Weight Stigma: An Introduction
July 18, 2020
In a recent conversation, I mentioned attending the International Weight Stigma Conference and the other person responded, “Weight Stigma! What’s that?”
Because of the field in which I work, I sometimes forget that not everyone is familiar with this concept. Bias toward large bodies and overvaluing thin bodies is so common and accepted in our culture that it is almost unnoticeable. Even after it has been identified and explained, it may be hard to see. That makes it even more insidious. However, it is a powerful and damaging influence that needs to be addressed and corrected.
If you are not familiar with this concept, here is a brief overview.
“We define weight stigma as the social rejection and devaluation that accrues to those who do not comply with prevailing social norms of adequate body weight and shape.”[i] Anything that devalues larger bodies, or that encourages shame based on body size, is weight stigma. Body dissatisfaction, fat phobia, unexamined assumptions, and the promotion of weight loss all add to weight stigma.
Weight stigma is based on the assumptions that body size is under our conscious control, that everyone could be thin if they just tried hard enough, that being thin is better than being heavy, and therefore everyone should pursue the goal of a world with only thin people in it. A corollary assumption is that weight is a valid measure of health and that weight loss leads to improved health.
All of these assumptions are false and harmful. Extensive information exists to confirm that our bodies are exquisitely capable of maintaining us in a narrow range of weight and that attempts to reduce weight not only fail but often result in long term weight gain. There is not a single approach to weight loss that has been shown to be successful in the long term for more than a tiny percentage of people. Repeated attempts at weight loss are also associated with diminished health outcomes and worse metabolic measures.
Weight stigma harms people of all sizes. Those in larger bodies are constantly reminded that they do not conform to prevailing expectations by the attitudes, comments and actions of others, as well as by a world that does not accommodate them by, for instance, providing comfortable chairs or adequate medical equipment. Because of weight stigma, thinner people are terrified of weight gain. Repeated failures to manipulate weight result in feelings of shame, depression, body dissatisfaction, low self esteem and worthlessness.
Poorer physical health measures have been shown to be related to weight stigma, partly because of the chronic stress of both feeling bad about oneself and expecting bad treatment in the world. In addition, heavy people are often discriminated against in employment settings, are less likely to be hired or promoted, and are paid less.
Weight stigma results in bias, discrimination and oppression. It provides a rationalization for treating people badly because of their body size. It affects social policy, health policy, economic equality and adequate medical care. It is a social justice issue.
Pushing back against weight stigma would benefit everyone, regardless of size, because weight stigma harms everyone.
For a more extensive exploration of this topic, see chapter seven of my book. “Thrive At Any Weight: Eating to Nourish Body, Soul and Self Esteem.”
Sources for more information:
Bacon, Linda, and Lucy Aphramor. [i] “Weight Science: Evaluating the Evidence for a Paradigm Shift.” Nutrition Journal 10, no. 9 (2011): 1–13.
Brochu, Paula M. “Weight Stigma Is a Modifiable Risk Factor.” Journal of Adolescent Health 63, no. 3 (September 1, 2018): 267–68.
Bombak, Andrea. “Obesity, Health at Every Size, and Public Health Policy.” American Journal of Public Health 104, no. 2 (February 2014): e60–67.
Calogero, Rachel M., Tracy Tylka, and Janell Mensinger. “Scientific Weightism: A View of Mainstream Weight Stigma Research Through a Feminist Lens.” Feminist Perspectives on Building a Better Psychological Science of Gender, 2016, 9–28.
Tomiyama, A. Janet, Deborah Carr, Ellen M. Granberg, Brenda Major, Eric Robinson, Angelina R. Sutin, and Alexandra Brewis. “How and Why Weight Stigma Drives the Obesity ‘Epidemic’ and Harms Health.” BMC Medicine 16 (August 15, 2018).
Tylka, Tracy L., Rachel A. Annunziato, Deb Burgard, Sigrún Daníelsdóttir, Ellen Shuman, Chad Davis, and Rachel M. Calogero. “The Weight-Inclusive versus Weight-Normative Approach to Health: Evaluating the Evidence for Prioritizing Well-Being over Weight Loss.” Journal of Obesity, (2014): 1-18.
Vartanian, Lenny R., and Joshua M. Smyth. “Primum Non Nocere: Obesity Stigma and Public Health.” Journal of Bioethical Inquiry 10, no. 1 (March 2013): 49–57.
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