Political views and welfare attitudes impact obesity perception

Weight stigma, welfare attitudes, and politics in a British survey.


Many individuals suffering from obesity encounter hurtful treatment and discrimination in their daily lives due to their weight. It makes people feel mentally worse, and they sometimes don’t seek medical help because they’ve been poorly treated by doctors before.

A study coming out next week in Social Science & Medicine investigates how people’s views on obesity are influenced by their demographics, political beliefs, and opinions about those receiving welfare, often linked with obesity in the media.

Dr. Amanda Hughes, Research Fellow in University of Bristol‘s MRC Integrative Epidemiology Unit (MRC IEU) and lead author said: “How we think about obesity is closely tied up with how we think about other political issues, and views about people claiming welfare, who are often associated with obesity in public and political discourse.”

“Tackling weight stigma – and other kinds of stigma – may be more effective if we recognize these links and acknowledge the political context in which stigma happens.” the researcher added.

The study asked more than 2,000 adults in the UK, ranging from 18 to 97 years old, about their opinions on weight-related discrimination. The researchers examined their background, money situation, weight, health, and what they thought caused and happened because of obesity.

They also checked how much their political beliefs and thoughts about people getting government help, often talked about obesity, influenced their views. Finally, they tried to determine if people’s opinions about weight discrimination differed because of their weight, values, and beliefs or because of other factors like where they come from or how much money they have.

The research discovered that when we consider people’s age and gender, those with negative attitudes about weight were also more likely to have specific values. These values included being more controlling, leaning towards conservative views on money matters, and having more negative opinions about people who receive government assistance.

This study is the first to examine how different aspects of people’s political beliefs are linked to weight-related discrimination. Using nationwide survey data, it’s also the first to find a connection between these beliefs and negative views about welfare recipients.

In line with past research, the study found that women tended to be less judgmental about weight than men. People with a higher BMI (body mass index) and those who weren’t happy with their weight were also less likely to be critical of others.

People in their late middle-age were less likely to judge people based on weight than younger or older individuals. Weight-related biases tended to be higher among those with more income and were most pronounced among those with intermediate education and occupational status levels.

The study also examined why certain groups held more negative views about weight. It found that these differences were influenced by factors like a person’s BMI, their beliefs about what causes obesity, their attitudes towards government assistance, and their tendency towards controlling values.

The researchers plan to investigate whether these findings are unique to the UK or apply in other countries with different discussions around obesity and other stigmatized groups.

Journal Reference:

  1. Amanda M. Hughes et al., Weight stigma, welfare stigma, and political values: Evidence from a representative British survey. Social Science & Medicine. DOI: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2023.116172.
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