What is weight stigma and why is it so harmful?
It’s Weight Stigma Awareness week and I thought it would be a great time to discuss weight stigma. What weight stigma is, why it is harmful to people of all sizes and how we can all play our part to minimise it.
So, what is weight stigma?
Weight stigma (also known as weight discrimination or weight bias), is discrimination and/or stereotyping based on a person’s size. It’s on our television screens, it’s in the advertising and marketing we are subjected to and we also hear it from people around us. People in larger bodies are lazy and unfit. They are uncontrollable around food. They are ‘unhealthy’ and destined for an early death. There is also the aspect that of weight stigma that affects all of us. The fear of gaining weight, or being or becoming fat, which is also known as ‘fatphobia’.
Although weight stigma can affect all bodies, the implications are much more harmful for those who live in fat bodies and are subjected to this ongoing bias.
Where does weight stigma occur?
There are so many places where weight stigma lives but one of the most damaging and dangerous ones is within the medical and healthcare industry.
I read the horror stories on social media, I hear it from my clients and I too, have experienced it.
In the midst of my eating disorder (and in a much smaller body than I’m in now), my old GP would weigh me and discuss my weight during every consult regardless of why I was there. If I had a cold, if I was struggling with my mental health, it always turned into a discussion about my weight. I was told to excerise more, cut out certain food groups and engage in a dieititan to help me. So I would diet, restrict, lose the weight, feel miserable in my body, deprived of food and then binge, gain the weight back and then some. I couldn’t tell them that it wasn’t as easy as ‘losing weight’. That my relationship with my body and with food was complicated because the stigma made it seem like it was my fault. If I just tried harder, I could lose weight and all would be okay.
At the time I didn’t think anything of it but looking back now, I can see this approach contributed heavily to my eating disorder and has actually resulted in a considerable amount of weight gain.
There is a lack of awareness about weight stigma and the negative affects within the medical industry, especially when it comes to treating eating disorders.
Eating disorders affect people in all body sizes. However, if your body doesn’t look like you are engaging in disordered eating (eg. you’re not visibly unwell, haven’t lost a significant amount of weight), it can be incredibly difficult to receive a diagnosis. Weight stigma can also prevent people with eating disorders from seeking support and treatment because they fear weight gain in recovery.
Friends, family and the people around us
There is a common misconception that criticising, judging and shaming someone for their weight helps them to lose weight. People (usually those in smaller bodies) feel it is their responsibility to ‘help’ people in larger bodies lose weight by making comments about their body, their food intake and their clothing choices. It’s disgused as ‘tough love’ or because they’re concerned about their loved ones. Sometimes, it even comes from a stranger.
People in larger bodies are subjected to unsolicited advice about weight loss, abuse, harrassment and comments for strangers. If I had a dollar for every troll comment I received online about my body, I would be making a nice little side income!
In addition to critical comments, there are the words of encouragement or praise for larger-bodied people engaging in ‘healthy’ behaviours. “Oh, you’re eating a salad, good girl, “You went to the gym today, you’re so good!”. Although on the surface they seem like they are positive comments, they are actually quite harmful and contribute to weight stigma.
People in larger bodies are used as promotional material to get people into a gym. ‘Before’ photos of depressed fatties are transformed into ‘Happily Ever After’ photos of people who have successfully ‘beaten the bulge’. Memberships are sold via the premise that bigger bodies are horrible and you should do everything you can to avoid getting fat. Many clients I have worked with have struggled to enjoy exercise because they feel the pressure to lose weight in these environment. There is the weigh-ins and measurements, 6-week challenges, focus on calories and macros and the trainers yelling ‘REMEMBER WHY YOU’RE HERE’. Uh, I’m definitely not here to get fat-shamed.
Believe it or not, some people in larger bodies actually enjoy exercising without the desire to lose weight.
It can happen on a train or on the bus, when other commuters avoid sitting next to people in larger bodies (I personally would love you to not to sit next to me, especially if you’re a fatphobic twat – but this happens!).
I see and hear about it on airplanes, where the seats are getting smaller to cram more people in. Those in larger bodies are forced to declare their fatness by stick up their hand for a seatbelt extender. They are complained about in the newspapers by the smaller-bodied folk sitting next to them. Sometimes, they are even spending double just to purchase an additional seat out of comfort and to prevent being shamed by their potential neighbour. They are prohibited from emergency exit row seating if they are wearing a seatbelt extender because people in larger bodies couldn’t possibly be capable of helping out in an emergency.
It’s the inaccessible chair sizes in restaurants and cinemas, toilet stalls that are designed so poorly that you end up with one butt cheek on the toilet and the other on the sanitary bin. Don’t even get me started on the difficulties of manoeuvring in and out of the cubicle.
Why weight stigma is harmful?
Weight stigma is a risk for body dissatisfaction, low self-esteem and mental illness (including but not limited to eating disorders, depression and anxiety). It can prevent people from seeking medical treatment due to the fear of being judged by medical practitioners or the belief that their concerns won’t be valid and listened to. In some cases, it can result in a misdiagnosis due to failure to run appropriate tests.
It’s convincing a patient in a larger body that getting weight-loss surgery will solve their problems, cure their infertility, and heal any physical and psychological issues without getting to the core of what’s going on.
It is the fuel that sparks eating disorders, it causes incredibly complicated relationships with food and exercise and leaves people feeling like they are worthless, for simply existing in the body that they have.
How can we help prevent weight stigma in the community?
- Be compassionate and kind. Remember, that someone else’s body is absolutely NONE of your business. Just because you feel uncomfortable, you do not have the right to make judgements about someone else’s body.
- If you live in a smaller body, recognise your privileges (eg. being able to find your size in most clothing stores, not being criticised for eating a burger etc.). Recognising your privilege doesn’t mean your body image issues are not valid.
- Follow people in larger bodies on social media, engage with them and listen to their experiences. Some great accounts fat activist accounts are The Body Image Therapist, Dani Adriana, Your Fat Friend, The Friend I Never Wanted, and so many more!
- If you witness fat-shaming, fatphobic remarks or weight stigma in your life – call it out and educate other about how damaging it can be.
- Stop saying “I feel fat” when you’re having a bad body image day or you’ve eaten something “bad”. Fat is not a feeling and by using the word in this context you are implying fat is bad and are contributing to weight stigma.
Have you ever experienced weight stigma? How did it affect you? Let me know in the comments below.