Do Shame And Blame Tactics Make The Obesity Problem Worse?

sharma-obesity-weight-discrimination4A widespread misconception, even amongst well-meaning folks, is that spreading the word about the dangers of obesity and using overt or even just subtle social pressure to “nudge” people to improving their health behaviours for their own good, is a reasonable approach to solving the obesity problem.

That such “shame and blame” tactics generally misfire should be no surprise to the many individuals actually affected by this condition.

For those, who still think increasing social pressure on people with excess weight by emphasizing the many drawbacks of excess weight and by declaring it largely a matter of lifestyle “choice”, an article by Brenda Major and colleagues from the University of California, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, may prove a worthwhile read.

In their experiments, the researchers randomly assigned women with a wide range of BMIs to read a news article about stigma faced by overweight individuals in the job market or a control article.

Reading the article on weight stigma caused women who perceived themselves to be overweight (irrespective of their actual BMI), to consume more calories and feel less capable of controlling their eating than exposure to the non-stigmatizing article.

The weight-stigmatizing article also increased concerns about being a target of stigma among both self-perceived overweight and non-overweight women.

These findings are particularly concerning as many normal weight women perceive themselves to be overweight and may thus be prone to such messaging.

As always, such findings pose a major dilemma for public health messaging around obesity where well-intended messages may have unintended negative consequences exactly for the people they are trying to help.

It is certainly bad enough to have to suffer the negative emotional and physical consequences of excess weight – being blamed for the problem and being constantly reminded just how bad it is without being offered any reasonably effective solution can only make  the whole situation even worse.

If you have experienced a negative emotional response to weight bias or discrimination, I’d like to hear about it. I’d also be interested in suggestions on how this problem may best be dealt with in the public discourse about excess weight.

New Delhi, India