Weight Stigma: 2020-2021 National Survey

Associate Professor Leah Brennan led the design of a national survey measuring attitudes towards and experiences of weight stigma in Australia. The survey was commissioned in connection with the documentary entitled What does Australia really think about obesity? which aired on television network SBS on 1 September 2021. The project team included Dr Xochitl de la Piedad Garcia (Australian Catholic University) and Annemarie Hindle (La Trobe University).

The Survey

The survey measured attitudes towards obesity and the experiences of people living with obesity in Australia. Two in three Australian adults have a weight which is categorised as overweight or obese, yet obesity is still stigmatised. Common stereotypes include that heavier people don't look after themselves, eat too much, and are lazy, unmotivated and unsuccessful. It is common for people living with obesity to experience negative interactions associated with their weight at least daily. While there are negative health consequences associated with obesity, many of the most negative consequences of obesity are due to the experience of weight stigma.

The survey results were used to inform the SBS documentary What does Australia really think about obesity? The documentary, presented by Casey Donovan, tests the survey findings in a series of real-world field experiments. This includes experiments designed to capture people's unconscious biases about body weight and exploring how media messages about weight impact people's attitudes towards obesity. Hidden cameras are also used to capture the experiences of those living with obesity. The documentary explores whether anything can be done to change the way we think about obesity.

Casey Donovan, Joey Taniwha, Simona Borgese, April Helene-Horton (Bodzilla) and Heidi Anderson also share their experience of living with obesity, and things they are doing to challenge fat stereotypes. A range of other experts including Associate Professor Leah Brennan (La Trobe University), Kelli Jean Drinkwater (Filmmaker and Activist), Professor Lenny Vartania (UNSW Sydney), Professor Simone Pettigrew (The George Institute for Global Health), Professor Deborah Lupton (UNSW Sydney), Marquis Pohla (Metric Consulting), Professor John Dixon (Swinburne University of Technology), Professor Joseph Proietto (University of Melbourne) provide their expert opinion on survey results and the real-world experiments presented in the documentary.

The program, which aired 1 September 2021, forms part of a series of documentaries that explore what Australians think about a series of stigmatised characteristics. The series started with What does Australia really think about disability? on Wednesday 18 August at 8.30 pm and was followed by What does Australia really think about old people? on Wednesday 25 August at 8.30 pm and What does Australia really think about obesity? on Wednesday 1 September at 8.30 pm. The episodes are available to watch on SBS On Demand.

The Sample

The online survey was completed by 2002 Australian adults. The survey was undertaken between February 2021 and March 2021.The sample is representative of the Australian adult population. 50.4% of respondents reported that they were male, 49.3% female, 0.2 non-binary and 0.1 preferred not to say. 6% of the sample had body weights classified as underweight, 46% normal weight, 40% overweight, 8% obese.

Key Findings

Results highlight the mixed messages we hear and hold about obesity.

Of concern,

  • 38% agreed that obese bodies are disgusting
  • 46% of people who identified as being obese have changed their behaviour to avoid unwanted attention because of their weight
  • 77% agreed that obesity is the result of what people eat and how much they exercise
  • 29% said they would give up 10 years of their life to be able to effortlessly maintain my ideal weight

The good news is,

  • 75% said that I would stand up for someone being shamed because of their weight
  • 82% agreed that it is unfair to discriminate against someone because of their weight
  • 79% agreed that the media should reflect Australians in all shapes and sizes

Other research from the team

The Body Image, Eating and Weight Research Team project page