As a regular reader you will be well aware of my recent excursions into the use of comedy to promote a better public understanding of obesity.
A very different (and I dare say more scientific) approach to harnessing the performing arts to promote a discourse on obesity is that taken by Sara Kirk and colleagues, Balancing The Scales, now described in a paper published in Qualitative Health Research.
Their approach is based on the recognition that,
“…individuals living with obesity are caught in the middle, facing judgment by society if they fail to manage their weight successfully and exposing themselves to health professionals who are unable to fully support them…if an individual is unable to make the changes prescribed for weight loss, resentment builds on both sides of the therapeutic relationship.”
This led Kirk and colleagues to extensively explore the issue of obesity from a variety of perspectives resulting in rather unique insights into similarities, differences, points of consensus, and tension associated with values, beliefs, perceptions, and practices among key stakeholders.
The 42 semistructured interviews were conducted in 22 individuals living with obesity, 4 policy makers, and 16 health professionals (8 dietitians, 4 family physicians, and 4 nurses).
Three major themes emerged from the analysis of the interviews:
Blame as a Devastating Relation of Power
“Individuals living with obesity shared feelings of shame and embarrassment with their inability to control their weight on their own. This blaming discourse can easily be seen in messages of “eat less, move more” promoted by health professionals, the health system, and wider society.”
“Individuals living with obesity spoke about the complexities of trying to lose weight, inclusive of cultural, social, and organizational barriers. Despite this insight, however, they placed the final explanation for their weight status on themselves and expressed immense feelings of guilt and shame.”
“All of the individuals living with obesity had tried multiple methods to manage their weight, with limited or no success. This was extremely frustrating for them and compounded their tendency, wholly or at least partially, to blame themselves for this perceived failure.”
“Similar to individuals living with obesity, health professionals struggled to understand the complexity of the issue, which often led to blaming the individual. Health professionals commented on the unrealistic expectations of people who wanted to lose weight quickly and how their role as a health professional could not possibly be supportive of this.”
“The health professionals we interviewed also blamed themselves for not having the answers, and described feeling ill-equipped to assist individuals to make successful changes.”
Tensions in Obesity Management and Prevention
“Both the individuals living with obesity and the health professionals did not feel supported by the health care system. Health professionals [and policy makers] also struggled to know how to approach the issue.”
“Individuals living with obesity also experienced exclusion when attempting to find appropriate support within the health care system. Most individuals in the study began to access this system when they believed they could no longer manage their weight by themselves.”
The Prevailing Medical Management Discourse
“Health professionals experienced many frustrations and contradictions in their experiences with obesity management, and at times questioned the notion of obesity as a disease. Being obese was often in itself not enough to receive health care. Health professionals in this study found it easier to work with individuals living with obesity when they also had another diagnosed chronic condition, such as diabetes or cardiovascular disease. They could then more confidently prescribe a specific treatment regime.”
As for policy makers,
“[One] policy maker questioned whether medical treatment for individuals living with obesity is necessary…. As an alternative to medicalizing obesity, the policy maker suggested addressing the issue of population health and using health promotion to support the majority of people who are not morbidly obese but are still struggling with weight problems.”
“Overall, individuals living with obesity sought validation for requiring support in a system that currently does not provide the support they need.”
Based on these findings, the authors note that,
“…our findings highlight the need to reframe the public debate on obesity. However, we suggest that rather than choosing one discourse over another (management vs. prevention; system vs. individual), we should engage aspects of both. This requires not only consideration of socioecological perspectives, but also a greater awareness among health professionals of the need to offer support, not advice.”
“Furthermore, relationships between patients and health care providers should be supportive (not blaming), recognizing the widespread prevalence of weight bias in society and working hard to challenge the stereotypes that dominate the discourse on body weight”
“It was also evident in the language and experiences provided by health care providers that training, resources, and support for weight management were a substantive part neither of their professional training nor of the health care system.”
To facilitate improved training of health professionals, the authors have developed the rich narratives obtained in this study into a dramatic presentation, depicting the relationship between a health professional and an individual living with obesity.
Clearly, it is work like this that is essential to understanding the current discourse (or rather lack of it) about obesity and finding strategies that do justice to those living with obesity.
There is simply no room for “shame and blame” in such a discourse.
Kirk SF, Price SL, Penney TL, Rehman L, Lyons RF, Piccinini-Vallis H, Vallis TM, Curran J, & Aston M (2014). Blame, Shame, and Lack of Support: A Multilevel Study on Obesity Management. Qualitative health research PMID: 24728109