More than half of adults surveyed across six countries report experiencing weight stigma, new research suggests.
Experts also found that people who engage in self-stigma and self-blame for their weight are more likely to avoid healthcare, get check-ups less frequently, and perceive that they get less respect from doctors.
Two new studies from the UConn Rudd Centre for Food Policy and Obesity, America, compared the experiences of adults in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, the UK, and the US.
Researchers say they are the first multi-national studies to examine the link between weight stigma and negative healthcare encounters.
Across the six countries, participants who had experienced weight stigma reported more frequent perceived judgment from doctors due to their weight.
They also felt that their doctors less frequently listened carefully to them or respected what they had to say.
The research indicated that internalisation of weight bias may be especially detrimental for actions like getting check-ups, and could result in avoiding healthcare altogether.
Rebecca Puhl, lead author of the study and deputy director at the Rudd Centre, said: “Despite decades of studies on weight stigma, international comparative research is lacking.
“The time is overdue to recognise weight stigma as a legitimate social injustice and public health issue in many countries around the world, and multinational research can inform efforts to address this problem on a global scale.”
Researchers partnered with WW International to survey 13,996 of its members in six countries about weight stigma, internalised weight bias, and healthcare experiences.
The studies found that at least half (56 to 61%) of people in each country reported they had experienced weight stigma.
High percentages of participants in each country experienced weight stigma from family members (76 to 88%), classmates (72% to 81%), doctors (63% to 74%), co-workers (54% to 62%), and friends (49%-66%).
In all of the countries, weight stigma experiences were most frequent in childhood and adolescence, with associated distress highest during these time periods.
Across all six countries, those with higher levels of self-blame for their weight were more likely to avoid healthcare, obtained less frequent check-ups, and perceived their healthcare quality to be lower.
Researchers say the findings, published in the International Journal of Obesity and in Plos One, highlight that there are many more similarities than differences across countries in the nature, frequency, and interpersonal sources of people’s experiences of weight stigma.
There are clear consistencies in stigma experienced in both close relationships and across different settings, such as healthcare and employment.
Dr Puhl said: “The fact that family members are such common sources of weight stigma across these countries indicates a collective need to address weight stigma within the family environment, and to help families engage in more supportive communication with their loved ones.
“For many people, these experiences begin in youth from parents and close family members, and they can last for many years and have long-term negative consequences.
“Our results also provide a compelling reason to step up international efforts to reduce weight biases held by medical professionals.
“We must prioritise efforts to establish a healthcare culture free of weight stigma, and we also need to work collaboratively to develop supportive interventions to help people when they do experience this stigma.”
These studies were supported by a grant from WW International Inc.