Heroic and heavy: Samwell Tarly from Games of Thrones.

Heroic and heavy: Samwell Tarly from Games of Thrones. Photo: Supplied

The TV series Game of Thrones has its share of people who meet the usual criteria for on-screen hotness - curvy women with long flowing hair and lean men with determined jaws.  But it may also go down in history for turning some stereotypes on their heads. Along with a leading man who has achondroplasia, a form of dwarfism, there’s a hero who’s overweight. For anyone not glued to this program each Monday night, this is Sam, a soldier of the Night’s Watch who doesn’t let extra kilos get in the way of rescuing a woman and child from a terrifying predator, a White Walker.  

But this plays out on the mythical continent of Westeros.  Here in the real world people who are Sam-sized are more likely to be stereotyped as lazy and lacking self-discipline. For anyone who thinks this is a terrific incentive to lose weight, it seems the opposite is true. ‘Fat shaming’ is more likely to make weight problems  worse suggests a growing body of research, much of it from the US where it’s  estimated that the prevalence of weight discrimination has increased by 66 per cent in the last decade or so and is comparable to rates of racial discrimination.

The obesity haters have had their time in the sun. It's time to hear a different message. 

When overweight children are teased about their weight, they’re more likely to binge eat than children who aren’t teased about their size according to research from the University of Minnesota, while in a study from Yale University of 2400 women belonging to a weight loss support organisation, 79 per cent reported that they often coped with weight stigma by eating more food. Other research has found that adults who experience weight stigma are more likely to avoid exercise.

”We know that in Australia disordered eating is rising among people with obesity and we know that stigma can trigger binge eating and contribute to disordered eating,” says Dr Anita Star, a senior lecturer in nutrition and dietetics at Griffith University. “The next logical step is to tackle obesity stigma to try and reduce problems with disordered eating.”

Star believes we need a public health campaign to change attitudes towards obesity and, together with nutrition and dietetics student Madison King,  has created Obesity – Stop the Blame, a social marketing campaign using messages like ‘Obesity discrimination causes harm’ and ‘Obesity is complex’. It includes a poster showing a group of children teasing an overweight child that carries the message ‘Humanity is a powerful thing. You have the ability to empower or destroy a life. What will you choose to do?’

“Results of a small pilot campaign that we did showed that people can improve their attitude towards obese people once they know more about the complexity of the issue and the harm that discrimination can cause,” says Star who presents a workshop on the campaign at the Eating Disorders and Obesity Conference on the Gold Coast tomorrow. Her hope is that she can attract enough interest to develop a bigger campaign that reaches more people.

“We have to change the conversation around obesity.  It’s a complex problem that’s not just about willpower and personal responsibility. People are exposed to so much cheap processed food, and marketing has a huge influence on what people eat. We’re also learning more about other factors contributing to weight gain including the impact of genes and early childhood nutrition.”

It’s no longer acceptable to discriminate against people because of skin colour or gender, but those who are overweight are still fair game, she adds.  When the media runs a story on Australia’s obesity problem you can bet that it won’t be illustrated by an overweight woman working out at the gym or tossing a ball to a child. Predictably there’ll be an image of an overweight person either eating junk food or sitting down - or both – and if they happen to be standing, they’ll be shown in a way that emphasises the size of their belly.  

Even health promotion campaigns aiming to reduce obesity can add to the problem, says Star pointing to West Australia’s LightenUp campaign showing a man squeezing the rolls of fat around his waist, followed by a graphic image of what excess fat looks like under the skin – a mass of yellow visceral fat smothering internal organs. While it’s true that this hidden fat is harmful and we   need to avoid it, Star believes that what might work for tobacco – gruesome images of damaged bodies, along with hints of blame and shame – can backfire with obesity.

“Rather than motivate change, shaming and blaming can make people feel worse about themselves, contributing to depression, binge eating and further weight gain,” she says.  “The obesity haters have had their time in the sun – it’s time to hear a different message.”