Weight Stigma: The Toll It Takes

Based on current standards, it is estimated that 69% – or roughly two out of three – U.S. adults are considered either overweight or obese yet weight stigma pervades most aspects of our lives.  Individuals in larger bodies are commonly marginalized and treated both differently and unfairly in our healthcare system, in academic and professional settings, in the media, within family systems, communities…  It’s estimated that over 40% of US adults – and even higher numbers internationally – have experienced weight stigma at some point in their lifetime.

Body size-related stigma comes in many forms, including overt examples like teasing, bullying, or violence and more subtle and pervasive experiences like workplace discrimination or when the same medical condition is treated differently in a fat patient than it is in someone thin.  

As with any form of discrimination or bias, weight stigma leads to emotional suffering and distress along with other problems including disordered eating, depression, suicidality, substance abuse and long-term increased risk of mortality.  Weight stigma is widespread in the health care setting, with medical providers frequently extreme offenders; as a result, individuals who have experienced stigma in the medical setting may avoid both preventative medical care and intervention for more acute medical problems.  The internalization of weight stigma ironically, is broadly linked to a decrease in health-promoting activities like exercise and linked to an increase in body weight.  In summary, weight stigma is directly related to negative health outcomes for the folks who experience it. 

Weight stigma is among the most profound and pervasive biases in our society today in large part because in our culture, thinness is idealized.  There is an entrenched association in our culture between thinness and valued qualities like health, discipline, and success.  Fatness, conversely, has been culturally bound to unappealing characteristics like laziness, low intelligence, and poor health.  The potential damage is evident when an individual internalizes weight bias, and actually believes themselves to possess the negative characteristics systemically associated with their body type. 

While there is a robust and passionate movement to tackle weight stigma in our society, we have a long way to go.  In the meantime, it’s important to identify ways to resist the internalization of weight stigma that we know is so damaging.  

So how does one resist weight stigma or decrease its potential for harm?  

  1. Use the power of group identity to your advantage.

For a number of reasons, accepting your body shape and size can be incredibly protective.  Among the benefits, research suggests that embracing your body size in such a way that you experience yourself as a member of a group – higher-weight individuals in this case – can increase a sense of connectedness and belonging.  As is the case with any marginalized identity, investment and inclusion in the marginalized community is associated with increase in well-being.  

  1. Be mindful of personally destructive behaviors made to avoid emotional and social discomfort due to weight.

Since body shame can interfere with essential health behaviors like regular medical care and physical activity, it’s essential to identify if you may have fallen into a pattern of avoidance due to self-consciousness or body shame.  If you find it impossible to challenge yourself to push through to prioritize your self-care, be sure to seek support so you can gain strategies to act opposite to avoidance urges and engage in self-care activities consistently.

  1. Diversify the media you consume.

Despite some progress being made in the body positive movement, social media and advertising are notoriously skewed when it comes to the representation of different body types. Biased algorithms can exacerbate people’s exposure to unrealistic and unhealthy beauty standards, while the anonymity of the internet increases the likelihood of cyberbullying based on weight bias.  One way to combat the stigma and ensure that we don’t internalize it is to deliberately follow a wide range of people who don’t all look like us on social media. This can help us to recalibrate what it means to be “normal” and “healthy” and “beautiful.”  It’s also helpful to engage with people online who embrace their bodies and post inspirational images and comments about larger bodies.  

Weight stigma is a real and urgent problem that can significantly impact mental and physical health for individuals in larger bodies. We need to continue to denounce shaming and blaming and instead focus on empowering all people to care for their bodies and engage in critical preventative and maintenance health behaviors regardless of size.