New Research Finding! Fat-Shaming and Fat Stigma Don’t Lead to Change in Behavior

fresh-fruits-vegetables-2419A 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.

10 thoughts on “New Research Finding! Fat-Shaming and Fat Stigma Don’t Lead to Change in Behavior

  1. I agree completely with everything you say. The only thing I worry about for myself is thinking that I don’t have to care about fitness if I don’t feel like it. For me, there could be very serious ramifications were I to stop exercising. So I choose to exercise, granted, but I also motivate myself by simply refusing to be wilfully blind to the health consequences of not exercising (for me personally), and so to accept the truth that I have to exercise to avoid these health consequences – so I can be around for those I love – for my daughter, who needs me, for gosh sakes. So while I agree that we should not be judgmental of others and while I agree that for many the choice not to exercise or stay fit should be respected – I have to admit to some ambivalence about the subject because I think that for me to just stop exercising would be wrong. So – I’m torn – I have different beliefs for others, than for myself. I don’t know how to bridge that chasm.

  2. I still treat it as a choice even though I’m strongly committed to health and fitness personally. People who choose not to exercise have different values from me. They care about different things. I want to be fit and active into my old age and I can see doing that even just for the instrumental reason of added years with friends and family. More time to read great books even! But I recognize that others might opt for a shorter life, a less active life, a life that includes tobacco (for example), I take our blog project to be for those who share our values and commitments but it’s okay if others don’t. Read other blogs. Do your own thing. I can try to show people why I like an active lifestyle, what it gives me but that’s different than saying they are irrational for choosing differently,

  3. You mean to tell me making people feel terrible about themselves doesn’t make them motivated? Imagine that! Of course, I’m sure everyone who writes and reads the blog knows that, but it’s amazing that it’s taking others so long to get the message.

  4. As a former fat bloke turned exercise junkie, I can tell you that messages about positive behavioural change always resonated with me far more than criticism. Being told I needed to make changes to who or what I was by someone else always ignited the “fuck you” in me. I was going to be me, not anyone else’s puppet. When I made changes I did it for myself, and I made use of resources devoted to spreading healthy advice. Never before, during or after getting healthy did I have any use for people telling me what was wrong with me and what I needed to change.

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