Perceptions of obesity

Approximately one third of all children and half of all adults in the UK are above a healthy weight (overweight or obese).

But society doesn’t recognise who is overweight and who is obese. Public understandings of what is a healthy body size and shape have shifted as more and more people become overweight or obese. All too often, the way that a person looks is used to judge whether or not they are a healthy weight.

Looking at someone is not an accurate way of telling whether their weight is affecting their health. Public perceptions of what is a ‘healthy’ weight or shape tend to be based on cultural ideals rather than medical fact. For example, in countries where food is scarce having a larger body size may be seen as an indication of wealth and high status. In cultures that idealise thinness, the same body size would be seen as undesirable.  

Being overweight affects your health. Regardless of your racial or cultural background, being overweight has a negative impact on your health. Research shows that some ethnic groups suffer the health consequences of being overweight earlier than others, but having a BMI in the ‘obese’ range is always a good indication that your weight is affecting your health.

The media has contributed to our distorted perception of obesity. Newspapers and television programmes tend to use images of extreme obesity to illustrate stories about the dangers of overweight. Our perceptions of what is a healthy body size has shifted so we are less likely to see a person as overweight or obese until they are extremely overweight. This is particularly true in childhood.

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