Obesity has become one of the most prevalent harmful health conditions in the modern world. By 2016, more than 1,9 billion adults were overweight, and 650 million of these were obese. These numbers made 39% and 13% of the total Earth population, respectively (World Health Organization, 2021). In 2021, only 38% of adult women and 30% of adult men in England have a normal body mass index (BMI) (Baker, 2021). Most importantly, the problem is not limited to the adult population, as children are also prone to obesity. For instance, one in five English children in the 10-11 age group is obese (Baker, 2021). Therefore, the problem of high obesity rates is universally present, regardless of age, gender, and ethnicity factors. Obesity is a highly worrisome issue since it presents a major risk factor for cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and some cancers (World Health Organization, 2021). However, it can also serve as a basis for the development of negative mental health conditions. In this work, I examined how obesity affects mental health by serving as the reason for stereotyping and stigmatization.
The prevalence of obesity allows claiming that it has turned into a full-scale epidemic, a plague of modern civilization. From the medical perspective, obesity is defined as an abnormal fat accumulation that may cause negative consequences for health. World Health Organization (2021) defines two major causes of rapidly growing obesity rates: increased consumption of high-dense foods and decreased physical activity due to urbanization and modern sedentary lifestyle. The combination of these factors leads to an imbalance — people consume too many calories and expend too few of them. As a result, fats and sugars accumulate in their bodies, ultimately causing overweightness and, if it is not addressed, obesity.
Overweightness and obesity are associated with various harmful health conditions. According to Fruh (2017), obesity decreases life expectance by 5-10 years and increases mortality related to cancer and cardiovascular diseases. In addition, excess fat levels are related to the development of colorectal, kidney, pancreatic, and breast cancers (Fruh, 2017). Early obesity among children can cause harmful health conditions like asthma, caries, and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (Fruh, 2017). The issue is extremely prevalent — by 2015, all states of the USA had obesity rates of more than 20% (Fruh, 2017). Overall, obese adults and children are likely to encounter severe health issues in their life. Given the modern-day sedentary lifestyle and the fact that billions of people are already overweight and obese, the problem of obesity can be considered a significant challenge for global healthcare.
Stereotyping of Overweight and Obese People
Stereotyping can be defined as a pervasive cognitive attribution related to a particular trait, condition, or situation. In the case of obesity, stereotyping leads to the creation of a so-called weight stigma, a prejudice against overweight and obese people. According to Brewis, SturtzSreetharan, and Wutich (2018), fat bodies have become a symbol of laziness and a lack of self-control. Media, society, and even healthcare professionals emphasize the impact of personal responsibility in obesity prevention (Cohen and Shikora, 2020). Weight-loss reality shows contribute to the negative perception of people with excess weight (Palad, Yarlagadda, and Stanford 2019). As a result, obese people are perceived as ones who cannot control themselves, overeat, do not exercise, and do not want to be healthier in general.
The negative attitude towards overweight and obese people induced by stereotyping is persistent, even though obesity has become increasingly prevalent in the world. People still tend to think that obesity stems from personality flaws, and it can be reversed by eating less and exercising more (Rubino et al., 2020). This stereotypical thinking reinforces weight stigma and creates significant mental pressure on overweight and obese people. One might argue that stereotyping can be debunked with statistics since all the billions of overweight and obese people on Earth cannot be “lazy” or “gluttonous”. However, the influence of the media and society seemingly outweighs empirical evidence, leading to dangerous negligence of the obesity issue.
The Impact of Stereotyping
Stereotyping of overweight and obese people promotes a variety of harmful, discriminatory, and stigmatizing behaviors towards them. Weight stigma emerges in the vulnerable developmental periods of childhood and adolescence (Puhl and Lessard, 2020). For example, over 160,000 ethnically diverse adolescents in the USA claimed they were more likely to be bullied for their weight than for ethnicity or sexual orientation (Puhl and Lessard, 2020). Robinson, Sutin, and Daly (2017) examined perceived weight discrimination among 20,286 U.K and U.S. adults and revealed, that weight-based discrimination explained 31% of obesity-related increase in depressive symptoms. Therefore, obesity turns people into potential victims of bullying and discrimination, which might leave a long-lasting negative impact on their health and wellbeing.
First of all, weight-induced stereotyping creates a source of severe psychological distress. According to Puhl and Lesard (2020), youth teased or bullied about their weight have increased levels of depression and anxiety. Consequently, anxiety and depression lead to self-harming and suicidal behaviors, worsened by stereotypical beliefs that obesity is usually a fault of an obese person. Young people start feeling guilty for their alleged inability to meet the strict standards of beauty and health. In this regard, being mistreated on the grounds of weight can have similar depressive effects as living with domestic violence (Brewis, SturtzSreetharan, and Wutich, 2018). In addition to harmful health conditions associated with obesity, overweight and obese people have to withstand constant attacks on their mental health. Junk food may often serve as a readily available coping mechanism and source of positive emotions, especially for the children (Hemmingsson, 2018). In the end, such a coping strategy only contributes to the problem of obesity and encourages further stereotyping, which leads to the creation of a vicious circle.
Secondly, stereotyping of overweight and obese people can result in negative social consequences. While teasing and bullying are explicit and noticeable, weight stigma might also take an implicit shape (Brewis, SturtzSreetharan, and Wutich, 2018). Overweight people might not be discriminated against openly; instead, they might face disguised discrimination in the workplace, education, and even healthcare settings. For example, an employer may refuse to invite a candidate with obesity for an interview due to their weight, disregarding their actual professional competence (Rubino et al., 2020). The employer may hide the weight bias behind other arguments, but their discriminatory decision will ultimately be based on the candidate’s appearance. In the healthcare setting, practitioners may develop biased attitudes towards obese patients and delay proper medical care towards their weight-related health conditions (Cohen and Shikora, 2020). In my opinion, the negative social consequences stemming from the stereotype-induced implicit discrimination are especially damaging because they are often produced by the people who could have helped the discriminated individuals. In addition, the elusive character of implicit bias makes it more persistent and resilient to elimination.
Finally, stereotyping leads to the counterproductiveness of measures and campaigns developed to alleviate the obesity issue. Brewis, SturtzSreetharan, and Wutich (2018) argued that anti-obesity campaigns could reinforce the stigmatization of obese people and lead to undermining anti-obesity efforts. These campaigns may utilize shaming tactics to evoke a sense of guilt for being “fat” and stimulate a drive for weight reduction. For example, the Strong4Life campaign in the USA claimed that “fat prevention begins at home and the buffet line” (Brewis, SturtzSreetharan, and Wutich, p. 2). In other words, this slogan was based on the stereotype that obese people cannot control themselves and their eating habits.
I reckon that such tactics are indeed harmful to anti-obesity efforts. They reinforce the stereotypical belief that excess weight comes from a lazy, uncaring personality. In my opinion, an anti-obesity campaign based on shaming people who suffer from obesity the most is illogical and unethical. In the end, campaigns like that may produce the opposite results and cause overweight people to distance themselves from anti-obesity measures. Moreover, such campaigns can contribute to insecurity, anxiety, and depression associated with the weight stigma. Overall, anti-obesity efforts based on shaming and stereotypes are more likely to cause embarrassment and withdrawal among obese people instead of encouraging them and lifting their spirits.
Strategies to Promote Inclusivity
The critical step on the path to inclusivity for obese people lies in overcoming existing stereotypes and shifting the prevalent views on obesity. This goal can be achieved by promoting a new, empirical-based approach to this problem. Cohen and Shikora (2020, p. 1624) claimed that healthcare professionals need to use “people-first language”, which separates the patients from their excess weight. In theory, this strategy would disrupt false logic that relates obesity to alleged laziness and lack of self-control. Rubino et al. (2020) also suggest treating obesity as a health condition rather than a disease. In addition, obesity should be diagnosed only on the basis of objective medical and biological evidence (Rubino et al., 2020). Overall, healthcare providers should exercise caution and avoid shaming obese patients.
In my opinion, it is also important to raise public awareness about the health-related risks associated with obesity. However, it is necessary to redefine anti-obesity campaigning in order to debunk stereotypes and improve public opinion on obese people. Anti-obesity campaigning must stress that obesity is not a lifestyle choice, and persons with obesity are the first who understand the possible dangers of their condition. According to Rubino et al. (2020), defining obesity as a choice is a misconception since its adverse effects on human health are well-known. This point of view should be underscored in anti-obesity campaigns, so their focus would shift to increasing the public knowledge about obesity instead of blaming obese people unfairly.
Nursing personnel can also contribute to the cause by motivating and supporting the patients through various techniques. For example, nurses can utilize motivational interviewing in order to foster behavioral changes aimed at weight loss (Fruh, 2017). Trust and support from the healthcare practitioners is an essential factor for the necessary lifestyle changes. Nurses can assist the patients with self-esteem improvement, thus protecting them from the negative stereotypes on obesity. Moreover, the motivational and non-judgmental approach of the nurse can alleviate the senses of guilt and distress, which are often associated with obesity. The patient may begin to feel that there is nothing wrong with them, and they have the strength to overcome their obesity, like almost any other health condition.
In addition, timely and supportive nursing interventions are especially valuable for men who experience weight stigma. According to Himmelstein, Puhl, and Quinn (2018), men are more likely to cope with weight stigma through eating, which makes them even more susceptible to obesity. As such, male patients may require additional motivation and help in order to start feeling empowered and achieve substantial progress in weight loss. Overall, a nurse should encourage the feelings of self-worth and self-efficacy in male patients with obesity so they can overcome the mental consequences of stigmatization.
Finally, inclusive strategies should prioritize helping the families and children of the lower socioeconomic status (SES). While main prevention strategies of awareness raising, diet improvement, and increased physical activity were relatively effective in high SES strata, lower SES groups are still highly exposed to obesity (Hemmingsson, 2018). In particular, families from those groups often cannot afford healthy food, which forces them to buy and consume cheap, energy-dense junk food. Moreover, in such cases, junk food consumption can turn into self-medication, similar to drug addiction — a way to improve the mood and cope with stressful events in life (Hemmingsson, 2018). Therefore, this situation requires social rather than medical intervention since the inability to buy healthier food mainly stems from poverty. As such, inclusive strategies for low SES strata would require focusing on poverty reduction and family support on the part of the government. Treatment might solve the underlying psychological causes behind junk food self-medication; however, success would become short-lived if people cannot afford healthier nutrition.
Reflection on Self-Awareness and Resilience
Stereotyping makes the thinking process more streamlined since it is based on generalization rather than critical thinking. To a certain degree, stereotyping is an essential part of the human mind because generalizations allow us to save our brain’s “processing power” for more important tasks. However, the case of obesity falls under the category of harmful stereotyping, which contradicts empirical evidence and fosters discrimination. Before examining materials for this assignment, I also was under the power of stereotypes related to obesity. This power was not extreme — for instance, I did not believe that the majority of overweight and obese people are lazy and cannot refrain from excessive eating. However, I still used to think that obesity can be reliably reversed through exercises and nutritional discipline, and most obese people can succeed in this undertaking without external assistance. Needless to say, that I was underestimating the true impact of obesity and the extent of harmful influence of negative stereotypes around it.
I would like to think that I can be honest and, at the same time, respectful about my view of others. At the very least, I usually try to reserve judgment about other people and their actions until I obtain sufficient information and develop a personal opinion. Still, I have to admit that sometimes stereotypical thinking gets better of me, like in the case of studying obesity. This case makes a fine example of how my previous opinion was challenged by empirical evidence. In the end, I had to study the sources in order to realize that my initial position was partially based on a wrong and unfair stereotype.
I suppose this experience will help me cope with any stereotyping behaviors aimed towards me. Essentially, I will not care too much about those behaviors since stereotyping implies generalization. Therefore, any stereotyping behaviors would be aimed at the generalized image of my personality rather than at my true nature. Given this fact, I would attempt to break stereotypes only if I feel that it is in my best interests. Otherwise, I would leave the responsibility of utilizing critical thinking to the person who shows stereotypical behaviors towards me. I reckon that this will be a good opportunity for them to learn something new and change their attitudes, similar to what I did while examining the problem of obesity.
In this regard, I would like to become a little more “thick-skinned” and pay slightly less attention to other peoples’ opinions. I realize that socializing is natural for humans, and I am not a nihilist by any means. However, caring too much about others’ opinions is self-deprecating and counterproductive, especially if they are unfair or based on stereotypes. Therefore, I perceive a calm demeanor as one of the most desired coping mechanisms to withstand stereotypical behaviors and unfair criticism.
The issue of obesity is pervasive, as it is prevalent among people of different genders, ages, and ethnicities all over the world. Due to the persistent nature of stereotypes, obesity is often misunderstood and considered a life choice of obese people or a problem that can be solved solely through the individual’s mental strength. As a result, even the special anti-obesity campaigns sometimes portray obese people as lazy, weak-willed, and uncaring, thus creating additional negative impacts. Such stereotyping leads to adverse psychological and social consequences and shifts the blame on people who suffer the most. Therefore, overcoming the negative influence of stereotypes requires inclusive action from healthcare professionals and national governments. Most importantly, obesity should be viewed as a health condition related to the realities of the modern world rather than a result of a deliberate lifestyle choice and personality flaws.
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