Members of the Eating Disorder Alliance of Australia (EDAA) in conjunction with Health at Every Size (HAES) Australia, are aware of a new documentary set to broadcast on September 1st, 2021 called “What Do Australians Really Think About Obesity?”.
The show will air the results of a national survey on attitudes towards larger bodied Australians.
Although the show’s title mentions the term obesity, the content is actually about how larger people are treated in society, or weight stigma. Despite physical features including weight being protected characteristics in Victoria and the ACT, larger bodied people are highly stigmatised, and experience regular negative focus in the media.
We commend SBS for raising awareness of weight stigma, however we are concerned that the survey results will potentially cause unintended harm. We must remain cognisant of the impact increased awareness can have on an already highly stigmatised group. More attention to the issue of weight stigma and prejudice may have the unintended impact of producing further scrutiny and shame, particularly as this documentary begins with airing scientific data which highlights widespread negative attitudes towards larger people in Australia.
An article published by SBS on August 24th to promote the program described the results of a survey they conducted to understand the attitudes of Australians towards people with a larger body size. In the article, survey responses relating to negative attitudes towards higher weight people are described, and framed in language which is pathologising and hostile. An example of this from the article is that “38% of respondents agreed that obese bodies are disgusting.”
Viewing data on widespread negative attitudes towards larger-bodied people can confirm people’s fears of being poorly treated due to their size, or reinforce the myth that body size is determinant of poor health.
Heightened awareness of negative attitudes towards higher weight people could worsen mental health, at this particularly difficult period during the ongoing pandemic and lockdowns. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Australia has seen an increase in disordered eating and compulsive exercise patterns (Phillipou et al., 2020), along with increased demand for eating disorder treatment.
A particularly vulnerable group of people are higher weight people with eating disorders. Hearing the message that ‘being large is bad’ only further confirms the thoughts of those already struggling with restrictive eating disorders and may stop them from eating or discourage the weight restoration that is necessary to support their recovery. Anorexia Nervosa has one of the highest mortality rates of all mental illnesses, and affects people with larger bodies who are just as unwell as those in smaller bodies, yet this is rarely understood.
Rather than challenge stigma, the use of the word “obesity” in the survey and the program is itself stigmatising. “Obesity” medicalises body size based on the Body Mass Index (BMI), which is a population statistic, not a measure of individual health. Whilst it is a commonly used term, larger bodied people find it harmful and have repeatedly asked for alternative terms (Volger et al, 2012).
Even the “Senate Select Committee Report into The Obesity Epidemic in Australia” strongly recommended moving away from using the term (2018), particularly in discourse involving the public. The phrase “living with obesity” is sometimes offered as an alternative, however once again this term implies pathology and rejects body diversity: we do not use phrases such as “living with tallness”. Suggestions of less stigmatising language may be: higher weight, or larger bodied (Meadows & Danielsdottir, 2016).
Weight stigma is being increasingly recognised as problematic by obesity researchers, such as those featured in the documentary, however this sector still maintains the position that larger bodies are automatically unhealthy. These organisations state that weight stigma is a problem because it stops people accessing weight loss treatment. They advocate for wider access to weight loss treatments rather than a true end to weight stigma.
This positioning of weight stigma is itself inherently stigmatising of higher weight people as it upholds the central positioning of higher weight bodies as pathological. Higher weight people are not necessarily unhealthy. In order to truly combat weight stigma we must reject pathologising people on the basis of size.
We believe that a full understanding of weight stigma as a social justice issue, requiring community actions to eliminate, could have significantly positive consequences. As well as stopping discrimination, an inclusive society that values all bodies equally, without pathologising larger body sizes, would meaningfully reduce the number of Australians living with eating disorders and prevent their development.
We therefore request that SBS include a content warning at the beginning of the program, and the following Help and Support message and contact details at the end of the program to encourage people to reach out for support if they have been negatively impacted by this messaging.
We are very interested in supporting SBS and other media outlets with messaging around higher weight bodies and/or eating disorders and disordered eating, and look forward to your response.
Louise Adams, President, Health At Every Size
Kevin Barrow, CEO, Butterfly
Belinda Caldwell, CEO, Eating Disorders Victoria
Belinda Chelius, CEO, Eating Disorders Queensland
Christine Naismith, Board Director, Eating Disorders Families Australia