Weight stigma is a lot of things. It’s the result of putting thinness on a pedestal, and it’s also pervasive in society.
But the worst aspect of it is how it’s become an excuse for some people to be hurtful while genuinely believing that they’re helping.
Since weight stigma can be so difficult to deal with, it’s good to have an understanding of what it is, how it can be harmful to mental health, and how it all ties into our overall well-being. So first…
What is weight stigma?
Weight stigma is the discriminatory act or ideology that targets people with overweight or obesity. Often, weight stigma perpetuates the idea that those seen as overweight are more likely to be lazy, self-indulgent, unintelligent, weak-willed, and have poor personal hygiene.
Needless to say, these biases are unfounded, unfair, and dehumanizing. They’re also, unfortunately, just about everywhere.
Weight stigma can be present in nearly any circumstance. In the workplace, in schools, among friends and family, in the media, online, and even in the healthcare field.
It also often goes unchecked, unnoticed, and even encouraged. Some even make the argument that it’s not perpetuating weight stigma, they’re just worried about a person’s health. “I really care about you, and I want you to be healthy,” can be harmless or well-meaning, but in this context, it becomes a message that says: “Your size gives me permission to tell you what I think you should do and make you feel bad about your weight.”
Constantly being around this idea that excess weight is bad, a negative consequence, and something to be made fun of or shamed can have a very negative impact on a person’s mental health. Who knew?
This brings us to the next point:
How does weight stigma affect health?
Our mental health is just as important as our physical health, and weight stigma takes a toll on both. Research has shown that shaming around weight can be counterproductive to weight loss, but several studies have also found that when participants experienced weight stigma, results showed that the amount of food they ate increased and they had a decrease in self-control.
Along with these behavioral changes, due to weight stigma, people can develop anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and poor body image. There is also evidence that those who experience weight-based discrimination are over twice as likely to experience mood or anxiety disorders. They can also engage more frequently in binge eating, are more likely to be diagnosed with binge eating disorder (or BED), and can face a higher risk for eating disorders in general.
Whether a person wants to lose weight or not, being faced with this societal bias can make loving themselves even more of a challenge. The message that weight stigma sends is clear: You have too much weight, and that’s your fault. You need to change or else you’re a bad person.
When weight stigma pervades so many different parts of life, it can create a divide between engaging in healthy behaviors and losing weight because of the negative emotions you might experience if you don’t.
It’s too easy for weight stigma to cloud over what it really means to love yourself and your body.
What are some ways to deal with weight stigma?
While it can sometimes feel like fighting against weight stigma is like emptying the ocean with a teacup, there are small ways that can help mitigate its negative effects:
- Practice positive self-talk
We can’t control what other people say or think, but we can still talk to ourselves in ways that are kind. Weight stigma can often make it seem like criticisms of your body are accurate, when in reality, your body is your body. There is nothing bad or wrong about it.
Positive self-talk can also be helpful when the weight stigma is coming from your own negative thoughts.
Saying things like: “I’m allowed to be here,” and “I love myself for who I am,” may sound cheesy, but they’re sentiments that need to be heard.
- Engage in behaviors that promote self-esteem and self-acceptance.
Another problem with weight stigma is that it completely zaps your self-confidence and self-acceptance, because all it promotes is being unhappy with the way you look. By engaging in behaviors that promote self-esteem, like working on a hobby you enjoy or doing something that makes you feel good physically like getting a hot shower.
- Find others who will support you.
Whether it’s family and friends, people you meet online, or a therapist, talking to people who will support you (or people who face weight stigma as well) can bolster you if you experience weight bias.
- Go outside of your comfort zone, especially if it means doing something you think you’ll find fun.
Negative feelings centered on weight or fear of embarrassment can make you miss out on so much. If there’s an activity you want to do but it’s way outside of your comfort zone, set yourself small goals to get more comfortable with the activity.
For example, if you’ve always wanted to learn how to dance, start by practicing dance routines in your backyard. When you’re comfortable doing that, you could sign up for a dance class.
Weight stigma may not be easy to get rid of, but we don’t have to let it affect every aspect of our lives. At the end of the day, remember that you are worthy, you are allowed to like your body just the way it is, and life is yours to enjoy.
We’ve got more tips on ways to deal with weight stigma, plus methods of becoming more body neutral or body confident.