“Weight stigmatization is a socially accepted form of discrimination”
11 Oct 2018
The proportion of children who are overweight or obese has risen and is now approaching 20 percent among 5-year olds in many European countries, including the Nordic region. Weight stigmatization affects children´s psychological and physical health in many ways. Stigmatization was one of the topics of our seminar, Healthy Life for Children, held in Reykjavik on 2-3 October.
– Our body image affects how we think, feel, behave and communicate with each other throughout our lives. Body image is an important factor in the health and wellbeing of children and adolescents, says Dr Dóra Guðrún Guðmundsdóttir, Head of Division at the Directorate of Health in Iceland.
Weight stigmatization is, by definition, a form of social stigma based on biased, negative attitudes, beliefs, stereotypes and discriminatory behaviour towards individuals who are perceived as having excess body weight.
Iceland´s action plan against obesity includes the mapping and combatting of weight stigmatization.
– Weight stigmatization is a socially accepted form of prejudice and discrimination and is documented in every sector of society: education, health care, employment, mass media, social media and interpersonal settings, says Guðmundsdóttir, who was the project leader of the action plan.
Body dissatisfaction early in life
Weight stigmatization has a negative effect on people´s health. It can be a chronic stress factor and lead to depression, low self-esteem and a negative body image. Other consequences include disordered eating and less interest and engagement in physical activity.
Guðmundsdóttir points out that children become aware of sociocultural norms and expectations very early in life.
– For instance, overweight children are less likely to be chosen as playmates.
On average, girls tend to have a more negative body image than boys. Body dissatisfaction has been found among girls as young as 5 years old, and 40 to 50 percent of girls between 7 and 11 years old would like to have a thinner body.
Weight stigmatization and sports
Ragnar Bjarnason, Chief of Pediatrics at the Landspitali University Hospital and Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Iceland, works with obese children. He points out that terminology plays a vital role.
– We don´t talk about calories at all in our health recommendations, or when we meet patients. Instead, we point 0ut how important it is to exercise and eat a lot of fruit and vegetables. I believe in the effectiveness of the nudge approach, Bjarnason says.
– One area where weight stigmatization occurs is sports, particularly ball games. Overweight children are not chosen for teams, they are invisible. And as you know, non-verbal gestures are as strong as verbal communication.
Bjarnason and his team work with a sports teacher and emphasize the importance of movement. Their aim is to introduce children to different kinds of sports, such as judo, mixed martial arts, track and field etc.
Surveillance and healthy environments
According to Bjarnason, the sooner you notice that a child is gaining too much weight, the better. Surveillance is the key, in combination with simple guidance for parents.
– It´s important to identify the build-up of excess weight at an early stage, preferably when a child is 5-6 years old or earlier. At that stage, a few recommendations and a simple question are usually effective: we ask the parents if they have thought about the fact that obesity could have lifelong consequences for their child.
Guðmundsdóttir says that it is essential to focus on health and wellbeing, not weight.
– We have to create healthy environments for children, such as health-promoting schools and healthy communities – environments where all body shapes are welcome.
Guðmundsdóttir and Bjarnason participated in the seminar Healthy Life for Children in Reykjavik on 2-3 October 2018. The seminar was organised by the Nordic Welfare Centre and the National Institute for Health and Welfare in Finland.