Eating Disorders Awareness and Prevention What Is Weight Stigma? By Lauren Muhlheim, PsyD, CEDS Lauren Muhlheim, PsyD, CEDS Facebook LinkedIn Twitter Lauren Muhlheim, PsyD, is a certified eating disorders expert and clinical psychologist who provides cognitive behavioral psychotherapy. Learn about our editorial process Updated on June 24, 2021 Medically reviewed Verywell Mind articles are reviewed by board-certified physicians and mental healthcare professionals. Medical Reviewers confirm the content is thorough and accurate, reflecting the latest evidence-based research. Content is reviewed before publication and upon substantial updates. Learn more. by Rachel Goldman, PhD, FTOS Medically reviewed by Rachel Goldman, PhD, FTOS Facebook LinkedIn Twitter Rachel Goldman, PhD FTOS, is a licensed psychologist, clinical assistant professor, speaker, wellness expert specializing in eating behaviors, stress management, and health behavior change. Learn about our Medical Review Board Print FG Trade Table of Contents View All Table of Contents Weight Bias and Cultural Stigma Impact What Weight Stigma Looks Like Combat Weight Stigma 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 discriminatory acts targeted toward people due to their weight and size. It is an outcome of weight bias, which is 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 that can carry into adulthood. Weight stigma is a common form of discrimination in our society, on par with racial discrimination in terms of prevalence. Larger individuals face discrimination in many public and private domains—school, work, healthcare settings, clothing stores, and the media, to name a few. 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 people who are overweight are somehow less desirable or worthy. The media has long portrayed larger 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 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. What Is Body Positivity? Effects of Weight Stigma Stigma toward those who are overweight 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 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. 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. The Connection Between Body Image and Eating Disorders 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. How Does Implicit Bias Influence Behavior? Join the Fight Against Weight Stigma If you want 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. It features 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. It offers a number of online resources, such as Understanding Obesity Stigma, and also holds an annual convention. The group also launched the national campaign StopWeightBias. You can also 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. 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. We can also admit where we've been complicit in that bias and perpetuated stigmas. 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. 17 Sources Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy. World Obesity Federation. Weight stigma. Spiel EC, Paxton SJ, Yager Z. Weight attitudes in 3- to 5-year-old children: Age differences and cross-sectional predictors. Body Image. 2012;9(4):524-527. doi:10.1016/j.bodyim.2012.07.006 Fruh SM, Nadglowski J, Hall HR, Davis SL, Crook ED, Zlomke K. Obesity stigma and bias. J Nurse Pract. 2016;12(7):425-432. doi:10.1016/j.nurpra.2016.05.013 Vogel L. Fat shaming is making people sicker and heavier. CMAJ. 2019;191(23):E649. doi:10.1503/cmaj.109-5758 Cohen R, Irwin L, Newton-John T, Slater A. #bodypositivity: A content analysis of body positive accounts on Instagram. 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Airlines are working it out. Eisenberg ME, Carlson‐McGuire A, Gollust SE, Neumark‐Sztainer D. A content analysis of weight stigmatization in popular television programming for adolescents. Int J Eat Disord. 2015;48:759-766. doi:10.1002/eat.22348 Phelan SM, Burgess DJ, Yeazel MW, Hellerstedt WL, Griffin JM, van Ryn M. Impact of weight bias and stigma on quality of care and outcomes for patients with obesity. Obes Rev. 2015;16(4):319-326. doi:10.1111/obr.12266 Ellin A. The New York Times. Fighting fat discrimination, but still wanting to lose weight. Additional Reading Puhl R, Heuer C. Obesity stigma: Important considerations for public health. Am J Public Health. 2010;100(6):1019–1028. doi:10.2105%2FAJPH.2009.159491 By Lauren Muhlheim, PsyD, CEDS Lauren Muhlheim, PsyD, is a certified eating disorders expert and clinical psychologist who provides cognitive behavioral psychotherapy. See Our Editorial Process Meet Our Review Board Share Feedback Was this page helpful? 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