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Open Access Highly Accessed Correspondence

The body politic: the relationship between stigma and obesity-associated disease

Peter Muennig

Author affiliations

Department of Health Policy and Management, Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University, New York, USA

Citation and License

BMC Public Health 2008, 8:128  doi:10.1186/1471-2458-8-128

Published: 21 April 2008

Abstract

Background

It is commonly believed that the pathophysiology of obesity arises from adiposity. In this paper, I forward a complementary explanation; this pathophysiology arises not from adiposity alone, but also from the psychological stress induced by the social stigma associated with being obese.

Methods

In this study, I pursue novel lines of evidence to explore the possibility that obesity-associated stigma produces obesity-associated medical conditions. I also entertain alternative hypotheses that might explain the observed relationships.

Results

I forward four lines of evidence supporting the hypothesis that psychological stress plays a role in the adiposity-health association. First, body mass index (BMI) is a strong predictor of serological biomarkers of stress. Second, obesity and stress are linked to the same diseases. Third, body norms appear to be strong determinants of morbidity and mortality among obese persons; obese whites and women – the two groups most affected by weight-related stigma in surveys – disproportionately suffer from excess mortality. Finally, statistical models suggest that the desire to lose weight is an important driver of weight-related morbidity when BMI is held constant.

Conclusion

Obese persons experience a high degree of stress, and this stress plausibly explains a portion of the BMI-health association. Thus, the obesity epidemic may, in part, be driven by social constructs surrounding body image norms.