Article Highlight: Vol. 41, Issue 3, “Shame, Blame, and Status Incongruity: Health and Stigma in Rural Brazil and the Urban United Arab Emirates”

This week on the blog we are highlighting a paper by Lesley Jo Weaver and Sarah Trainer entitled Shame, Blame, and Status Incongruity: Health and Stigma in Rural Brazil and the Urban United Arab Emirates. The authors build on sociologist Erving Goffman’s classic notion of stigma as a social phenomenon to investigate the stigma attached to two seemingly disparate conditions: food insecurity in rural Brazil, and obesity in the urban United Arab Emirates. The authors’ analyses emphasize that both circumstances are stigmatized because they represent a deviation from a deeply-held social norm. Additionally, in both cases, the stigma related with food insecurity and obesity is likely at least as damaging to personal wellbeing as are the biological effects of these conditions. To close, Weaver and Trainer suggest that these forms of stigma transcend individuals and are principally structural in their origins. Viewing stigma as a common element of the human condition refocuses the analytic lens toward structural-level factors that need to be addressed in order to improve human wellbeing.


Weaver and Trainer begin by discussing the theoretical grounding of stigma. Frequently defined as an indicator of disgrace signifying physical, moral, or social flaw, stigma is a powerful determinant of physical and mental health. Whether externally imposed by others or internalized and self-directed, stigma may come from or produce feelings of shame and embarrassment. Sociologist Erving Goffman described stigma as a “single social process uniting a dizzying range of conditions and behaviors… Stigma is stigma because it is ‘fundamentally discrediting’—that is, it is perceived to index something inherently negative about a person.”

Precisely because stigma draws on core beliefs held by mainstream society and has consequences for both physical and mental health, stigma should be a public health concern. Having a unitary conception of stigma can be operationalized as status incongruity—that is, the potentially measurable difference between culturally held attitudes of what people should be or achieve in a given realm, and what they are actually able to be or achieve.

Food insecurity is defined as a lack of secure access to safe and culturally appropriate foods at all times. Food security is often stigmatized since it may be a public symbol of poverty, or force one to have to obtain food in socially unacceptable ways. Even when not visible, food insecurity often generates self-directed stigma, often with damaging psychological impacts and experiences of status incongruity.

While clinically obese bodies are an epidemiological norm worldwide, they are rarely socially normalized in modern Western cultures. Further, evidence suggests that obesity stigma has increased along with increasing global obesity. Obesity cannot easily be hidden, and therefore stigma acts through both internal shame and external blame, which distinguishes it in profound ways from food insecurity. Stereotypically, obesity stigma stems from a combination of Western beauty ideals of aesthetic thinness and increased risk of ill health, along with moral beliefs that obesity signals lack of control. Further, obesity now can serve as a visible marker of poverty in many cultural settings, signaling status incongruity.

The authors discuss two different case studies—Brazil and the UAE—precisely because the severity of the differences between the settings exemplifies the powerful underlying similarities in the ways stigma influences health and well-being through feelings of shame, blame, status incongruity, and social isolation.

Weaver’s research in rural Northern Brazil focused largely around food insecurity and mental health. Ethnographic research conducted in urban Brazil establishes that bodies are read as high or low status, and weight and body shape are a key part of that. There is also an agreed-upon set of factors that signal the “good life.” These signals include things such as the ownership of a television and computer, participation in leisure activities, and the attainment of a desirable body shape. Some food items signal luxury and abundance while others carry stigma because they indicate humbleness, if not outright poverty.

Household food insecurity scores collected from pilot study phases were associated rather strongly with symptoms of depression among heads of household. The depression associated with food insecurity in this setting may be a result of the understandable stresses of having limited resources, but potentially also a result of the shame related to having to eat low-status foods or engage in non-normative food behaviors, such not being able to invite neighbors to eat or reciprocate sharing food.

Many people reported that they were unaware of food insecurity in the community, despite the authors’ documentation of its frequency. It appears in this setting that the harmful effects of food insecurity on mental health might stem more from self-stigmatization of one’s own food insecurity than from active stigmatization by others. The authors state they suspect that shame and self-stigma surrounding food insecurity motivates people to hide it.

In the United Arab Emirates, the authors’ discussion of stigma focuses on interwoven behavioral and aesthetic norms, and stigma related to perceptions of deviations from these norms. Food and eating patterns, as well as bodies and body norms, have seen particularly profound changes over the course of only twenty or thirty years of intense socioeconomic, structural, and cultural shifts. Despite the conspicuous consumption and wealth on display in the UAE, poverty and food insecurity are also present within the local population and foreign workers, but again the social pressure to hide such deprivation was intense.

Much more publicly considered in the UAE is the growing apprehension over obesity and associated chronic diseases. While “fatness” was once a desirable physical characteristic, especially in women who were expected to “fill out their skins” in order to display familial wealth, today young people reliably express physical female beauty ideals that aspire to an hour-glass shape, while stigmatizing bodies categorized as too fat or too skinny.

At issue here are “bodies that don’t conform.” The implications of lack of cultural consonance with body norms in this context are serious. In the UAE, the recipients of stigma are very thin or obese bodies, and in Brazil, the recipients are people experiencing food insecurity. The moral discourse around these issues, the ways in which this stigma is enacted, and the importance of specific types of stigma over others varies in important ways between research sites, however. The relative importance of internal versus external stigma in each case is likely related to the fact that one condition (food insecurity) can be hidden, while the other (obesity) cannot.

For the authors, a second common element linking these two cases of stigma is the fact that each signifies a departure from a social norm, accompanied by intense social isolation. Third, both food insecurity and obesity have well documented consequences for physical health, as well as important but poorly understood consequences for mental and social health. Weaver and Trainer states that these common features suggest stigma around food insecurity and obesity can be conceptualized as two “outlets” for the same social phenomenon: “health stigma.”

The authors conclude by asserting a useful implication of considering stigma as a single social phenomenon is that it refocuses away from the individual and toward structural causes of stigma. While the everyday issue of stigma is enacted on the individual level, stigma is only stigma because people concur at a larger population level that a position is stigma-worthy. Focusing on the commonalities between stigma experiences functions as an important reminder that stigma is not just personal but also collective. Policy implications of stigma-as-structure have largely been overlooked.

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Book Release: “Fat Planet: Obesity, Culture, and Symbolic Body Capital”

This week we are highlighting a recent book release from the University of New Mexico Press entitled Fat Planet: Obesity, Culture, and Symbolic Body Capital (2017), edited by Eileen Anderson-Fye and Alexandra Brewis. As a reminder, in June the CMP blog will be switching to our bi-weekly summer schedule.

Photo via UNM Press

The average size of human bodies all over the world has been steadily rising over recent decades. The total count of people clinically labeled “obese” is now at least three times what it was in 1980. Around the world, governments and other organizations are deploying urgent anti-obesity initiatives. However, one unintended consequence of these efforts to tackle the “obesity epidemic” has been the increasing stigmatization of “fat” people. This rapid proliferation of fat stigma has profound implications for both human suffering and disease. Fat Planet represents a collaborative effort to consider at a global scale what fat stigma is and what it does to people.

Making use of an array of social science perspectives applied in multiple settings, the authors examine the interplay of weight, wealth, history, culture, and meaning to fat and its social rejection. They explore the notion of symbolic body capital — the power of non-fat bodies to do what people need or want. They also investigate how fat stigma relates to other forms of bias and intolerance, such as sexism and racism. In so doing, they illustrate the complex and quickly shifting dynamics in thinking about fat — often considered deeply personal yet powerfully influenced by and influential upon the broader world in which we live. They reveal the profoundly nuanced ways in which people and societies not only tolerate, but even sometimes embrace, new forms of stigma in an increasingly globalized planet.

Chapters include:

  • Making Sense of the New Global Body Norms. Alexandra Brewis
  • From Thin to Fat and Back Again: A Dual Process Model of the Big Body Mass Reversal. Daniel J. Hruschka
  • Managing Body Capital in the Fields of Labor, Sex, and Health. Alexander Edmonds and Ashley Mears
  • Fat and Too Fat: Risk and Protection for Obesity Stigma in Three Countries. Eileen P. Anderson-Fye, Stephanie M. McClure, Maureen Floriano, Arundhati Bharati, Yunzhu Chen, and Caryl James
  • Excess Gaines and Losses: Maternal Obesity, Infant Mortality, and the Biopolitics of Blame. Monica J. Casper
  • Symbolic Body Capitol of an “Other” Kind: African American Females as a Bracketed Subunit in Female Body Valuation. Stephanie M. McClure
  • Fat Is a Linguistic Issue: Discursive Negotiation of Power, Identity, and the Gendered Body among Youth. Nicole L. Taylor
  • Body Size, Social Standing, and Weight Management: The View from Fiji. Anne E. Becker
  • Glocalizing Beauty: Weight and Body Image in the New Middle East. Sarah Trainer
  • Fat Matters: Capitol, Markets, and Morality. Rebecca J. Lester and Eileen Anderson-Fye

For more information, visit the University of New Mexico Press website, available here.


Dr. Eileen Anderson-Fye is a medical and psychological anthropologist, and the founding director of the Medicine, Society, and Culture (MSC) Master’s Degree track in Bioethics at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine. Drawn to interdisciplinary study as an undergraduate, Dr. Anderson-Fye developed the MSC degree track for students to explore how factors beyond biomedical science contribute to health and wellness. Social and cultural constructs, historical and rhetorical influences, literature, and philosophy all shape perceptions of health, illness, and recovery, which in turn affect choices, beliefs, and behaviors. Those who appreciate this complex and multi-layered interplay will be able to play pivotal roles in enhancing how care is delivered – and the outcomes it yields.

Dr. Anderson-Fye’s perspective on these issues has been informed by extensive research on the mental health and well-being of adolescents and young adults in contexts of socio-cultural change. Her most enduring project is an ongoing longitudinal study of how subjective perceptions of current and future well-being allowed the first mass-educated cohort of Belizean schoolgirls to overcome severe threats to their mental and physical health. More recently, she led a team’s study of the psychiatric medication experiences of undergraduates at North American university campuses, where a mix of quantitative and qualitative methods revealed stark differences between reported and actual usage. Dr. Anderson-Fye is writing a book about the findings and their implications; it is tentatively titled, Young, Educated and Medicated. Dr. Anderson-Fye has an A.B. From Brown University in American Civilization.  She earned her M.Ed. and Ed.D. in Human Development and Psychology from Harvard University. Her training has included work at Harvard Medical School in the Department of Social Medicine and Massachusetts General Hospital, and postdoctoral fellowships in Interdisciplinary Studies of Culture and Neuroscience and Culture, Brain and Development at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience in the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

Dr. Alexandra Brewis is a President’s Professor and Distinguished Sustainability Scientist at Arizona State University, where she also co-leads the translational Mayo Clinic-ASU Obesity Solutions initiative and serves as the associate vice president of Social Sciences. Her research interests includes how and why effective obesity solutions are undermined by weight stigma, damaging and distressing for millions of people and is rapidly spreading globally.

Dr. Brewis has a PhD in Anthropology from University of Arizona and was an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation postdoctoral fellow in anthropological demography at the Population Studies and Training Center at Brown University. Before joining ASU, she taught at the University of Auckland in New Zealand and University of Georgia. At ASU, Dr. Brewis served as Director of the School of Human Evolution and Social Change from 2009-2017.

Article Highlight: Vol. 41, Issue 1, “‘They Treat you a Different Way:’ Public Insurance, Stigma, and the Challenge to Quality Health Care”

This week we are highlighting “They Treat you a Different Way:” Public Insurance, Stigma, and the Challenge to Quality Health Care by Anna C. Martinez-Hume, Allison M. Baker, Hannah S. Bell, Isabel Montemayor, Kristan Elwell, and Linda M. Hunt. The authors argue that stigma is a public health issue which should be addressed in Medicaid policy. Even though Medicaid eligibility is expanding to include more low-income adults, issues within the social context of public insurance and the experience of stigma may result in increased disparities in health care.

In this article, the authors examined the experiences of stigma when using public insurance as described by a group of low-income individuals eligible for Medicaid in Michigan and how such stigma influences their health-seeking behavior. Social scientists have long been concerned with the impacts of stigma on an individual’s social identity. Sources of stigma affecting health care experiences may include race, class, gender, and illness-status, all of which have serious consequences for health status. Underutilized care, delayed care, forgoing tests, infrequent check-ups, and lower quality of life have all been linked to health care stigma.

Patients in this study often reported stigmatization based on having public insurance, or no insurance, and reported feeling ignored, disrespected, or overlooked. As patients experience low satisfaction with their health care providers, the result is often missed follow-up appointments, changes in their providers, and reluctance to access necessary services. The authors discuss that groups who experience stigma in the health care system are most likely to be individuals who enter into the system as already stigmatized patients.

Racial categories within health care structures also distinguish between types of people, often leading providers to unknowingly treat some patients differently than others. The authors discuss how providers are taught through their medical training, published articles, and clinical guidelines to presume racial and ethnic groups share genetic, socio-economic, and cultural characteristics. These assumptions ignore complex social problems and highlight the multidimensional processes of differential treatment in health care.

Understanding the intersectionality of personal attributes, such as race or illness-status, and public insurance status can improve the appreciation for how experiences of stigma are compounded. Clinical encounters which manifest stigma have important health consequences for patients.

From their research, the authors explore participants’ stories about being treated differently while receiving Medicaid coverage and focused on two central stigma themes: receiving poor quality care, and experiencing negative interpersonal interactions.

One example of receiving rushed or poor quality of care comes from a woman named Destiny. She recounted her experience of taking her son to a clinic:

“The wait was an hour long…and then they were very quick with us, they didn’t take their time to ask questions…It’s like they weren’t patients, they were just another number, you know, to get them out the door, and the next one in… [The doctor] just sent us on our way without even fully understanding what the problem was… [My son] had a really bad cold or bronchitis and I told the doctor before he’s allergic to amoxicillin, penicillin, and he actually wrote him an amoxicillin script. It was in his file. He didn’t even read through his file.”

Mistreatment by staff or health care personnel based on public insurance status included shaming, being disrespected or ignored, not being believed, or being patronized. Shannon described her negative interpersonal interactions:

“When we had Blue Cross and Blue Shield, we were treated much differently even by the receptionist. People treat you differently. They look at you differently… I sometimes don’t want to pull out my green [Medicaid] card when I’m in the line at the pharmacy…the lady in front of me has a Blue Cross Blue Shield card and the way they talked to her or interact with her…is much different than when I roll up with my green card and my cardboard [Medicaid health plan] card. It’s ‘here, sign this, birth date, co-pay, have a great day.’”

These stigmatized experiences often lead to discontinuity of care and even resistance to returning to these facilities for care. The authors consider an especially concerning story from Carrie, whose stigma experience is amplified by her HIV-positive status:

“My doctor asked me to swab myself one time when I was being tested for STDs… How the hell can you work in infectious disease and you don’t want to swab me? Like okay, I can do that. But how humiliating is that? I’m switching doctors…I just don’t want to go. I want to be able to sit down and talk to somebody about what’s going on with me because I’ve been missing medicine, and that’s serious. It’s a serious thing, and they’re so callous to it.”

As the authors’ research elaborates, Medicaid use has long carried a stigma in the United States as a symbol of waste and excess of the welfare system. This carries with it a set of assumptions about the individuals who rely on these resources. The social construction of low-income individuals who enroll in Medicaid characterizes these people as lazy, willingly unemployed, less educated, and ultimately, undeserving. Inequitable health care received under the stigma of public insurance is fundamentally a public health issue, creating further disadvantages for the health of already vulnerable people.