Discrimination against overweight people causing depression, comfort eating and weight gain

Overweight people are frequently insulted by shop assistants, ignored by bar staff, left out by friends, mocked by passers-by, ridiculed by the opposite sex and photographed by teenagers as part of a widespread culture of discrimination that can cause depression, comfort eating and ultimately weight gain, research has found.

A study by Slimming World of 2,573 people who have lost weight reveals the extent to which people are treated differently depending purely on their size.

At their heaviest, people suffered humiliations such as young people winding their car window down to shout abuse, fellow passengers refusing to share a seat on public transport, groups of men in nightclubs feigning romantic interest and teenagers taking pictures or videos on their smartphone. As customers, some faced rude comments on their food choices from supermarket staff, laughter from shop assistants when they asked for clothes in a bigger size, and feeling humiliated as bar staff served slimmer customers that were standing behind them first. The results showed that on average, 40 per cent of overweight people experience some form of judgement, criticism or humiliation at least once-a-week.

The survey found that weight discrimination does not motivate people to lose weight. Instead, incidents of discrimination left recipients feeling ashamed (47 per cent), depressed (41 per cent) and useless (30 per cent), with the majority (65 per cent) turning to food for comfort and only a tiny minority (two per cent) making long-term healthy changes as a result. Two thirds of respondents (63 per cent) reported gaining a significant amount of weight over time since they were first treated unkindly because of their size. This suggests that rather than motivating people who are struggling with their weight, discrimination and stigma actually make things worse.

Professor James Stubbs, Research Specialist
As a society we need to be more aware of how discrimination can impact on people’s feelings and lifestyle behaviours.
Professor James Stubbs, Research Specialist

Slimming World is calling for a greater understanding, right across society, of the impact that weight stigma has on emotional wellbeing, weight control and, ultimately, health. It believes that showing kindness and compassion to people who are overweight and severely overweight and treating all people with respect, regardless of size, would have a significant impact on long-term weight management.

Professor James Stubbs, Research Specialist at Slimming World and Chair of Behaviour Change and Weight Management at the University of Derby, says: “As a society we need to think more about how we treat people who struggle with weight and we need to be more aware of how discrimination can impact on people’s feelings and lifestyle behaviours.”

“Criticism of overweight people is widespread and not only is this rude and unpleasant, it’s also really unhelpful when it comes to motivating people to lose weight. In fact the evidence suggests that it undermines people’s attempts at controlling their weight and, for many, even causes increased weight gain.

“When we’re constantly criticised and judged by others for our weight, it chips away at our self-confidence, leaving us feeling guilty and ashamed. The danger with that is that all of our cultural signals; our upbringing, the media and our social, physical and cultural environments, are persuading us to use food to make us feel better. That only worsens our weight problem, creating a cycle of shame and weight gain that can be difficult to break.”

Respondents said that since losing weight they were now more likely to be acknowledged by strangers with a smile (61 per cent), eye contact (54 per cent), a compliment (49 per cent), a hello (43 per cent) and a conversation (41 per cent). They also reported getting served for drinks much more quickly in bars now that they had lost weight, typically taking only three minutes to get served compared to an average of nine minutes when they were at their heaviest.

Professor Stubbs continues: “People shouldn’t have to be slim to be treated decently and, in fact showing kindness and compassion makes it easier for people to manage their weight in the first place. So if we really want to tackle obesity as a society then we need to start being kinder to each other and to ourselves too.

“By showing compassion to the people around us and developing non-judgemental empathic understanding, we can reduce the stigma surrounding overweight. This, in turn, will reduce the self-criticism that so often causes the feelings of guilt, shame and depression which lead to overeating and, ultimately, to weight gain.

“Reducing discrimination makes it more likely that people will seek help to lose weight and feel able to take steps to make changes to their lifestyle.”

To help raise awareness of the impact that harsh criticism has on those struggling to lose weight, Slimming World is inviting people to share experiences and show support using the hashtag #ShowHeart

10 humiliating things that happen to overweight people

1. Verbal abuse from passing cars

“On my way home from work a stranger shouted out of his car window at me as I had pressed the button at a pedestrian crossing. He said ‘why don’t you buy yourself a salad you fat cow.’”

2. Supermarket staff comment on your food choices

“I was shopping in a well-known supermarket and put some biscuits in the trolley and one of the staff said to me ‘should you really be eating those? Some fruit and veg would be better for you’. I was so embarrassed that I just wanted to cry.”

3. Rude comments from shop assistants when looking for clothes

“I was shopping for a gift with my sister and saw a beautiful top in a shop window, so went in to have closer look. I had only stepped inside when I was grabbed by the elbow spun around and told quite harshly ‘there is nothing in here for people like you’.”

4. Men in nightclubs play games to chat you up

“I’d always been told I had a pretty face so in the beginning I’d think people were being serious and complimentary. It was only when I heard the sniggers, laughter and hurtful comments they made among themselves that I realised the truth. I still have trouble believing men are serious now.”

5. People look terrified of you sitting next to them on public transport

“I remember one young bloke saying ‘you can’t sit here fatty’ as I walked down the bus looking for a seat.”

6. Friends leave you out of things as they assume you won’t want to be involved

“When I was bigger people always assumed I didn't want to do active things. I love long walks in the country and swimming but friends often ‘forgot’ to invite me, assuming that it wouldn’t be my thing.”

7. Getting served at the bar takes ages

“I spent around 45 minutes waiting at the bar to get served. I had made eye contact with the barman so he knew he was there but he kept serving the other girls who were much slimmer than me.”

8. Teenagers will film or photograph you using their smartphone

“I was laughed at by teenagers in a shop. They were filming with their mobile phone and following me around. My daughter who was aged six at the time was with me and we were both very upset.”

9. Employers only focus on your appearance

“I went for a job interview and caught site of the interviewer’s notes. To my horror the content was 95% about my weight and appearance and only 5% about my abilities and qualifications.”

10. People treat you like a leper

“I was working in the Student Union and handed an item to a student. She seemed reluctant to make contact with my hand. As she walked away with her friends she said that she hadn’t wanted to touch me as she wasn’t sure if she could catch fat.”

Notes to Editors

Slimming World was founded by Margaret Miles-Bramwell (OBE, FRSA) 45 years ago and there are now more than 12,000 groups held weekly nationwide via a network of 4,000 Slimming World Consultants who receive specific training in dietary aspects and the role of physical activity in weight control. The highly developed training focuses on facilitating behaviour change in a caring group environment, acknowledged by experts as being the most effective way to support long-term weight management. Slimming World training develops Consultants’ skills to provide exceptional service to members and grow their business. Training is delivered through the Slimming World Academy. Slimming World’s healthy eating plan, Food Optimising, and the principles behind Slimming World’s philosophy are based on a deep understanding of the challenges faced by overweight people. It integrates practical, up-to-date dietary advice with a highly developed support system based on caring and compassion. For more information visit www.slimmingworld.com or call 0844 897 8000.