It is now widely recognised that negative attitudes towards people living with obesity are embedded in our society through media content. Liv Sewell spoke with Nadya Isack, OEN Champion and advocate, about her experience of living with obesity and the impact of stigmatising media content on people affected by overweight or obesity.

Please can you say a little bit about your experience of living with obesity?

I have lived with obesity for much of my adult life. I think I had always turned to eating to help me to cope with difficult feelings such as shame and embarrassment. As I suffered more outwardly from overweight as a young adult, this became a vicious cycle for me and progressed to living with obesity as an adult.

How have you experienced stigmatising content in the media?

I grew up in South Africa in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. The apartheid government at the time restricted all forms of media and of course there was, no internet. However, there were still influences on me through the society around me. If you had excess weight, you were demeaned as being not good enough. Thinness was linked to happiness and success. Thin women were therefore the only individuals presented as role models when I was growing up. There was no-one whose appearance was different to this, with whom I could identify with. And so, I ignored the difficult feelings I had about myself and tried to be the person the media and culture held up for women – thin and non-confrontational. My relationship with food and my wellbeing suffered as a result.

I left South Africa when I was about 25. I have lived and worked abroad ever since. This was very positive for me as a person. But I was also exposed to the media in a whole new way. Wherever I looked, TV, news, print media, I saw that successful women were thin and beautiful.

I never saw people who were a bit different, who had excess weight, being presented as successful, or even just “normal”. To a person living with excess weight, this communicates that they are not good enough, not acceptable, and less valuable than others.

It’s important to say, that this experience is not just a female experience. I have a male friend who is overweight and media coverage of obesity makes him feel so ashamed of himself, like he’s not a good enough man and dad. When he goes to the beach, he doesn’t take his t-shirt off because he does not have the “gym-perfect” body.

How has stigmatising content in the media impacted you?

It has affected so many aspects of my life.

My physical health. The media promotes an overly simplistic narrative that people with obesity just need to diet, and ‘eat less and move more’. The framing places the blame entirely on people like me, for what we look like and what we have become. This is inconsistent with current scientific understanding. We know that 95% of people who follow one of these diets will put the weight they lost back on with a little bit extra as well. But not only is it just plain wrong, it also had a detrimental impact on my mental wellbeing and meant that I didn’t access the healthcare and support I deserved. It took years of confidence-destroying, and damaging, dieting before I summoned up the courage to seek the help I needed for obesity.

My mental health. I think the media has a lot to answer for in terms of the way they have portrayed people living with obesity and the impact this had on the mental health and wellbeing of people with obesity. Everyday people with overweight and obesity are bombarded with media content which shames them and tells them they are a failure, and a second-rate member of society. That is extremely hard to endure. It is even harder to endure that and still retain your mental health, and pro-actively look after your health. This is so important because an integral part of overcoming any conditions such as obesity is to ensure that your mental health and wellbeing is being considered as well.

My self-esteem. The acute lack of role models with a larger body size and shape in the media, with whom I can identify, has contributed to my very low self-esteem. People living with obesity often learn to adopt the role of the ‘jolly fat person’, which is often the only positive model provided for us by popular media. That’s the only role model I’ve been able to emulate. This has meant I’ve presented an outward confidence, when in fact my internal self-esteem has been a completely different story.

My social confidence. Social confidence is a personal thing, and as with self-esteem, many different factors can have an impact, but the stigmatising representation of people living with obesity in the media certainly had an impact on my social confidence. My friends would say I’m the “life of the party” and everybody loves to talk to me because I’m so friendly. But when I walk into a room, the first thing that goes through my mind is ‘Where can I stand where nobody will see me?’ and I feel incredibly uncomfortable in social situations. My apparent social confidence is a pretence, but I feel that I must maintain it so that people will accept me. And this is, in part, because of stigmatising portrayals of people living with obesity in the media.

My experience of healthcare. The stigmatisation of people living with obesity in the media affects everyone, shaping their attitudes and assumptions about people living with obesity. Research has begun to show that health professionals absorb the stigma in the media and, consciously and unconsciously, enact it in their practice. This is very detrimental to the health and wellbeing of people living with obesity who are attempting to access treatment. It is also just ethically unacceptable that an individual’s body size can be a barrier to accessing correct healthcare.

My quality of life. If I look back now, I can see that as a person living with obesity, my quality of life was, for many years, just horrendous. The way the media consistently devalued people with overweight or obesity contributed to that immensely. It meant that I struggled to form strong attachments in friendships and romantic relationships, because everything told me that I wasn’t desirable and would likely be rejected. This impacted my career as well. I wanted career progression, but I couldn’t believe it was possible. There is a good reason for this – Research now shows that weight-based stigma occurs at every stage of the employment cycle, and impacts on progression, particularly for women. Looking back, I can see that the devaluation of people with a larger body size in the media made me think that I wasn’t, and would never be, acceptable or good enough and this really held me back in key areas of my life.

How do things need to change?

I hope that one day those working in media will recognise the impact that stigmatising media content has had, and continues to have, on people living with obesity. I hope they will stop shaming and degrading people with obesity; stop misinforming the public; and stop embedding stigma in our society. 

Nadya Isack is a Champion and Patient Advocate for OEN UK.

This conversation continues in ‘Framing obesity, ending stigma: The change we need to see in the media‘ – read it here.

Read other posts published for the ‘Stand Up to Weight Stigma’ campaign: ‘Weight Stigma in Employment‘, ‘Weight Stigma at Work: Moving from analysis to action‘, and ‘Weight Stigma in the media‘.