Weight Stigma Research: Kirsten Haglund, Miss America 2008

BEDA promotes cultural acceptance of, and respect for, the natural diversity of sizes, as well as promoting a goal of improved health, which may or may not include weight change.  The views expressed by our featured bloggers are their own.

Kirsten Headshot

Originally from Farmington Hills, Michigan, Kirsten Haglund had the honor of serving as Miss America 2008. During that time, she served as Goodwill Ambassador for the Children’s Miracle Network and was a tireless advocate for increased awareness of Eating Disorders as a public health priority. She is now Community Relations Specialist for Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center, a NEDA Ambassador, and television personality, having appeared on Fox News Channel, CNN, HLN, Fox Business Network, and Huff Post Live to comment on youth in politics and women’s health issues. 

In February of 2009, she founded the Kirsten Haglund Foundation, whose mission is to fundraise to provide treatment scholarships to assist families and individuals battling eating disorders. Kirsten graduated from Emory University in 2013 with a B.A. in Political Science.

Changing Hearts & Minds: The Power of Pathos and Logos in the Fight Against Weight Stigma

I am an advocate. I have been since I had the great honor of serving as Miss America in 2008. An advocate for what? The greater awareness of eating disorders, their serious health consequences, and the stigma that surrounds mental health illnesses in general. As someone who suffered and recovered from anorexia nervosa as a teenage ballet dancer, I found strength in sharing my story of recovery with others, and found my motivation for advocacy: that other young men and women would not have to suffer in silence from an eating disorder, like I did, and could be empowered to get the help they so desperately needed and deserved. This was and remains, my lifelong goal.

But in advocating for awareness, there came the realization that the struggle is about more than just eating disorders. Due to the current “trend” in fat shaming, the focus on the “obesity epidemic,” and our society’s obsession with thinness and “not being fat,” – the fight against eating disorders has become larger. It has become a fight that includes the stigma against those who are not of the “ideal” shape and size, the blatant discrimination against those that don’t fit the mold of perfect “health.” It has become advocacy for acceptance, and for common-sense thinking about our bodies and our weight.

In my travels across the country as a speaker and advocate, I see an alarming trend emerging: many law and policy makers, teachers, parents, and even physicians think it is okay to “speak frankly” (when in reality, they are “fat-shaming”) about children’s and their patient’s weight, thinking that stigma can be a positive motivator for weight-loss. However, as we all in the eating disorder field know (again, common sense here, folks) – shaming and discriminatory remarks only lead to low self-esteem, low motivation to improve one’s health (if they indeed are unhealthily to begin with), depression, anxiety and an increased risk of developing an eating disorder. Now, we have research to prove this common sense, and the most recent research has the power to turn the tide against those who promote weight stigma on the faulty notion that it increases health outcomes.

Where’s the Research?

I am asked, ad nauseum, by lawmakers, their staffers, teachers, coaches and members of the media this simple question: “Where is the research?” Where is the data that supports the claim that weight stigma and weight-ism doesn’t motivate an individual to develop a healthy lifestyle, but actually hurts them? The answer is in Dr. Rebeccas Puhl’s groundbreaking research at Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity. Anyone can go online to the Center’s site to access the latest data. A 2010 study by Puhl and Heuer in the American Journal of Public Health validated what we know intuitively:

  • With the current body of evidence, it is apparent that, as with other stigmas, weight stigma has negative implications for public health. Weight stigma threatens the psycho- logical and physical health of obese individuals, impedes the implementation of effective efforts to prevent obesity, and exacerbates health disparities. (Puhl & Heuer, 2010).

The Yale Daily News reported on Puhl’s latest study (Sept. 2013), which examines the impact of physician bias and stereotyping of overweight or obese patients, which can lead to negative health outcomes.  The Daily News writes on the study’s findings:

  • 56 percent of mental health professionals had heard colleagues make negative comments about patients’ obesity, 35 percent reported that their colleagues feel uncomfortable treating their obese patients and 64 percent believe that obese patients do not follow recommended courses of treatment. The professionals themselves also displayed a lack of faith in obese patients — 76 percent said they are not confident that obese patients can maintain weight loss, with 16 percent claiming that they think obese patients have “no willpower.” (Yale Daily News, 9/17/13)

The International Journal of Obesity, the American Journal of Public Health, and brave scientists like Puhl and her colleagues are on the cutting edge of weight stigma research. They give us, the advocates, the tools to answer that often asked question: “Where’s the Research?” Well, here it is – long overdue, but it’s here. Now, we can prove weight stigma doesn’t “work,” and that overcoming this last acceptable form of discrimination is worth the effort. Because of the research, we can make convincing arguments. We can prove it.

Research Changing the Conversation

As an advocate, my power comes from my own narrative, as well as sharing the stories of the hundreds of families I’ve met, whose daughter or son has died from complications of their eating disorder, or committed suicide because the pain and bullying were too much to bear. These are emotional pleas for change – they are the heart of our fight against weight stigma and the stigma of mental illness.

But now, we can be armed with more than just pathos. Research and data prove the emotional argument and add substance, logos. They create long-lasting change.

We have seen it with the HIV/AIDS epidemic, we have seen in with Breast Cancer and other forms of cancer. We are beginning to see it with depression. Where there is research to fight the misjudgments and misperceptions regarding a public health issue, there comes freedom and the slow elimination of acceptable discrimination. However, as Puhl & Heuer note in their 2010 study, while public funding for research and awareness campaigns regarding HIV/AIDS, Cancer and digestive issue is in the billions of dollars, research regarding obesity and the effects of it’s public health campaigns is a paltry $658 million. In comparing obesity and eating disorders to other public health issues, we see there is hope to create a broader awareness and decreased stigma – but we have a long way to go.

Research is the catalyst that is changing the conversation.

As an advocate, I have growing hope that numbers, together with stories, have the power to change people’s minds. The numbers give voices like mine the ability to prove to those that have the power to fund, and to change laws, that our stories cannot be ignored.  Stigma and discrimination based on weight and body shape have serious physical and mental health consequences. The voices of advocates, together with groundbreaking research, can together change hearts and minds to think more broadly about these issues.

Health is more than weight, more than a number, more than a shape. Health is a state of body, mind, and soul. The more we judge based on appearance alone, the more faulty and damaging our conclusions about health become. However, it is the stories of recovery and survival, coupled with the research about weight stigma that can lead to lasting change. Advocacy and research are transforming the culture — hearts, and minds — together.