Welcome to my first Partners for Healthier Weight (PfHW) blog. My name is Michael Vallis and I am a health psychologist. I serve as the Co-Director of PfHW and am a long-time staff member of Capital Health with a cross-appointment to Dalhousie University.
I first became involved in obesity management in 1979 (don’t even think about trying to calculate my age), when I was in graduate school at the University of Western Ontario in London. I worked on a service where we did psychological assessments to approve jaw wiring for weight loss! Boy, we have come a long way from then. My current interest is to help individuals develop lifelong healthy behaviours that lead to healthy bodies and minds.
Although I think we have come a long way forward since I initially began working with obesity management from a psychological perspective (by the way, we rarely approved people for jaw wiring – it was so dramatic a move that people used to have to carry wire cutters with them at all times in case they became nauseous – if you didn’t get the wires off before vomiting there was a significant risk of choking to death!) I think there are two issues that we have not made a lot of progress on. For me I see these issues as my goals – to do what I can as a health professional to promote change.
The two issues I am talking about are the bias (discrimination) against those living with obesity and the inappropriate expectations that those living with obesity have about how much weight they ‘should’ and ‘want’ to lose. In this blog I want to talk about bias against obesity.
Bias against obesity is alive and well! Unfortunately. There is convincing evidence that bias begins very early in life (on the daycare play ground), that it is demonstrated by all types of people, including healthcare providers and those who are obese themselves, and that it affects many aspects of life, including education, income, relationships, healthcare and mental health.
We have some understanding as to why this bias exists. Humans have a need to explain the things that happen to them: think of when a person experiences a tragedy. One of the first questions they ask is “why did this happen?” We look for explanations, something psychologists call the Just World Hypothesis (aka bad things happen to bad people). Since obesity is seen in our society as bad…..those living with obesity are bad. As well, we focus on control in our society – “if you work hard enough you will get what you want”. Since obesity is seen as bad…..those living with obesity aren’t working hard enough – they are lazy (afterall, just eat less and move more). And the third factor is, as some of you might have guessed already, our societal view of obesity as bad. Thanks Twiggy! The media must be looked at as a source of this portrayal of those living with obesity in a negative light.
So, if we can begin to understand why this bias might have developed it is high time we take action against it. There is beginning to be some research looking into obesity bias and how to deal with it. If you are interested check out the following website: http://www.yaleruddcenter.org/what_we_do.aspx?id=10. It is from Yale University in the US where there is a group of psychologists specializing in obesity who are trying to help people reverse obesity bias. Our view of obesity needs to become more accurate, so we can understand the role of not only behaviour, but our built environment, food security, human nature, and genetics.
I will leave it at that for my first blog. My challenge to us all is to take responsibility for our tendency to be biased toward those living with obesity and to be open to new ways of thinking about weight and health. Looking forward to future posts.