What is Weight Stigma?

Teenaged overweight girl sitting at a bench

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Weight stigma generally refers to social disapproval of people who are overweight or who are affected by obesity. The World Obesity Federation defines weight stigma as the discriminatory acts targeted toward people due to their weight and size. It is an outcome of weight bias, which is the negative opinions and ideologies associated with weight.

The assumption that larger individuals are lazy or lacking in willpower is pervasive in our society. Weight bias can begin at an early age and has been observed in children as young as 3 to 5 years old. This, of course, can lead to children developing body image issues of their own that can carry into adulthood.

Larger individuals face discrimination in many public and private domains—school, work, healthcare settings, clothing stores, and the media, to name a few.

Weight stigma is a common form of discrimination in our society, on par with racial discrimination. In fact, one study found that weight stigma increased by 66% in the United States between the mid-1990s and the 2000s.

Weight Bias and Cultural Stigma

Our culture’s continued bias toward the thin ideal body type has reinforced the collective opinion that overweight individuals are somehow less desirable or worthy.

The media has long portrayed large individuals as unattractive, unappealing, and as objects of ridicule. Advertising and marketing campaigns often cast larger individuals to sell junk food or fast food, which reinforces preexisting bias. As such, these "fat-shaming" stereotypes continue to perpetuate weight stigma in our culture.

The issue isn't necessarily about being overweight or "fat"—the problem is the stigma that surrounds it. While the body positivity movement has made strides in recent years to make bodies of all shapes, sizes, and abilities more acceptable by the media and mainstream culture, it's fair to say we still have a ways to go before weight stigma is eradicated.

Stigma toward larger individuals actually harms people of all sizes. The word “fat” is rarely challenged in conversation, even when it's used in a pejorative manner. The "war on obesity," which sometimes seems intended to scare and shame people into dieting, is partly to blame.

Research shows that weight stigma is actually a driving factor for the obesity epidemic, contributing to weight gain and poor health. The diet industry, which falsely suggests that one can choose one’s weight on the scale, is also a contributing factor. In fact, diets rarely work in the long term.

Weight stigma also leads to many negative outcomes including unhealthy weight practices, binge eating, and social and emotional detriments. Further, weight stigma causes individuals to feel shamed and embarrassed, which may get in the way of them seeking any treatment that they need—either related to obesity or not.

Weight is largely determined by genetics and additional factors that are often outside of an individual’s control.

The Obesity Action Coalition also notes that beliefs about the stability and causality of obesity contribute to negative attitudes and weight stigma. For example, people who are affected by obesity are more likely to face stigma if their weight is seen as being caused by controllable factors such as overeating rather than by uncontrollable factors such as a thyroid condition. In such cases, people view obesity as a personal choice rather than a serious medical condition.

What Weight Stigma Looks Like

Research shows that larger individuals face discrimination in the workplace, barriers in education, and negative attitudes from healthcare professionals. The following examples show how weight stigma caused by underlying bias has played out in real life:

  • In 2013, Geoffrey Miller, a tenured psychology professor at the University of New Mexico and a visiting professor at New York University, sent out a fat-shaming tweet: "Dear obese Ph.D. applicants: if you didn’t have the willpower to stop eating carbs, you won’t have the willpower to do a dissertation #truth."
  • In 2015, "Project Harpoon" appeared on Facebook with photos of larger-bodied models and celebrities contrasted with photoshopped images of them to show how they would appear slimmer.
  • Young children are commonly teased and bullied because of their weight. For example, in 2011, a 6-year-old child reported being called “fatty-pants” and “big, fat, elephant girl” in preschool. 
  • Airline seats are increasingly getting smaller and do not accommodate larger individuals. Some airlines may require larger passengers to purchase an additional seat. 
  • A 2015 study found that television shows popular among children contain up to 14 instances of fat-shaming per episode. Usually, no one stands up to the character doing the fat-shaming, and often the teasing is followed by laughter.
  • Larger-bodied patients are discriminated against in healthcare settings. When they go to see a medical doctor, they are often told that their symptoms are a result of being overweight, so their complaints are not always fully investigated.

Dangers of Weight Stigma

Fat- and body-shaming is not an effective tactic for getting individuals to lose weight. In fact, it is dangerous.

Research shows that weight stigma contributes to binge eating and weight gain, both of which can be harmful physically and emotionally. Weight stigma is also a contributor to shame and is fuel for eating disorders. 

Individuals who live in larger bodies regularly experience weight stigma. Activities as basic as exercising, eating a meal, and shopping may all evoke teasing and/or the feeling that one’s body is not acceptable, thereby increasing feelings of shame and anxiety.

Individuals with smaller bodies are affected by weight stigma, too. Fear of being fat can drive some of the behaviors that can cause eating disorders and even make recovery more difficult. 

Join the Fight Against Weight Stigma

To learn more about weight stigma and to join in the fight against it, the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) runs an annual Weight Stigma Awareness Week each fall, featuring webinars, tweet chats, and thought-provoking articles. 

The Obesity Action Coalition (OAC) is an organization that works to eliminate the negative stigma associated with obesity. They offer a number of resources on their website and also hold an annual convention. Recently, they launched the national campaign StopWeightBias.

In the meantime, check out the UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, a multi-disciplinary policy research center and a leader in research and policy on weight stigma. The organization has a number of resources, including Guidelines for Media Portrayals of Individuals Affected by Obesity and Toolkits for Healthcare Providers for Preventing Weight Bias.

You can also read this Understanding Obesity Stigma brochure from the Obesity Action Coalition.

A Word From Verywell

Weight stigma and bias are deeply engrained in our culture, but we can all do our part to educate ourselves on the issue and also admit where we've been complicit in that inherent bias.

It's important to note that if being overweight is affecting an individual's overall health and well-being, it's perfectly OK to be body positive and still have a goal of losing extra weight. As long as the focus is on getting healthy versus being thin, you are still promoting acceptance for all bodies.

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