The impact of obesity stigma: ASU professor seeks solutions

February 25, 2015

Arizona State University medical anthropologist and President's Professor Alexandra Brewis Slade says that even as more and more Americans find themselves carrying extra weight, the stigma attached to being overweight has grown.

As one of the world’s leading researchers of obesity stigma and co-director of Mayo Clinic-ASU Obesity Solutions, she hopes to change the lack of awareness of the impacts of obesity stigma and fat shaming on people who are overweight and obese. woman speaking to group at table Download Full Image

Recently, she convened a small group of scholars with similar interests for a one-day workshop to discuss ways to move the field of obesity stigma research forward.

Seeking solutions

ASU scholars included cultural anthropologist Amber Wutich; medical anthropologist Jonathan Maupin; Obesity Solutions postdoctoral researcher Sarah Trainer; and Obesity Solutions associate director Deb Williams.

Invited guests came from academic institutions across the nation.

The group spent a packed day together on Feb. 13, presenting on their past, present and planned future research, and exploring collaborative opportunities. Because the role of stigma in obesity has received such little attention from researchers, the group decided to create a panel on fat stigma at a national conference in 2016 as a strategic first step toward making the issue more widely understood.

“The problem of weight-related stigma is everywhere, including the ASU campus,” said Brewis Slade, director of the School of Human Evolution and Social Change and the Center for Global Health. “It is gratifying to see that scholars from around the country are beginning to pay attention to what is a widespread and often legal and socially acceptable form of discrimination, and one that undermines the health and well-being of so many.”

She points out that overweight people are commonly subjected to hurtful messaging and behavior in everyday life, which takes a toll on emotional well-being. They may encounter the stares of strangers; well-meaning but ultimately damaging remarks from others, such as unsolicited dieting tips or fitness advice; or outright insults. In addition, the media is full of negative representations of heavier people.

Leaving the stigma behind

Unfortunately, fat shaming has long been held up as a way to get people to lose weight. The thinking goes that if people feel embarrassed enough about their weight, they will change their eating and activity patterns to lose weight. Yet the evidence shows that fat shaming leads to just the opposite.

“A major theme from the workshop is how this stigma actually leads to weight gain or additional barriers to successful weight loss,” Brewis Slade explains.

People who feel stigmatized because of their weight tend to avoid exercising in public, and may fall back on patterns of comfort eating or extreme caloric restriction (often leading to later cravings and binges) when they feel bad about themselves. Moreover, many people who have felt judged by a health care provider avoid going to the doctor later, reducing their access to professional weight loss guidance.

Obesity stigma leads to other serious impacts, too. Researchers find that, in addition to having lower self-esteem and confidence, people who are obese are less likely to be hired or promoted than their lighter-weight peers, while earning lower wages and having fewer training opportunities at work. They also tend to be treated more poorly by health care professionals, teachers and peers.

Despite the mounting evidence of the negative impact of obesity stigma, its study remains a relatively small field within the social sciences. As the ‘obesity epidemic’ draws more and more attention from health professionals, the public and the media, Brewis Slade and her colleagues are concerned that issues of stigma and shame tend to be drowned out amidst concern for the more obvious health effects of obesity.

Erika Jerme,
Mayo Clinic-ASU Obesity Solutions

Rebecca Howe

Communications Specialist, School of Human Evolution and Social Change


ASU Biodesign Institute invites families to 'spring training' with science

February 25, 2015

Arizona’s super stars of science will be on hand to introduce children and their families to the world of biology, physics, engineering, math and chemistry as Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute opens its doors for its annual Night of the Open Door from 4 to 9 p.m., Feb. 28.

Night of the Open Door is an state-wide celebration of science, sponsored by the Arizona SciTech Festival. scientist leads a chemistry demonstration Download Full Image

Hands-on activities, games and prizes will be the order of the evening as guests receive “science trading cards” featuring some of Biodesign’s leading scientists and engage in more than 30 activities, including:

• donning a space suit, designing an experiment and sending it into space
• making slime and using a smartphone to see how proteins behave in the slime
• playing a motion-sensitive video game designed by student researchers to role-play saving the planet from pollution
• watching how plants can make glow-in-the-dark leaves similar to the way they produce disease-fighting proteins for therapies and vaccines, like Biodesign scientists did to make a serum used to fight Ebola
• observing 3-D printing in action
• learning how to clean water using bacteria to remove uranium, nitrates and other contaminants
• measuring fake whale poop to learn what it can tell us about Moby’s stress levels

“Our Biodesign employees truly enjoy this opportunity to show their work,” said Raymond DuBois, Biodesign executive director. “If last year’s event is any indication, we expect to welcome about 2,000 children and their families into our building for the day. My hope is that they become entranced by the magic of science and decide to join the next generation of people who will work to make our world a better place.”

The Biodesign Institute is home to some 500 scientists, students and others who work on tough societal problems, including studying the cause, diagnosis and treatment of nearly 100 diseases.

Parking is free for this event. The Biodesign Institute at ASU is located at 727 E. Tyler St., on ASU's Tempe campus. Major cross streets are Rural Road and University Drive, southwest of the light rail stop at Rural. For maps or information, visit

Follow the evening’s activities on Twitter and Facebook, using #BiodesignOpenDoor and #OpenDoor.

Julie Kurth

Manager, marketing and communications, Biodesign Institute