A report came out just recently in The International Journal of Obesity on a study that “examined public perceptions of obesity-related public health media campaigns with specific emphasis on the extent to which campaign messages are perceived to be motivating or stigmatizing.”
The short story is that they found that people felt best and responded best to messages that didn’t say anything about “obesity” or even body weight. A focus on making healthy behavioral changes (like eating more fruits and veggies) motivated people. Stigmatizing messages did not.
Here’s what researchers R. Puhl, J.L. Peterson, and J. Luedicke from Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity did:
In summer 2011, data were collected online from a nationally representative sample of 1014 adults. Participants viewed a random selection of 10 (from a total of 30) messages from major obesity public health campaigns from the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia, and rated each campaign message according to positive and negative descriptors, including whether it was stigmatizing or motivating. Participants also reported their familiarity with each message and their intentions to comply with the message content.
And here’s what they found:
Participants responded most favorably to messages involving themes of increased fruit and vegetable consumption, and general messages involving multiple health behaviors. Messages that have been publicly criticized for their stigmatizing content received the most negative ratings and the lowest intentions to comply with message content. Furthermore, messages that were perceived to be most positive and motivating made no mention of the word ‘obesity’ at all, and instead focused on making healthy behavioral changes without reference to body weight.
So what do the experts conclude?
These findings have important implications for framing messages in public health campaigns to address obesity, and suggest that certain types of messages may lead to increased motivation for behavior change among the public, whereas others may be perceived as stigmatizing and instill less motivation to improve health.
What I like about this study is that it gives us empirical evidence that should make us question the entire approach taken by the “weight loss industry.”
Shaming doesn’t work. Stigmatizing doesn’t work. Being all judgmental and negative doesn’t work. Heck, focusing on weight loss doesn’t work!
So for those who are interested in weight as a public health issue, the message is clear: don’t focus on weight!
Not mentioned in the study, of course, is that health is not directly correlated to weight, and, further, that even if it were, no one is under an obligation to lose weight or look after their health. More on the “health imperative” or “healthism” later this week.