instead, ask how to best support a person in achieving their current goals. Perhaps someone is looking to address their sleep or personal connections rather than adding more vegetables to their plate. Each of these goals could help improve health and quality of life, and it’s essential to be supportive rather than impose solutions onto a person.
- Don’t Assume or Over-simplify
- It cannot be assumed that a person with a higher body weight overeats or is not already active. It also cannot be assumed that one simple change will impact a person’s health status, and research shows the opposite is true. Due to the complex nature of obesity, aim to avoid phrases like “just take a walk each day” or “if only you pre-packed healthy snacks.” Over-simplifying things can narrow the conversation and make someone living with obesity feel unheard.
This World Obesity Day, join us in a commitment to shift conversations. Whether talking to a loved one, in a group or to yourself, finding ways to have empathetic and authentic discussions about weight can lead to deeper connections in the short term and better health outcomes in the long term. Being cognizant of your actions means asking different questions, sharing different stories and noticing new facts about others. You might also get involved in advocacy efforts to promote healthier conversations in the workplace, communities and schools with policies that reject weight discrimination and stigma. No matter how you approach changing the perspective of obesity, your efforts will make a difference in ensuring happier, healthier and longer lives for everybody.