How to Reduce Weight Stigma? Ask Those Who Know Best

In a new UConn study, women with obesity identify potential remedies, placing priority on the workplace, schools, and healthcare settings.

An overweight woman in an office. (Rudd Center Photo)

(Rudd Center Photo)

Women with obesity who were asked their views about the best strategies to reduce weight stigma say interventions in the workplace, schools, and healthcare should be prioritized, according to a new study by the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut.

This new study, published today in Obesity Science & Practice, examined the perspectives of 461 women with overweight and obesity (most of whom had experienced weight stigma) about a broad range of potential stigma-reduction strategies. The women are members of the Obesity Action Coalition, a national non-profit group of 54,000 members that supports individuals affected by obesity through education and advocacy.

Most of the participants in the study (76 percent to 95 percent) assigned high importance to 31 of 35 suggested weight stigma-reduction strategies, with school-based and healthcare approaches receiving the highest ratings. Providing education about weight stigma in existing anti-harassment training in the workplace was rated as the most effective and feasible strategy. The family setting also was viewed as an important target for stigma reduction, with family members identified by 86 percent of participants as playing a major role in efforts to reduce weight stigma.

“The broad support expressed for multiple strategies across diverse settings suggests that individuals with these stigmatized identities view a need for comprehensive approaches to effectively reduce weight stigma,” says Rebecca Puhl, deputy director of the UConn Rudd Center and lead author of the study. Puhl is a professor-in-residence in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies.

Specific findings of the study show:

  • 95 percent of participants assigned high importance to training school staff on strategies to address weight-related bullying in youth. Previous research by Puhl has shown that weight-based bullying is one of the most common forms of bullying in youth.
  • 95 percent assigned high importance to schools’ adopting anti-bullying policies to protect students from weight-based bullying.
  • More than 94 percent placed high importance on implementing comprehensive education about obesity in medical schools, and training for healthcare providers to give respectful, compassionate care to patients with obesity.
  • More than 94 percent assigned high importance to providing parents with access to resources to support.
  • More than 85 percent assigned high importance to legislative remedies, including strengthening state anti-bullying laws to include protections for youth against weight bullying, and adopting laws to make it illegal for employers to discriminate against employees because of body weight.

“These findings underscore the importance of including people who have been impacted by stigma in research and advocacy,” says Joe Nadglowski, president and chief executive officer of the Obesity Action Coalition.

To date, perspectives of individuals who have been stigmatized about their weight have often been absent in research aiming to reduce this stigma, says Puhl, a professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at UConn. “Their insights provide a necessary and valuable contribution that can inform ways to reduce weight-based inequities and prioritize such efforts.”

The study was funded by a grant from the Rudd Foundation. Other study authors include postdoctoral fellow Mary Himmelstein of the UConn Rudd Center, associate professor of psychological sciences Amy Gorin of the Institute for Collaboration on Health, Intervention, and Policy (InCHIP) at UConn, and Young Suh of the University of Massachusetts Medical School.