Motivating or stigmatizing? Public perceptions of weight-related language used by health providers

Int J Obes (Lond). 2013 Apr;37(4):612-9. doi: 10.1038/ijo.2012.110. Epub 2012 Jul 10.


Background: Research demonstrates that health providers express negative attitudes toward overweight and obese patients that can be conveyed through weight-related language, yet little is known about people's perceptions of weight-related language used by providers. The current study examined public preferences and perceptions of weight-based terminology used by health-care providers to describe excess weight.

Method: A national sample of American adults (N=1064) completed an online survey to assess perceptions and preferences associated with 10 common terms to describe body weight. Participants rated how much they perceived each term to be desirable, stigmatizing, blaming or motivating to lose weight (using five-point Likert scales), and how they would react if stigmatized by their doctor's reference to their weight.

Results: The terms 'weight' (3.43, 95% confidence interval (CI) 3.35-3.50) and 'unhealthy weight' (3.24, 95% CI 3.15-3.33) were rated most desirable, and the terms 'unhealthy weight' (3.77, 95% CI 3.69-3.84) and 'overweight' (3.51, 95% CI 3.43-3.58) were rated most motivating to lose weight. The terms 'morbidly obese', 'fat' and 'obese' were rated as the most undesirable (95% CI 1.61-2.06), stigmatizing (95% CI 3.66-4.05) and blaming (95% CI 3.62-3.94) language used by health providers. Notably, participant ratings were consistent across socio-demographic variables and body weight categories. A total of 19% of participants reported they would avoid future medical appointments and 21% would seek a new doctor if they felt stigmatized about their weight from their doctor.

Conclusion: This study advances our understanding of why individuals prefer particular weight-related terms, and how patients may react if their provider uses stigmatizing language to refer to their weight. It also offers suggestions for practical strategies that providers can use to improve discussions about weight-related health with patients.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Body Weight
  • Communication*
  • Female
  • Health Personnel / psychology
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Motivation*
  • Obesity* / psychology
  • Physician-Patient Relations
  • Self Concept
  • Social Class
  • Social Perception*
  • Stereotyping*
  • Terminology as Topic
  • United States