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The Obesity Stigma

The Negative Social Consequences of Being Obese

A couple of years ago, the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta began a controversial campaign depicting overweight children in an emotionally harmful way. Outrage ensued because of how the children in the ads are being portrayed in society: In short, the campaign is labeling them as people that no kid should want to be.


Perhaps this campaign may have taken their message a bit too far, but we need to realize that we ourselves perpetuate this same message to society every day, just in a much more covert way.

Obesity is stigmatized as a condition that is changeable and controllable. In essence, obesity is subconsciously construed as a person’s choice. While factors other than controllable eating habits are at play in the obesity crisis, many people still perpetuate the erroneous assumption that overweight people are impulsive, lazy, and less likeable overall.

For example, a study that measured the attitudes of 400 medical professionals towards obese individuals, found that physicians associated obesity with other conditions associated with poor hygiene, hostility, and dishonesty. Other studies found that many physicians relate obesity to a lack of love or attention, lack of willpower, and large amounts of overindulgence.

Unfortunately, an obese individual must face these stigmas in situations outside of the doctor’s office as well. When applying for a job, obese individuals are less likely to be hired, are more likely to be perceived incompetent, and are also more likely to leave negative impressions on their future employers. Attitudes of employers towards obesity were found to be similar to the physicians’ attitudes mentioned earlier.

Even as children, we still fall prey to this negative way of thinking. In one study, children that are shown drawings of other kids with different “handicaps”, are reported to like the drawings of obese children a lot less than drawings of children with facial disfigurements, children in wheelchairs, or children with other types of handicaps.

Again, much of this goes back to the idea of the “controllability” factor behind obesity. In a similar study, high school girls had to decide how likeable they found photos of other girls. The photos of obese girls were, once again, ranked last on their scale of likeability. However, when subjects were told that the overweight girls suffered from weight issues because of a thyroid problem, the photos of overweight girls were liked just as much as the photos of normal-weight girls. In the first condition, the overweight girls were their own perpetuators of their obesity and in the second condition, the overweight girls were the victims of their condition.

When joining the fight against obesity, it is important to remember that many of the assumptions that we make toward obese children and adults are not true. There are many aspects of obesity that are controllable through diet and exercise, but we must also not forget that obesity also has genetic and medical causes that are uncontrollable. Furthermore, marketing, hyperpalatable ingredients (e.g. large amounts of sugars or HFCS and fats) may keep many of us “hooked” and always wanting more of these foods. regardless of whether we actually feel hungry.


DeJong, W. (1980). The stigma of obesity: The consequences of naive assumptions concerning the causes of physical deviance. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 75-87.

Puhl, R., & Brownell, K. D. (2001). Bias, discrimination, and obesity. Obesity research, 9(12), 788-805.

Richardson, S. A., Goodman, N., Hastorf, A. H., & Dornbusch, S. M. (1961). Cultural uniformity in reaction to physical disabilities. American Sociological Review, 241-247.

Dr. Nicole Avena is a research neuroscientist/psychologist and expert in the fields of nutrition, diet and addiction. She has published over 60 scholarly journal articles, as well as several book chapters on topics related to food, addiction, obesity and eating disorders. She recently edited the book, Animal Models of Eating Disorders (Springer/Humana Press, 2013), and she has a book Why Diets Fail (Ten Speed/Crown) available for preorder now and to be released Dec. 31, 2013. Her research achievements have been honored by awards from several groups including the New York Academy of Sciences, the American Psychological Association, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and her research has been funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and National Eating Disorders Association.