Culture, health, and bigotry: How exposure to cultural accounts of fatness shape attitudes about health risk, health policies, and weight-based prejudice

Soc Sci Med. 2016 Sep;165:271-279. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2015.12.031. Epub 2015 Dec 23.


Rationale: We conducted three experiments to examine how cultural frames shape attitudes about health, focusing on obesity, which is considered a public health crisis and is imbued with symbolic meaning.

Methods: College students (Ns = 99, 114, and 293) read news articles that presented high body weight according to one or more of the following frames: 1) public health crisis; 2) personal responsibility; 3) health at every size (HAES); or 4) fat rights.

Results: Compared to people who read the HAES and Fat Rights articles, those who read the Public Health Crisis and Personal Responsibility articles expressed more belief in the health risks of being fat (ds = 1.28 to 1.79), belief that fat people should pay more for insurance (ds = 0.53 to 0.71), anti-fat prejudice (ds = 0.61 to 0.69), willingness to discriminate against fat people (ds = 0.41 to 0.59), and less willingness to celebrate body-size diversity (ds = 0.77 to 1.07). They were less willing to say women at the lower end of the obese range could be healthy. Exposure to these articles increased support for price-raising policies to curb obesity but not support for redistributive or compensatory policies. In Experiment 3, in comparison to a control condition, exposure to HAES or Fat Rights frames significantly reduced beliefs in the risks of obesity and support for charging fat people more for insurance. However, only people exposed to the Fat Rights frame expressed fewer anti-fat attitudes and more willingness to celebrate body-size diversity.

Conclusions: Our findings suggest that simply disseminating information that people can be both fat and healthy will not suffice to reduce prejudice. Given that anti-fat stigma is a health risk and barrier to collective solidarity, fat rights viewpoints can buffer against the negative consequences of anti-fat stigma and promote a culture of health by fostering empathy and social justice.

Keywords: Anti-fat attitudes; Culture; Health; Health policy; Obesity.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Attitude to Health*
  • Body Image / psychology*
  • Body Weight
  • Culture
  • Female
  • Health Policy / trends
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Obesity / psychology*
  • Prejudice / psychology
  • Social Stigma*
  • Students / psychology*
  • Young Adult