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Comic launch and art exhibition challenge obesity stigma

22 June 2018

A new comic exploring how our culture stigmatises larger body sizes is launching in Bristol on 19 July, as part of an exhibition running from 17 to 21 July. The Weight of Expectation, or WoE, tells the story of how stigma associated with bodyweight and size gets under the skin and is felt in the flesh.

The Weight of Expectation is the result of art collective Act With Love’s collaboration with illustrator Jade Sarson to visualise the research of sociologist Oli Williams.

Screen prints from comic will be on show alongside a selection of work from photographer Abbie Trayler-Smith’s The Big O Project, an intimate study of the children behind the obesity statistics. In 2014, Abbie won second prize in the World Press Photo Staged Portraits category for Shannon, a photo from The Big O Project. A book of the photographs from the project will be published next year.

Drawing on the same themes of stigma and weight, The Weight of Expectation is based on the experiences of people who attended NHS-subsidised weight-loss groups in one of the most deprived neighbourhoods in England. Education packs of 10 comics are available free of charge for anyone who can put the comic to good use in their practice, from teaching to health services.

Jade is a Lincoln-based illustrator and comic artist whose style is a fusion of British roots with Japanese influences, combining digital and traditional techniques. In 2013 she was nominated for Best Emerging Talent in the British Comic Awards, and in 2014 won the Myriad Editions First Graphic Novel competition with For the Love of God, Marie!.

Oli’s research focuses on health inequalities and social change. Currently at the University of Leicester’s SAPPHIRE (Social Science APPlied to Healthcare Improvement REsearch) group, he held the NIHR CLAHRC West Dan Hill Fellowship in Health Equity from 2016-17. He is a co-founder of Act With Love, along with his brother Joe, and recently spoke about his research and the WoE project on the popular Don’t Salt My Game podcast hosted by Laura Thomas.

Ahead of the exhibition, Oli said:

“There is a clear link between social inequality and obesity. Despite this the strategy for the war that has been declared on the ‘obesity epidemic’ places blame on the individual for their condition rather than more seriously addressing the social factors which make a ‘healthy lifestyle’ an unrealistic aim for many in society.

“This comic is based on the experiences of people who were not lacking in motivation – they attended a weekly weight-loss group – but still struggled to maintain a so-called healthy lifestyle due to the challenges they faced in everyday life.

“One challenge which we pay specific attention to in this comic is weight-based stigma. My research has shown that if the goal is to promote health this stigma is both unhelpful and ineffective. So we wanted to illustrate in the comic how it impacts people’s lives and actually acts as a barrier to the adoption of health promoting behaviours like being physically active. We felt it was important to do this because a better understanding of the effects of stigma would help to improve public health.

“The WoE comic tells the story of how stigma associated with bodyweight and size gets under the skin and is felt in the flesh. It has been gratifying but depressing that so many people have recognised their own experiences in our comic. We would all benefit from a different approach to health promotion being taken, so let’s come together and call for change.”

The exhibition will be on display from 17 to 21 July at the Christmas Steps Gallery, Bristol BS1 5BS. The work can be seen from Christmas Steps when the gallery is closed, but the space will be open 11am-7pm, when limited edition prints will be available to buy, with all money going back to supporting the WoE project. Free copies of the comic will be available for all visitors.

There will be a special launch event on 19 July where Oli will give a talk about the project and chair a panel discussion between 6.30-7.30pm. The panel will include the comic artist Jade and photographer Abbie. This will be followed by a signing session where Jade and Oli can sign copies of The Weight of Expectation.

WoE was funded by the Wellcome Trust, NIHR CLAHRC West, NIHR CLAHRC East Midlands, Attenborough Arts Centre and the University of Leicester.

Comic launch and art exhibition challenge obesity stigma
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