Weight bias is a prevalent form of discrimination in Western society. Despite being as common as stigmatization based on race, the conversation about weight bias often goes unspoken. Knowledge of Health at Every Size (HAES) initiatives and size diversity is increasing, which is a positive step in the right direction. Contrary to popular belief, health comes in many shapes and sizes, and those in larger bodies can absolutely be healthy, physically fit, and self-assured. Stereotypes about weight are more damaging than most understand and are detrimental to society as a whole.
The impact of weight bias on health
Weight bias is a significant issue in the medical world. Stigma from healthcare providers means that patients in larger bodies sometimes receive a lower quality of care from doctors and other medical professionals. It includes (but is not limited to) misdiagnosis of health problems, failure to refer patients for critical diagnostic tests, and less time spent with patients.
It’s important to note that obesity can absolutely be a risk factor in developing disease – but it is not a disease in and of itself, Societal viewing of obesity as such has resulted in biomedical solutions – like irreversible and potentially life altering surgeries – that often serve more as quick fixes than solutions.
How it’s affecting our youth
Weight bias is negatively affecting all of our youth – regardless of their size. Children who experience bullying as a result of their weight are susceptible to the mental and physical complications outlined above. The dangerous idea that “fat is bad” can lead children of any body size to dismiss their natural hunger cues, and criticize both their bodies and those of their peers.
I was privy to a recent discussion about obesity amongst professional members of the Academy of Eating Disorders. Chevese Turner, CEO and Founder of BEDA (Binge Eating Disorder Association) eloquently drew attention to our culture where individuals in larger bodies often endure a “daily insult of microaggressions, cruelty, media portrayal, and the explicit knowledge that the majority of people believe higher weight bodies are highly diseased and aesthetically displeasing as a result of one’s personal decisions and lack of willpower with food.” She continued, “We all are aware of the research that shows children begin to notice and make judgement about bodies by age 5 and that higher weight children are bullied at a rate of 4 times higher than the next group typically the victim of bullies. This is to underscore that weight stigma is a pervasive and a daily insult of trauma for those in higher weight bodies beginning at a very young age.”
How it affects society as a whole
Dieting is a potential risk factor for the development of eating disorders including bulimia, anorexia, and binge eating disorder. Like children, adults who experience weight bias are more likely to display mental and physical problems related to the stigmatization that they encounter. In addition to medical bias, workplace discrimination as a result of weight exists as well. In people of all sizes, a preoccupation with micro-managing one’s body size is detrimental even if a person does not meet the criteria for an eating disorder. The idea that we can, or “should” control the appearance of our bodies is an unhealthy one. Disordered eating behaviors are so normalized by diet culture that they often go unnoticed. The emotional and physical stress that this fixation cause is damaging to both the mind and the body. It is important to remember that someone may be struggling regardless of how they appear on the outside.
You have more of an influence than you think
It’s crucial to view weight bias as a social movement. We need to influence the current world and future generations positively and let go of size discrimination. Let’s collectively refuse to engage in “fat talk,” and any speech that paints larger bodies in a negative light. Don’t stand there when you see someone being bullied or stigmatized because of their weight. When it comes to your body image, use critical thinking skills to unpack judgments that you might make about how you look. Remember that you have more of an influence than you might realize. What you say and do affects the world around you. Weight bias is a significant issue, and confronting it may seem daunting, but we are making steps towards size acceptance. The first step is to recognize that weight bias exists and find ways to push back against it.
At Columbus Park Treatment Center in New York City, we’ve assembled a team of experts, exclusively focused on treating eating disorders and their co-occurring conditions, such as depression and anxiety. Working with clients of all ages – our active, skilled and engaging therapists deliver the best evidence-based treatments available. For additional resources, sign up for our newsletter.