Obesity is not simply the result of an inappropriate lifestyle: it is a complex and multifactorial problem. Its causes are related to biology and behavior, but also to physiological changes, diseases, stress… And all these changes are framed within a specific cultural, environmental, economic and social context.
This implies that obesity is not a matter of individual responsibility, but of the population in general. And it should be addressed as such. In fact, the WHO has recently stressed that the effective prevention and management of overweight require an integrated approach, involving actions in all sectors of society.
In addition to the negative effects on the health of the people affected, they are often victims of stigma or fatphobia, which causes their exclusion and marginalization, and gives rise to inequalities.
Fatphobia is fueled by the belief that people who perceive themselves to be overweight are lazy and gluttonous, lacking the willpower and self-discipline to stay slim. According to this opinion, obesity would simply be a choice of those who suffer from it, and it is solely their responsibility to avoid it.
A new narrative on obesity
Coinciding with World Obesity Day 2020, a study was published on the causes and consequences of weight stigma and the importance of addressing it not only as a public health issue, but also as a human and social rights issue. The authors’ novel goal was to address the gap between stigmatizing narratives around obesity and current scientific understanding of body weight regulation mechanisms.
According to this study, scientific evidence shows that regulating weight does not depend solely on personal will, but that there are biological, genetic and environmental factors that contribute decisively. However, in public health campaigns, in political discourse, in the media, and even in scientific literature, individual responsibility continues to be singled out as the main cause of obesity. This narrative plays an important role in expressing social stigma and reinforcing weight-based stereotypes.
Therefore, a concerted effort by all stakeholders – including healthcare professionals, researchers, policy makers, patients and the media – is needed to establish a new narrative that changes the role of people with obesity from villains to victims and eliminates the stigma and discrimination based on weight.
The influence of the media
The media occupy a privileged position to access the majority of the population and have the ability to influence and condition the public’s perception of the seriousness of diseases.
It has been shown that informing about ailments in a more objective and pedagogical way contributes to a better understanding of how to treat them. On the contrary, if the information is deficient, it can confuse, create anxiety and encourage the population to make wrong decisions. The way obesity is portrayed in the media is therefore important in increasing or reducing stigma towards overweight people.
This media influence is framed within the process of social construction of reality, according to which the media not only inform, but also construct reality and influence the opinions and attitudes of the public. In this way, the media shape our perception of the world and make us participants in their way of understanding it.
Against fatphobia in the media
The media portrayal of obesity often conveys bias that perpetuates the stigma. They do this by using framing, images, and language that treat being overweight as a personal responsibility issue rather than due to social factors.
A correct treatment of the information can contribute to the elimination of fatphobia. For this, the guides that have been prepared by various organizations and groups are useful.
The OAC (Obesity Action Coalition) has published a publication that includes various guidelines and offers a gallery of images free of prejudice that journalists can use.
Another of the reference guides is the one published in Argentina by the National Institute against Discrimination, Xenophobia and Racism.
Third, the 2020 study mentioned above includes a joint consensus statement, prepared by 36 international experts, with recommendations to eliminate weight bias.
Among the recommendations contained in these guides, it stands out that of not reproducing stereotypes that associate fatness with lack of exercise, malnutrition and lack of will, nor those that associate fatness with illness or thinness with good health.
It is also necessary to avoid any ridicule of people because of their physical characteristics and to avoid describing body weight using terminology and language that could be offensive. It is about placing people before the disease and not labeling them.
In short, given the fundamental role of the media in public perception, their commitment is necessary to offer a fair, accurate and non-stigmatizing image of obesity.