March 6, 2015

Researchers take issue with public's fear of fat

Two-day summit examines society's stigmatizing of people who live in larger bodies

We’ve all heard the reports that Canada is in the midst of a childhood obesity epidemic. 

And if the statistics are right — that in Canada today, one in every five youth is considered overweight or obese — we might tend to think that there is, in fact, an "epidemic" of sorts going on.

But this is not the full story, as studies have found that up to one-third of children who meet the definition of obesity are still considered healthy. According to Shelly Russell-Mayhew, an associate professor in the Werklund School of Education, by focusing excessively on the physiological consequences of obesity, the media and society in general are unfairly stigmatizing people who live in larger bodies, and perhaps unintentionally neglecting to tell an important part of the story.

Comparable to verbal teasing or physical abuse

“Weight bias, also known as stigma, prejudice, teasing, bullying or holding negative attitudes and behaviors towards people who live in larger bodies can be as obvious as verbal teasing or physical abuse,” explains Russell-Mayhew, whose research focuses on eating disorders, obesity and body image, “but it can also be seen in more subtle ways such as excluding people from activities or treating people differently because of their weight.”

Recent research has suggested that, between 1995 and 2008, the occurrence of incidents of weight bias has increased 66 per cent. And researchers say that, to some extent, the spike is due to increased media messages that body weight and obesity are controllable and, therefore, a personal responsibility.

“On a personal level, we know that being on the receiving end of weight bias is associated with increased levels of mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, disordered eating, decreased quality of life, and suicide,” explains Russell-Mayhew. 

“Weight bias is prevalent in education, health care, employment and community settings and has detrimental physiological, social, and mental health consequences.”

Two-day summit tackles topic of weight bias

Russell-Mayhew has co-ordinated a two-day summit to tackle the topic of weight bias, working closely with postdoctoral fellow Angela Alberga, associate professor Lindsay McLaren of Community Health Sciences, and Kristin von Ranson, associate professor in the Department of Psychology. Partners include the Werklund School, the Canadian Institute of Health Research (CIHR), and the O’Brien Institute for Public Health.

Two full days of sessions with invited experts will focus on weight bias in education and health care, and include a discussion panel responding to a newly released video about weight issues in secondary education. Stakeholders will also network, share experiences, and partake in working groups to develop a provincial research strategy to effectively reduce weight bias in the province of Alberta.

The organizers have included a public component as well. On Thursday, March 12, they invite anyone interested to join them as they host a panel discussion featuring leaders in the field of obesity. The panel, moderated by Canadian Obesity Network director Arya Sharma, will discuss how weight and health are connected, and ways to approach healthy eating and physical activity without stigmatizing.

Says Russell-Mayhew, “We welcome anyone with an interest in the topic of weight bias to join us.”