Medical Humanities Award 2020: Communicating weight stigma through comic books

The AHRC Wellcome Trust Medical Humanities Awards 2020 celebrates the best of arts and humanities research that seeks to understand and transform the quality of life, health and wellbeing of the population. In this mini-series, we meet each of the 2020 winners as they share insight into their winning projects. In our first post, we hear from Dr Oli Williams, winner of the Best Early Career Research Award, and current THIS Institute Postdoctoral Fellow at King’s College London.

I recently received the Best Early Career Research prize in the Medical Humanities Awards for The Weight of Expectation project. The seed of the project was my doctoral research that explored how the ‘war on obesity’ promotes stigma and impacts people’s lives. But the water and light that allowed this seed to grow were my commitment to using research to support positive social change and collaborating with artists and designers to ensure that research is accessible and engaging for broad and diverse audiences.

I am a sociologist and through my doctoral research I sought to join the dots between inequality, health, and everyday life. I did this by analysing how government policies and social circumstances impact individual health and wellbeing. What particularly caught my attention was how policies designed to reduce health inequalities by addressing social inequalities (e.g., in housing, employment, income, education) often led to interventions in deprived areas that tried to get local people to ‘eat less and move more’. So, I attended weight loss groups set up in one of the most deprived neighbourhoods in England during an initiative to improve health through local regeneration. I observed how stigma associated with ‘obesity’ detrimentally impacts people’s health and discriminates against poorer sections of society. But such findings only go so far.

Dr Oli Williams presenting the Margaret Mead Award Lecture for Social Sciences at the British Science Festival 2018

What became clear to me during my PhD was that there is not an absence of evidence on the impact that social inequalities have on health – we have lots of evidence – but rather there is an absence of political will to act on it. And unfortunately, politicians can rarely be trusted to meaningfully address health inequalities without public pressure and protest. One way researchers can support calls for change is to present evidence related to social justice issues in accessible and engaging ways. This was why I co-founded the art collective, Act With Love (AWL).

The Weight of Expectation project was an AWL collaboration with illustrator Jade Sarson. Together we developed one of the publications from my PhD into an evidence-based comic that tells the story of how stigma associated with bodyweight and size gets under the skin and is felt in the flesh. In order to create opportunities to engage people with this work we created a touring exhibition of screen printed scenes from the comic. We took these works to public spaces including libraries, galleries, and the British Science Festival. This included a joint exhibition with photographer Abbie Trayler-Smith whose project, The Big O, explores similar themes. This gave me opportunities to talk with people from all walks of life about this research and why it is important.

Spread by Jade Sarson from comic book, The Weight of Expectation

Jade has a real talent for illustrating emotion. So many people, of all shapes and sizes, come up to me, describe a scene from the comic and say ‘that’s me – I’ve felt that’. While this is gratifying and reassuring – as it means we have tapped into a situation and feeling that lots of people have experienced – it is also depressing and worrying for the very same reason. Dominant yet discriminatory ideas about bodyweight, and the stigma they promote, need to be challenged. The Weight of Expectation comic has given me a way not only to agitate for change but to support it.

The comic helps me to communicate across disciplinary boundaries and is having international impact. It is used in health services and medical education around the world to support current healthcare professionals improve standards of care and to teach the next generation about the detrimental impacts of weight stigma. This work led to my involvement in a petition calling on Cancer Research UK (CRUK) to stop running stigmatising ‘obesity’ campaigns. The petition received public support, media coverage and led to constructive dialogue with CRUK. I was subsequently selected to contribute to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Obesity, and invited to speak at the parliamentary conference ‘How to Beat Obesity Stigma?’ Although I remain to be convinced of the transformative potential these spaces offer, helping to get this often-neglected issue on the agenda is at the very least a starting point.

I am now often referred to as ‘the comic guy’. I think it is sometimes said dismissively as, as I have written elsewhere, academia still regularly fails to recognise the value and importance of making evidence more accessible. Though more often than not I think it demonstrates that the comic speaks for itself – which is great! It is really pleasing to have the AHRC and Wellcome Trust recognise The Weight of Expectation project with a Medical Humanities Award. The more attention and recognition given to work on weight stigma the better because we are in drastic need of change. I intend to be ‘the comic guy’ who continues to capitalise on this interest, engagement, and attention to push for and support this change.

Find out more about the Act With Love (AWL) collective and what they do here, and order copies of the Weight of Expectation here. If you can put the comic to good use please contact Oli at oli.williams@kcl.ac.uk

Oli is supported by the Health Foundation’s grant to the University of Cambridge for The Healthcare Improvement Studies Institute.

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