What is Weight Stigma?

In prior posts we’ve looked extensively at eating disorders and risk factors. This week I’d like to focus on a pervasive issue/bias that may seem tangential but is actually a negative behavior deeply associated with disordered eating and many negative health effects. I’m referring to weight stigma.

What is weight stigma? Weight stigma is defined as the social rejection and/or devaluation of those who do not meet or comply with the prevailing acceptable social norms of body weight and shape by other members of society. Weight stigma refers to any biased or discriminatory acts that are targeted towards individuals specifically because of their weight and size.

Why is weight stigma so dangerous? Those who experience weight stigma and suffer from an eating disorder or any mental or physical health issue are less likely to be diagnosed and get the help they need, especially when they have a higher BMI or are considered obese. That is scary. In fact, patients experiencing weight stigma have been documented to have been denied the testing, therapies, and surgeries provided to thinner patients with the same health conditions, leading to poorer health outcomes.

What are some consequences of weight stigma? According to multiple empirical studies, weight stigma is tied to increased mortality, as well as increases in certain diseases and chronic conditions. People who are obese experience poorer healthcare. Further, people who experience weight stigma have more psychological distress with documented higher levels of disordered eating, low body-image, emotional distress, low self-esteem, and depression. Weight stigma also leads to greater levels of stress and all the unpleasant consequences that accompany it. Often individuals who experience weight stigma are stereotyped as being lazy, lacking self-discipline, weak willed, and/or non-compliant. Sadly, in a study that just came out June 1, weight stigma experiences worldwide were found to be most frequent in childhood and adolescence, and any associated distress due to them was found to be highest during these time periods as well once again highlighting the age of adolescence as a particularly stressful and precarious time.

How is weight stigma perpetuated? When society regards obese people as architects of their own ill health as well as being personally responsible for their weight problems due to their own laziness and overeating, weight stigma is established. Additionally, weight stigma is often viewed as a beneficial incentive for weight loss and an acceptable method for producing change by many healthcare practitioners, including doctors, nurses, health coaches, nutritionists, dietitians, etc. Further, the $72 billion that Americans spend on the diet industry each year adds considerably to the weight stigma struggle many experience.

How then can we stop the weight stigma? This is a harder question to answer. We need to work at eradicating the diet culture that is so pervasive and insidious in our society. We have to be so careful how we speak to people, the language that we use, the messages we espouse. Especially when it comes to our children who are so impressionable and vulnerable, we must teach them the value of treating all people with dignity and respect, regardless of their size or build. We must educate ourselves, our healthcare workers, as well as our educators about weight stigma. We all have our own paths to forge in life. Forcing others to conform to a certain mold does not help or support anyone’s mental or emotional health and is more often than not, unsuccessful.

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