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Body Shaming, Harmful Diet Culture on the Rise During COVID-19

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Key Takeaways

  • Body shaming and weight discrimination were prevalent issues before the pandemic, but COVID-19 commentary and diet pressures have made the issue worse.
  • Researchers have determined that discrimination based on body size has a negative affect on mental health.

As COVID-19 spread throughout the world in early 2020, researchers rushed to understand as much about the virus as they could. What symptoms does it cause? How does it spread? Who is most at risk?

These necessary questions provoked a surge of answers that have helped increase our knowledge of treatment methods, prevention strategies, and vaccine possibilities. The rise in studies connecting higher weight with an increased risk of severe COVID symptoms, however, may have unwittingly provoked a wave of body shaming that lingers to this day.

While body shaming is nothing new, the pandemic has led to harmful rhetoric ranging from blaming heavier people for catching the virus or suffering severe symptoms to more generally connecting weight with health. At a time when everyone is facing added stress, weight discrimination is an extra obstacle for those whose bodies are considered outside the norm in society, and one that has serious mental health consequences for those who are victimized.

Weight Discrimination and COVID-19

It is well known that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused extensive physical damage to many who contract the virus. Simultaneously, the pandemic has contributed to a global decline in mental health.

Discrimination in any form plays a role in mental health, and given the associations that have been made between weight and COVID-19, researchers have examined whether BMI is connected to worsening stress during this time and how much of that stress stems from weight discrimination as opposed to more COVID-specific struggles.

There is evidence that a high body mass index (BMI) could impact the likelihood of developing a more severe form of COVID-19. While the goal of weight-based pandemic research is to aid in prevention or treatment for at-risk individuals, it appears this information has actually led to decreased mental health and less social support for people who experience weight discrimination, according to a study published earlier this year in the journal Obesity.

Researchers collected data in three waves, with a total number of 1,590 participants from varying states and demographic categories. The measures included questions around BMI, psychological distress, and weight discrimination. The data show us that because of the social impact of navigating life as someone who is clinically overweight, those who reported weight-based discrimination had sharper declines in life satisfaction during the pandemic.

Haley Neidich, LCSW, psychotherapist at Haley Neidich Psychotherapy and Clinical Director of YourTherapist.com says, “Shame of any kind creates stress in the body, and we know that stress is strongly correlated with a myriad of health and mental health conditions."

Neidich adds, "Individuals who avoid the doctor due to fear of weight discrimination may miss the opportunity to receive proper medical care and screening.” In a time of crisis for both physical and mental health, it's important for everyone to be vigilant.

Haley Neidich, LCSW

Shame of any kind creates stress in the body, and we know that stress is strongly correlated with a myriad of health and mental health conditions.

— Haley Neidich, LCSW

Body Shame and Weight Discrimination in Practice

Body shame is a result of negative perceptions about an individual’s body, which includes situations in which an individual is perceived to be underweight. While researchers focused on the stigma of being perceived as overweight, the data within this study showed that all who have experienced weight discrimination have higher baseline levels of depression and anxiety, regardless of their BMI. Those who reported experiencing weight discrimination at the beginning of the pandemic (February) were twice as likely to develop clinical depression by March or April.

The issue is certainly not limited to the pandemic, either. Neidich speaks to the prevalence of weight discrimination in everyday life, saying, “Deeply rooted fatphobia is rampant in our culture and is one of the most widely accepted forms of discrimination. In fact, many people still believe that teasing someone (even children) for being fat will help them lose weight. We know for certain that the opposite is true." She adds, "Many people of all shapes and sizes experience shame about their bodies and weight."

Neidrich continues, "As a culture we need to do a better job of understanding size stigma, educating ourselves and each other about the negative health and mental health implications of fatphobia, and understanding thin privilege and the importance of representation.”

Haley Neidich, LCSW

As a culture we need to do a better job of understanding size stigma, educating ourselves and each other about the negative health and mental health implications of fatphobia, and understanding thin privilege and the importance of representation.

— Haley Neidich, LCSW

Due to the acceptance of fatphobia in our larger society, body shame and weight-based discrimination are common on both an interpersonal and institutional level, as those that are seen as overweight are less likely to receive job offers. Hiring practices are high on the list of weight-based discrimination, but medical practitioners are also at the root of reported discrimination.

Neidich says, “People who are fat or perceive themselves as larger often avoid any interactions with medical practitioners due to the rampant fatphobia they experience. Many doctors will recommend weight loss after taking one look at a patient, which is dehumanizing and often leads to future avoidance of proper health care."

"The 'obesity epidemic' framework as a whole is focused on changing the size and shape of people's bodies without focusing on improving their health. We know that [most] diets fail, and yet medical practitioners continue to recommend them rather than treating the individual's symptoms,” Neidich explains.

Rethinking How We Talk About Weight

There are accounts of correlation between high levels of depression and those individuals with higher clinical BMI numbers. This study shows that it may be the discrimination associated with weight and higher BMIs that contributes to the increase in depression and anxiety.

This has the potential to inform the way that practitioners treat those presenting with depression and anxiety during this time, in addition to pushing medical practitioners to address their size biases and be more empathetic in their approach.

Additionally, it's important for individuals to be aware of how word choice and other forms of judgment toward people can have a far-reaching negative impact.

What This Means For You

Body shame and weight discrimination are rampant, but it is important to remember that society created the idea of a "good" or "bad" weight and chose to assign stereotypes to numbers on the scale. Diets are regularly shown not to work, and we must decouple the idea that weight and health are perfectly synonymous. However, if you and a doctor that you trust have decided that it is a good health decision for you to make changes, then you have plenty of options for making safe lifestyle changes.

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