Does Self-Deprecating Humour Help Deal With Weight Stigma?

People living with obesity are all too aware of being the butt of “fat-jokes” – indeed, there remains a shockingly widespread societal acceptance of weight-related humour – not least, manifested in the recent spate of COVID-19 “jokes”. Moreover, there appears to be a widely held belief that “fat” individuals are funnier, more entertaining, and merrier, and thus, perhaps fair game – after all we’re just having a harmless laugh.

This impression may well be strengthened by the observation that people living with excess weight often seem to make jokes about and laugh about themselves. This has been interpreted as being “better if they laugh with me, than at me”.

Now an interesting paper by Natalia Maazurkiewicz and colleagues from the University of Gdansk, Poland, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research in Public Health, reveals self-deprecating humor to be a strategy often used by women, who perceive weight stigma. 

Their research was conducted in 127 young adult women both with and without excess body fat, who were administered the Humor Styles Questionnaire, Perceived Stigmatization Questionnaire, and the Brief COPE. 

As their study reveals, 

“…women with overfat (sic) more often use humor to reduce stress, especially in situations where they feel stigmatized. Interestingly, this humor is often aimed at themselves, as self-depreciation. At the same time, obese individuals (sic) are often the objects of jokes and are used as a source of humor in entertainment media; they are thus an object of ridicule, and references to one’s own weight are typically met with laughter.” 

Indeed, it should not be surprising that these women use humour as a coping strategy, but rather that this can in fact be harmful. 

“The originators of the concept of humor styles indicate that humor may have an adaptive character, but that it can also be harmful and maladaptive. Thus, it is not the sense of humor in itself but rather the ways one uses it and the goals one has when using it that are important for understanding its role in everyday functioning. Maladaptive styles of humor are associated with aggression and being snide. Aggressive humor is directed outwardly; it is associated with raising one’s status and mood by demeaning and ridiculing other people, making fun of them.”

In the context of the issue at hand, the authors remind us  that, 

“Self-defeating humor is based on the need for approval through paying the price of ridiculing oneself. It is expressed through attempts to make people laugh by telling self-ridiculing stories . Oftentimes, an individual who uses this kind of humor can be perceived as funny or witty (e.g., “the class clown”). At the same time, they often hide their emotional needs and have low self-esteem, and the humor is used as a form of defensive denial or for ridiculing one’s shortcomings. According to this view, as also shown by our study, when women with overfat (sic) face threatening situations where they perceive behaviors that are hostile toward them, using humor to cope with stress, they select maladaptive styles of humor.”

But we must not forget that obesity is no laughing matter nor is humour a helpful way to deal with stigma. As the authors note,

“Stigmatization does not help people “to not be fat”; instead, it fosters a sense of blame and lack of agency about one’s appearance, potentially leading to increased unhealthy eating behaviors and thus to weight gain in some individuals.” 

Clearly, this topic is not much to laugh about. 


Berlin, D