Language change urged to fight obesity stigma

Medical experts have urged people to destigmatise obesity by changing the words used to describe it.

The All Island Obesity Action Forum, hosted by Safefood in Belfast, heard that the use of negative imagery and language contributes to weight-related stigma. This stigma in turn negatively affects those who are in need of help.

The forum, which was held in collaboration with the Association for the Study of Obesity on the Island of Ireland, also heard that the discussion around obesity needs to change in the same way the discourse around mental health did.

“Much in the same way as we’ve moved the conversation from ‘mental illness’ to ‘mental health’, so we need to do the same with weight issues and obesity on the island of Ireland,” said Safefood director of human health and nutrition Cliodhna Foley-Nolan.

“By persisting with this stigmatising notion that adults and children with obesity are somehow ‘different’ from everyone else in society, we’re being unfair and making things worse. Those who need help often avoid health services because of this.”

Association chair Grace O’Malley said that medical professionals see the effects of this stigmatisation in their work.

“In clinical settings, we witness the effects of obesity on the physical and psycho-emotional health of children and adults,” said Dr O’Malley.

“All too often, individuals are stigmatised due to their shape or weight in school, in healthcare, in work, online or just walking around their neighbourhood,” she said.

She said this stigmatisation has devastating consequences.

“This can have devastating effects on them and influences how or whether they interact with the health service,” said Dr O’Malley.

“We each have a role to play in tackling this issue; promoting and modelling a healthier lifestyle, enabling a healthier environment, improving access to treatment for patients or portraying weight and obesity in the media in a much more respectful way.”

Laura McGowan, of Queen’s University Belfast, said tackling obesity needed a multi-layered response.

“One of these responses is raising awareness of obesity stigma and taking steps to reduce this stigma.

“This event [the forum] is a first step among those working in public health on the island of Ireland,” said Dr McGowan.

Safefood also announced plans for a workshop with media to explore the role of communications in weight stigma.


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