New research shows that most Americans support policies that address weight discrimination. In fact, approximately 3 out of 4 individuals support efforts to add body weight as a protected class under Civil Rights laws, and the majority of those surveyed (at least 60%) are supportive of other policy efforts to address weight discrimination across the nation.
The study, led by researchers at the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity and published in the research journal Obesity, the official journal of The Obesity Society (TOS), is the first to document a positive change in public attitudes toward legal measures to address weight discrimination.
"More than two-thirds of adults in the United States are affected by overweight or obesity, meaning they are also vulnerable to the stigma and discrimination that these proposed policies and laws would help prevent," said study author Rebecca Puhl, PhD, Rudd Center deputy director and co-author of the study. "Rates of weight discrimination are comparable with rates of racial discrimination, especially for women, and are seen across multiple domains, from healthcare and employment to media and personal relationships. We're hopeful that identifying these trends in support of action to end weight discrimination can provide backing for current and future policy efforts."
According to the paper, from 2011 -- 2013 researchers observed a 7% increase in support for disability protections for those affected by obesity or overweight (61% in 2011 to 69% in 2013) and a 6% increase for adding body weight as a protected class in Civil Rights statutes (70% in 2011 to 76% in 2013).
As for reasons behind the observed increase in support for action, Dr. Puhl points to the American Medical Association designation of obesity as a disease in 2013 -- and the resulting national media attention -- as a possible force in moving the needle, but adds: "We still have a long way to go. Reducing weight discrimination requires shifting societal attitudes and challenging stigma in multiple settings."
In a separate editorial published in the May issue of Obesity, Dr. Puhl, joined by Ted Kyle, RPh, TOS advocacy advisor, encourage the use of people-first language for obesity, or putting people before their disease.
"Referring to individuals with obesity or overweight as 'fat,' 'obese,' or 'extremely obese' can impact how that person feels about his or her condition and how likely they are to take action to improve health," said Kyle. "Obese is an identity; obesity is a disease. By addressing the disease we can pursue the treatment and prevention of the disease, while fully respecting the people affected."
People-first language is a broadly accepted standard to reduce stigma associated with other diseases. And, although it has been widely adopted for most chronic diseases and disabilities, it is often overlooked for obesity.
Efforts to both address weight bias, and improve the adoption of people-first language, will make an appearance at TOS's Annual Meeting at ObesityWeekTM 2014, in Boston, MA, Nov. 2-7, 2014. Kyle will chair one of a number of activities and events with this focus at the weeklong conference -- a symposium entitled, "Framing obesity: how public communication influences private conversation." The symposium is designed to raise awareness about how obesity is communicated and perceived, and the shifts needed to increase support for obesity-related policies. The session is co-chaired by Shu Wen Ng, PhD, of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and symposia presenters include Dr. Puhl, Sarah Gollust, PhD, of the University of Minnesota and Margo Wootan, DSc, of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
"In addition to the researchers, surgeons and clinicians attending ObesityWeek, we encourage journalists to attend the session to learn more about how the media can participate in being part of the solution," said Kyle, who also serves as Chairman of the Obesity Action Coalition National Board of Directors, a group representing individuals affected by the disease of obesity.
Last week, TOS joined OAC and the Rudd Center to release the newly updated, "Media Guidelines for the Portrayal of Individuals Affected by Obesity," developed to ensure that all persons, regardless of their body weight, are represented equitably and accurately in journalistic reporting. The guidelines provide tips for language and terminology, evidence-based reporting and the use of appropriate pictures and images, and can be found online here.
"The Obesity Society is proud to endorse these guidelines to ensure we talk about obesity with respect for the people affected," said Kyle. "We're hopeful that the media, policy makers and the public will take note: the use of people-first language shows respect for those affected. By setting bias aside, we enhance our efforts to treat and prevent the disease."
- Young Suh, Rebecca Puhl, Sai Liu, Frances Fleming Milici. Support for laws to prohibit weight discrimination in the united states: Public attitudes from 2011 to 2013. Obesity, 2014; DOI: 10.1002/oby.20750
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