What is Weight Stigma?

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Weight stigma or bias generally refers to negative attitudes toward a person because they are overweight or obese. The assumption that larger individuals are lazy or lacking in willpower is pervasive in our society, and weight bias is observed in children as young as 3—that’s right, 3 years old. Larger individuals face discrimination in a plethora of domains. Stigma towards individuals of size harms people of all sizes.

Weight stigma is a common form of discrimination in our society. Notice how it is rarely challenged? The word “fat” has morphed from a simple description into a foul word. And research shows that weight discrimination is increasing. The "war on obesity," which sometimes seems intended to scare and shame people into dieting, is partly to blame. The diet industry, which falsely suggests that one can choose one’s weight on the scale, also contributes. In fact, diets rarely work in the long-term.

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

Other factors contributing to weight stigma include our culture’s focus on the thin ideal and media portrayals of overweight individuals as objects of ridicule. In print media, larger weight individuals are often depicted eating junk food and with heads cut off, which reinforces the stereotype and dehumanizes them.

Examples of Weight Stigma

Research shows that larger individuals face discrimination in the workplace, barriers in education, and negative attitudes from healthcare professionals. Below are some examples of weight stigma:

  • 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."
  • Project Harpoon appeared on Facebook with photos of larger bodied models and celebrities contrasted with photo-shopped images of them to show how they would appear slimmer.
  • Young children commonly encounter weight-related teasing and bullying. For example, one young child reported being called “fatty-pants” and “big, fat, elephant girl” in preschool. 
  • Increasingly smaller airline seats do not accommodate larger passengers and airlines may require larger passengers to purchase an additional seat
  • Television shows popular amongst children contain up to 14 instances of fat shaming per episode. Usually, no one stands up to the shamer, and the teasing is often followed by laughter.
  • Larger-bodied patients who go to see a medical doctor are commonly told that all of their symptoms are a result of being overweight; so their complaints are not fully investigated. 

Shaming is not effective at 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 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 and thereby increasing feelings of shame and anxiety.

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

To learn more about weight stigma and to help fight against it, follow along on Weight Stigma Awareness Week, run by the Binge Eating Disorder Association (BEDA). The week will include webinars, tweet chats, and thought-provoking articles. 

The UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity is a multi-disciplinary policy research center and a leader in research and policy on weight stigma. They have numerous resources, including Guidelines for Media Portrayals of Individuals Affected by Obesity and Toolkits for Healthcare Providers for Preventing Weight Bias.

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