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Obesity often leaves people feeling ‘dehumanised’, finds study

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People who are obese are not only stigmatised but are being left feeling “blatantly dehumanised”, according to UK researchers.

One quarter of UK adults are now medically defined as having obesity, highlighted the researchers. But they noted obesity was a complex condition driven by genetic, environmental and social factors.

“This is some of the first evidence that people with obesity are blatantly dehumanised2

Eric Robinson

Writing in the journal Obesity, they said that previous research had suggested that people often held stigmatising and prejudiced views about obesity.

Their new study examined whether stigmatising views about obesity may be more extreme than previously shown.

The research, conducted at the University of Liverpool, examined whether people believed that individuals with obesity were less evolved and human than those without obesity.

More than 1,500 participants, made up of people from the UK, the US and India, completed online surveys asking how evolved they considered different groups of people to be on a scale from 0-100.

The researchers also recorded the body mass index of those completing the survey to find out whether blatant dehumanisation of obesity was more common among thinner people.

In addition, they investigated whether blatant dehumanisation predicted support for health policies that discriminated against people because of their body weight.

“Our results expand on previous literature on obesity stigma”

Inge Kersbergen

Participants on average rated people with obesity as “less evolved” and human than people without obesity.

On average, participants placed people with obesity approximately 10 points below people without obesity.

Blatant dehumanisation was most common among thinner participants, but was also observed among participants who would be medically classed as being overweight or obese.

People who blatantly dehumanised those with obesity were more likely to support health policies that discriminate against people because of their weight.

Lead study author Eric Robinson, a reader at Liverpool University, said: “This is some of the first evidence that people with obesity are blatantly dehumanised.

“This tendency to consider people with obesity as ‘less human’ reveals the level of obesity stigma,” he said.

“Obesity is a complex problem driven by poverty and with significant genetic, psychological and environmental components,” he said.

He added: “Blatant or subtle dehumanisation of any group is morally wrong and in the context of obesity, what we also know is that the stigma surrounding obesity is actually a barrier to making long-term healthy lifestyle changes.”

Fellow author Inge Kersbergen, now a research fellow at the University of Sheffield, said: “Our results expand on previous literature on obesity stigma by showing that people with obesity are not only disliked and stigmatised, but are explicitly considered to be less human than those without obesity.

“The fact that levels of dehumanisation were predictive of support for policies that discriminate against people with obesity suggests that dehumanisation may be facilitating further prejudice,” she said.

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