Weight Stigma: 2020-2021 National Survey

La Trobe University psychologist, Associate Professor Leah Brennan, has led the design of a national survey for an SBS documentary about attitudes towards and experiences of weight stigma in Australia.

The survey, commissioned in connection with the SBS television documentary entitled What does Australia really think about Obesity?, found that although many people hold negative views of obesity, three quarters of Australians would stand up for someone being shamed because of their weight. The project team included Dr Xochitl de la Piedad Garcia (Australian Catholic University) and Annemarie Hindle (La Trobe University).

“Weight stigma is widespread and has very real side effects for people that live in larger bodies. It has direct impacts on social, mental and physical health. Importantly, shaming people because of their weight is not an effective way to motivate weight loss, in fact it has the opposite effect,” said Associate Professor Brennan, a psychologist who specialises in body image and weight stigma, and who is based at La Trobe’s Albury-Wodonga campus.

The Survey

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

The survey measured attitudes towards obesity and the experiences of people living with obesity in Australia. Two thirds of Australian adults have a weight which is categorised as overweight or obese, yet obesity is still stigmatized.

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.

Key Findings

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

Of concern:

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

The good news:

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

The survey results were used to inform the SBS documentary What does Australia really think about Obesity? The documentary, presented by Australian singer 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 explore 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.

Other experts, including 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 (Metrix 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 will be aired 1 September 2021 and available on SBS On Demand, forms part of a series of documentaries that explore what Australians think about a series of stigmatised characteristics.