Weight Stigma Awareness: What is, why it matters, and how to combat it

The National Eating Disorder Association is hosting the second annual Weight Stigma Awareness Week #WSAW2020 September 28 – October 2, 2020.

This week’s purpose is to raise awareness for the discrimination that folks living in larger bodies experience on a daily basis. Weight stigma affects people of sizes and shapes and we need to look directly at the reality of weight discrimination in our world.

This post is designed to be a beginning step on your weight stigma awareness journey of helping you learn what weight stigma is, why it matters, and how to combat it.

Developing Weight Stigma Awareness is important if we are ever to heal our relationship with food and our bodies, as individuals and collectively in our distorted body society.

Defining Weight Stigma

The first step in developing awareness around any new issue to first understand exactly what the issue is. If you can’t define what you’re looking for- how will you know it?!

My favorite definition of weight stigma comes from my friend and colleague Sara Upson, RD, LD, CEDRD-S of My Signature Nutrition. She says,

“Weight stigma is defined as negative thoughts, attitudes, devaluation and social rejection of a person because their body shape or size doesn’t comply with the cultural norms (from diet culture) about what a body “should” look like.

Weight stigma also includes: stereotypes about people who live in larger bodies, bullying and teasing, nasty comments, being stared at, avoided, excluded, ignored or even physically attacked.  Weight stigma is weight based prejudice and discrimination.”

Unfortunately a negative attitude towards weight and larger bodies is so widely accepted, most people hardly see it as a problem. It has become accepted in our society to devalue people based on their body size, shape or weight. We’ve been co-opted to believe that our physical health is solely reliant on our weight and shape and that we are in total and complete control of our weight and shape.

Because of this belief, we think its acceptable to ridicule, criticize and shame people in larger bodies. What is called,weight stigma, weight discrimination or fatphobia.

Fatphobia can be internalized where we project this weight stigma and attitude onto our selves or it can be externalized where we project this weight stigma and negative attitude onto others. Often it’s both!

Why is Weight Stigma Harmful

I could write and entire post on why weight stigma is harmful, but since I don’t have time for that right now, I’ll make a few points.

It hurts our mental health.

Studies have shown that weight stigma leads to anxiety, depression, social isolation, avoidance of gatherings, and increased body dissatisfaction. A 2018 study notes that the more we experience weight stigma, the more likely we are to use maladaptive coping mechanisms which increases psychological distress.

It increases the risk for the development of an eating disorder.

And despite many misconceptions, eating disorders are dangerous and deadly. As an eating disorder therapist, I’ve sat with countless people living in all body types that struggle to identify where their eating disorder began. Although that’s not the focus of treatment and recovery, many of my clients ask that question. When we dig deeper the root of the beginning and a continued struggle for recovery is internalized and externalized fatphobia and weight stigma. Buying in to the social belief that “thinness is next to godliness”, as my friend and colleague Celeste Smith, LMFT, CEDS, says, is one of the leading causes of body dissatisfaction, which leads to dieting and eating disorders.

Our physical health is harmed.

Ironically people think that engaging in weight shaming themselves or others will improve physical health, but we consistently see how this discrimination harms not only mental health, but also physical health. People experiencing internalized or externalized weight stigma tend to avoid physical activity, avoid going to the doctor because they are often not accurately heard for their physical issues, and therefore, delay much needed healthcare, leading to poorer physical health outcomes. The problem is not the shame they feel, but the unfair and poor treatment they receive solely based on their size.

It affects our relationships.

Regardless of body weight or shape, when we engage in internalized or externalized weight stigma, we’re harming the people around us. From teaching the kids in our world and under our influence to weight stigma to reinforcing weight stigma in our loved ones and the culture around us, the acceptance of weight stigma and fatphobia does not help us learn to love and deeply connect with people.

Connection and relationship are our ultimate purpose. When we put any judgment, no matter how “moral” we believe that judgment is, above caring for the heart of others around us, we’re disconnecting from our true purpose of deep relationship. Our world is polarized on pretty much every issue imaginable and we’ve come to think that’s okay and almost good to be one “camp” over another. This polarized thinking is judgment and shame based and extremely harmful. Weight stigma is just one more area in our world we need to heal this polarized, disconnecting mindset.

How to Combat Weight Stigma

Be Open.

When you want to shut down reading a blog or post or watching a video, challenge yourself to stay open. Even if you’ve never experienced weight stigma yourself, know anyone who has or if you believe weight stigma isn’t a real thing, be present. Challenge yourself to be open to a new perspective – on health, on life, and relationships. You don’t have to agree with every single word or sentence in order to open yourself up to new perspectives and experiences.

Listen to and support marginalized folks living in larger bodies.

As much as I love that NEDA has created the #EndWeightHate campaign, with the recent personnel changes in the company, I don’t see them positioning people in larger bodies to be the voice and face of the campaign. Actually the People that live in thin bodies, or with thin privilege, need to be involved in this cause, but we need to center folks living in larger bodies with a lived experience of weight discrimination instead of speaking for these folks. Otherwise, we’re subtly reinforcing weight stigma.

Listen.

Follow those on social media that are doing the work AND walking the walk – people that have and are continually accepting their good bodies and their inherent worth in a world that says otherwise. Read their words. Truly listen to their experiences, regardless of your own. Check out my resources page for a list of people to follow on Facebook or Instagram.

Support.

Share posts, blogs, podcasts, and other works by these beautiful activists. If you’re afraid of backlash or comments from friends, family or strangers, turn off commenting! BUY products! From books to coffee mugs to shirts to bags! Coffee is my favorite part of the day and I’m happiest when I’m drinking out of this mug from Amanda Martinez Beck’s Etsy store.

Space Venus mug from Amanda’s Etsy store. What a happy reminder to take up space and fight weight stigma!

Shift your definition.

Weight stigma affects us all in a negative way. If you want to move towards health, I often suggest first re-defining health. We limit health by defining it solely as physical health, often marked only by weight or body shape, we’re missing really important aspects of who we are.

Working to broaden our definition of health to include our physical, mental, emotional, social, and relational health incorporates focusing on all aspects of who we are. No one part of us is more important than the others.

Do Your Own Work.

If you notice that this post brings up a lot of feels, thoughts and physical reactions, lean in. We use the language of calling in… we all have work to do in our lives, so this isn’t a calling-you-out- you’re-wrong-type of post- it’s a call in…. to grow and learn and flourish. Seek out an therapist, coach, or dietitian that truly practices Health at Every Size™ (#HAES) in their professional and personal lives. Need help figuring out how to find an authentic HAES provider? Check here for tips!

I work with my clients, family, friends, and continually remind myself that we need to look at our whole health- our physical, mental, emotional, social, and spiritual health. We aren’t meant to idolize one aspect of who we are. We are meant to be an integrated whole. Integrating and honoring all aspects of who we are is a beautiful start to a new journey.

What does the term “weight stigma” bring up for you? How will you participate in weight stigma awareness week?

Speak Your Mind

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