Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Weight Stigma is not a Myth, or Why You Should Never Trust Headlines

Across my Twitter feed this morning, I kept seeing a link to this headline:

"Weight Discrimination is Surprisingly Rare, Study Finds"

I feel very strongly about stigma against people with obesity (and those with mental illness or lung cancer or any other stigmatized health condition). So, I was, of course, immediately drawn to the study. Despite substantial evidence that people with obesity ARE discriminated against and stigmatized, I try to keep an open mind. It's also important to allow my personal experiences and beliefs to change in the face of new evidence.

After some in-depth looking, I've decided this is a particularly egregious example of a headline that does not adequately represent the study. The logical interpretation of the headline is "people with obesity rarely experience weight discrimination." The study is in Obesity, and the reporting is from Discovery, so it shouldn't be too far off. Right?

Let's start with the obvious:

Weight Discrimination Is Surprisingly Rare, Study Finds


Yes, we have a statement that weight discrimination is rare directly above a photo representing weight discrimination.

The story reports that "only about 5 percent of people reported experiencing such discrimination." There are two important definitions here--people and discrimination.

People are all people, not just those with obesity. The people asked are actually pretty representative of the population. That's like asking a group representative of Americans if they experience racial discrimination and then reporting that bias against African Americans is actually not very prevalent. Of course healthy weight (and underweight) individuals can experience stigma, just as white individuals can experience stigma, and I don't want to pretend that never happens. But it's seems clear that if you want to understand discrimination, you ask those most likely to experience discrimination.

The authors of the study did indeed provide separate analyses for discrimination among individuals with obesity. What they found is that 35% of the "most obese" experienced discrimination. Over one-third.

And what is "discrimination," you ask? The study asked 5 questions, each representing pretty broad domains. Experiencing discrimination was defined as experiencing it for at least 3 of the 5 questions (as reported by the story). So, being stigmatized by your doctor is not enough. That's not "real" discrimination. You must also be given poorer service in stores and have people think you are stupid. Only then can you count it as "discrimination."

Oh, please.

[I'm going to make a note here that the news article and the actual study report different things. I can't determine for certain what the definition was of weight discrimination.]

In any case, that "rare" discrimination is actually that a third of people with class II or class III obesity experience discrimination. [For reference, take a look at my picture. I have class II obesity.] A THIRD of these people experience overt discrimination which they attribute to their weight more than they attribute it to their age, gender, or race.

What's perhaps most disheartening about the entire reporting of this study is that it completely overlooks the far more interesting finding: people who experience discrimination are more likely to gain weight and those who do not are more likely to lose weight. Not only does the headline incorrectly minimize the prevalence of stigma, the story completely overlooks the negative implications of weight bias.

This has to stop. Benjamin Radford, the author of the story, claims to want to understand why people believe things for which there is little or no evidence. Perhaps people believe in such things because most people do not have access to the real evidence, instead relying on stories with inaccurate representations of "evidence."

The reporting of this study is, in and of itself, a clear example of weight discrimination. It claims, despite widespread evidence to the contrary, that the perception that overweight people experience social discrimination and harassment is a "myth." Yes, he actually used the word myth. It neglects to note the significant harm that weight bias causes, not only on weight, but general well-being. The authors themselves end their study with: "Our findings underscore the need for effective interventions at the population level to combat weight stigma and discrimination."

Weight-stigma is not a myth. While we will never be able to control the media, we researchers need to work much harder in developing an accurate message and helping reporters present it.

No comments:

Post a Comment