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What is Weight Bias?

Weight bias is defined as negative attitudes, beliefs, judgments, stereotypes, and discriminatory acts aimed at individuals because of weight. Weight bias can be overt or subtle. It exists in mainstream media, in homes, the health care arena, and in schools. Overweight or obese children are easy targets for bullies in schools. Overweight youth and adults are also viewed as ugly, stupid, lazy, dishonest or greedy. In addition, individuals that deal with weight bias experience isolation from peers, friends, and family members due to unkind comments or from being excluded in activities. Weight bias also causes individuals to think negatively about themselves.

Weight Bias in America

Today, weight bias is tolerated in American society because there is the belief that shaming individuals about their weight will motivate them to lose weight. However, weight bias generally leads to individuals overeating, increased isolation, avoidance in seeking medical care, a drop in physical activity, and low self-esteem (Pont, Puhl, Cook & Slusser, 2017).

Research indicated that weight-related stereotypes have emerged among children as young as 3-years-of-age. It is further estimated that 1 in 3 overweight girls and 1 in 4 overweight boys have been teased by their classmates. Additionally, 60% or 3 in 5 obese kids also reported being teased or bullied in school (Pont, Puhl, Cook & Slusser, 2017).

Overweight adults, on the other hand, are more likely to endure weight bias on the job. A study conducted by researchers at the University of Connecticut’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity indicated that women in particular are more likely to face weight bias in the workforce than men (Jones, 2017).

Weight bias exists in Alabama. The state ranks among the top 10 states in the nation with the highest number of obese or overweight adults and children. That’s why it’s important to address the issue of weight bias with community health educators.

Addressing Obesity in Alabama

Alabama health professionals educate residents on a variety of health topics, including obesity. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Alabama Department of Public Health, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation cites Alabama as having the sixth highest obesity rate in the nation for adults at 36.2%. Alabama also has the ninth highest obesity rate among youth ages 10 to 17 at 18.2%. Obese youth are more likely to be overweight or obese as an adult. Obesity can lead to the development of chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, and certain types of cancer. Therefore, obesity is a major health condition that must be addressed in Alabama.

While it’s important for health educators to share these sobering facts on obesity, they must go one step further. It’s equally important for educators to be aware of classroom environments that may hinder the ability to reach learners. Community-based education may be an individual’s only true source of information. Therefore, it’s important for educators to be kind and sensitive to their audiences because you never know what someone is dealing with personally. Health educators should set the stage for all participants to have a positive learning experience, including those who are overweight or obese.

In reaching audiences, educators should be sensitive, willing, empathetic, educational, and tuned in, which stands for SWEET.

How to teach SWEET

Here are some helpful tips on using SWEET in community classrooms with youth and adults.

SENSITIVE

  • Speak positively and cheerful to participants.
  • Choose words that promote health, without focusing on body shape or size.
  • Include all participants, particularly those who may seem isolated.
  • Make activities comfortable for everyone to participate in.

WILLING

  • Encourage all participants.
  • Confront negative or bullying comments or behavior.
  • Make sure you are relatable and approachable.

 EMPATHETIC

  • Understand and share the feelings of another.
  • Avoid judgment.
  • Treat everyone with respect.
  • Smile at everyone.
  • Greet everyone with a handshake.

EDUCATIONAL

  • Provide sound instructions from evidence-based curricula or reliable resources.
  • Allow time for questions during and after each lesson.
  • Follow up with participants if additional resources are needed.

TUNED IN

  • Be aware of typical participant behavior.
  • Take a moment to check in with participants before or after class if something doesn’t seem right.
  • Speak with the site director and share your observations.

SWEET helps to curb the effect of weight bias within any educational setting. It can help to establish a trusting and engaging environment where all participants can learn and feel capable addressing health issues.

References

Andreyeva, T., Puhl, R. M., & Brownell, K. D. (2012, September 6).  Changes in perceived weight discrimination among Americans, 1995-1996 through 2004-2006. Retrieved from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1038/oby.2008.35.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (March 25, 2019). Adult obesity. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/prevalence-maps.html.
Himmelstein, M. S., Puhl, R. M., & Quinn, D. M. (2017, October). Intersectionality: an understudied framework for addressing weight-stigma. Retrieved from http://uconnruddcenter.org/files/Pdfs/pdf%20Intersectionality%20and%20weight%20stigma.pdf.
Howard, J. (2016, September 29). Weight bias is bigger program than you may think, experts say. CNN health. Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2016/09/29/health/weight-discrimination-obesity-trump/index.html.
Jones, D. P. (2017, October 31). Many Americans blame themselves for weight stigma. Retrieved from https://today.uconn.edu/2017/10/study-self-directed-weight-stigma-prevalent-u-s-adults/.
Pont, S. J., Puhl, R., Cook, S. R., & Slusser, W. (2017, December). Stigma experienced by children and adolescents with obesity. Retrieved from https://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/pediatrics/140/6/e20173034.full.pdf.
Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. (2019). The state of obesity in Alabama. The State of Childhood Obesity. Retrieved from https://stateofchildhoodobesity.org/states/al/.
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