September 28 – October 2, 2020 is Weight Stigma Awareness Week (#WSAW2020). We are collaborating with @neda to #EndWeightHate by eliminating stigma and discrimination based on body size. Help #EndWeightHate and spread the message that all bodies are worthy. www.myneda.org/wsaw
Weight stigma is so prevalent in our society, you might not even be aware of it. The definition, according to the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) is “discrimination or stereotyping based on a person’s weight.”
It is a significant risk factor in the development of eating disorders, depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem. It happens in all areas of life and may be more prevalent than gender or age discrimination. People who have experienced it indicate that it happens most often with healthcare providers and family members. And it happens in media all the time, so much so that we do not even really notice it! This means, essentially, that we accept it without thinking about it.
My hope would be that if you are reading this, you want to challenge your thinking and your stigma to change how you look at yourself and others.
Being concerned with your appearance is normal, especially when we consider that ‘attractive’ people are afforded several advantages in our society – at work, in school, in a court of law, socially. Attractiveness has many components and changes over time – this is also normal and has been true throughout history and in all cultures (though criteria are very different). The degree of difference between normal concern, vanity, and obsession is where stigma lives and thrives.
We all have implicit bias about any number of things we encounter in our world – bias is really just a different word for preferences, and we all prefer some things over others. Bias is, in and of itself, not a negative thing, though we often use the words ‘bias’ and ‘stigma’ to mean something negative or judgmental. Stigma, though, subjugates groups of people. Janet Tomiyama, a weight-stigma researcher, defines weight stigma is “the social devaluation and denigration of people perceived to carry excess weight, which leads to prejudice, negative stereotyping, and discrimination toward those people” (Tomiyama 2014).
Changing how you think is, always, easier said than done. The first step in changing stigma is to become aware of it. Here are some questions, based on a healthcare journal for providers, that may help you think about your weight bias:
- What assumptions do I make based on weight? These may relate to a person’s character, intelligence, professional success, health status, or lifestyle.
- Am I comfortable working with or even just being around people of all shapes and sizes? Do I think about if they are comfortable in our environment?
- Do I use stigma-free language when talking about weight? Do I use words like fat, heavy, or unhealthy to label people, even in my own thoughts? Do I use “weight-centric” or inclusive language?
- Am I more negative when talking about weight than I would be with other bias issues – gender, race, sexual orientation? Why?
- Do I say things about higher weight people that I would not want them to hear?
- Do I make negative comments about my own weight that I would not want others to hear?
Weight stigma can also be seen as a misguided attempt to shame people into being healthy – and decades of research show us it does not work. We equate thinness with health – and that simply does not track. The real risk factor is the stigma itself. The myriad of ways we treat overweight and obese people differently all contribute to stress, distrust, and exclusion. Just few examples:
- Overweight kids are more likely to be bullied.
- Healthcare providers are more likely to blame weight for various issues – even COVID! They are also the most frequent perpetrators of weight stigma.
- It is more acceptable to stare at or ignore someone who is overweight than it is to do so based on other types of discrimination.
- Here are some more examples...
The things I want you to know, something we do not often remember, is that higher weight people are aware of the stigma. Many share it themselves. In over 20 years of working with clients with eating disorders, I have never, ever, met someone who is overweight who was not acutely aware of their weight and the opinions of others regarding their weight. There is no need, ever, to inform someone that they are overweight. They know.
More articles coming soon about weight bias and next steps to combat weight stigma and promote acceptance and compassion!
If you want to find out your own level of stigma about weight, take the Harvard Implicit Attitudes Test and see what your unconscious biases may be (if you are interested, there are several other IATs on there that measure a range of implicit biases we all hold). Interestingly, people who are overweight (and people who have a history of being overweight) have higher bias towards thinness than thin people usually hold!
Articles about weight stigma and body image:
Weight Stigma (NEDA)
Tips for Reducing Weight Bias in Students
Fat Talk (Lauren Francis, LPA at Chrysalis Center)