New research reveals that 89% of adults in South Africa believe people with obesity are viewed negatively because of their weight, and 84% of South Africans believe people are likely to discriminate against someone who is overweight. This is higher than other forms of discrimination, including sexual orientation (78%), ethnic background (75%), or gender (55%).
The findings show that people with obesity experience stigma and discrimination across all aspects of their lives. Three in five SA adults living with obesity have felt judged because of their weight in clothes shops or in social situations and, worryingly, around half have felt judged in healthcare settings (52%) and gyms (44%).
Weight stigma is also felt online. Nearly one in three people with obesity have felt judged online because of their weight. A separate analysis by the World Obesity Federation has found nearly 10 000 tweets with stigmatising language on social media since January 2018, which include body shaming and abuse.
“Not all overweight people are leading unhealthy lifestyles. This is a common misconception which leads to obese people being stigmatised. There are medical conditions that influence body weight and fat distribution,” says Professor Pamela Naidoo, CEO of the Heart and Stroke Foundation South Africa.
“It is important to consult your doctor if you feel that you have a healthy lifestyle by eating well and engaging in physical activity but you are still gaining weight or unable to lose weight. Awareness of your health status is important.”
The impact of weight stigma and discrimination is far-reaching. It can damage career prospects, with nearly than one in three South Africans (30%) admitting that out of two equally qualified candidates they would appoint the one with a healthy weight over an overweight candidate.
Stigma also has physical and mental health consequences: it’s been found to deter people from seeking medical care and can lead to social isolation.
In terms of what influences weight stigma, World Obesity believes the media have a pivotal role to play. More than half of SA adults think the news media (55%) and popular media (62%), such as TV and magazines, worsen the public’s opinion of people with obesity.
The World Obesity Federation has also published a report highlighting the prevalence of negative images and language used when reporting on obesity in online media. SA media were found to be among the world’s most stigmatising, based on the images used to accompany articles about obesity.
In light of the findings, World Obesity is calling out examples of discrimination in a bid to end weight stigma this World Obesity Day, arguing that stigmatising people with obesity affects their life chances and physical and mental health whilst ignoring the multiple and complex causes that lead to obesity.
To coincide with World Obesity Day, a new Twitter handle has been launched to highlight examples of discrimination. Anyone can highlight good and bad practices by businesses, institutions or individuals when they see examples of stigmatising language or images by tweeting @endweightstigma or using the hashtag #endweightstigma.
More information about how to help combat weight stigma can be found on the World Obesity website.