Weight: Shaming, Stigma and Bias

In this post I have attempted to give you an introduction to fat shaming, weight stigma, and weight bias.

I think Google tells it all – these are the numbers that came up on a recent search of these words:

Fat Shaming:     13,000,000

Weight Stigma:  27,600,000

Weight Bias:    186,000,000

For many people they aren’t just words – they describe their lived experience.

What IS Wrong with Fat?

In our culture the word ‘fat’ is no longer an objective word describing adipose tissue. Today, your body weight comes laden with moral, economic and social judgments.

The rise in obesity over the past 30 years and the corresponding costs attached have created a ‘perfect storm’ of weight stigma, weight bias, fat shaming and discrimination. No one is immune, young or old.

The media and society continue to label people based on their appearance rather than character. The overweight child, the skinny kid, or even the mother who just had a baby are all easy targets.

“Obesity has been called the last socially acceptable form of prejudice, and persons with obesity are considered acceptable targets of stigma.” 

-Dr.Scott Kahan,MD, Medical Director, STOP Obesity Alliance, 2015

Weight stigma leads to weight bias, which leads to discrimination against people affected by obesity.

What is weight stigma?

When an individual is stigmatised or discriminated against because of their weight and body size we call this weight stigma.

Weight stigma is everywhere: the media, employers, educators, health care professionals, family friends and parents can be guilty of it, deliberately or unconsciously.

Of course, weight stigma depends on three basic assumptions:

Thin is always preferable, thin is always possible, and thin people are better people.”

– Amy Pershing, ACSW, LCSW, Weight Stigma Awareness Week

In November 2017, AAP News reported how weight stigma…

“…often is propagated and tolerated in society because of beliefs that stigma and shame will motivate people to lose weight. However, rather than motivate positive change, this stigma contributes to behaviors …which worsen obesity and create additional barriers to healthy behavior change.”

And of course where there is stigma one finds bias.

What is weight bias?

While most people would (I hope) reject racism, ageism and sexism, what about weightism? In June 2017, the American Academy of Pediatrics reported:

“Implicit bias toward overweight individuals is evident in children aged 9 to 11 years with a magnitude of implicit bias…similar to that in studies of implicit racial bias among adults.”

Weight bias stereotypes label higher weight individuals ‘slow’, ‘lazy,’ unmotivated’ and greedy’. The more polite labels.

 “With extreme thinness being so prevalent in the media it’s hard to change societal attitudes.“ – Dr. Rebecca Puhl, Deputy Director, The Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity

The media contributes to this – a recent study showed 64% of TV, films and videos portrayed obese characters as evil, cruel and unattractive.

They found that more than half the characters on these programmes are shown consuming food.

And we mustn’t forget the ‘headless’ fatty pictures which the media too often insist on using to illustrate – well, you know what point.

Is it a surprise that weight bias is escalating, by backed up by a rise in reported of fat shaming?

What is weight shaming?

Weight, or fat shaming, is making critical or humiliating comments towards someone on account of their weight.

It takes numerous forms.

Verbal abuse:  Using the word ‘fat’ as an insult, ridicule or bullying.

Mock concern about an overweight person’s weight ‘on account of their health’.

Passengers handed 'fat-shaming' cards on London tube - news
Cards handed out to ‘fat’ women on the London Underground.

People, young and old, are subjected to fat shaming at every level, every day.

Many studies show that trying to shame people into losing weight is more damaging to their health – it can lead to depression, increased eating and weight gain.

This, however, didn’t stop the UK’s former Chief Medical Officer, Dame Sally Davies from claiming in 2015 that obesity was “as big as risk to the nation as terrorism,” and adding obesity in women to the Office of National Risk Planning for Emergency.

Have we become so desensitised to criticism of fat people that we don’t notice how mean it is, and counter-productive? If we do, many of us ignore it and so it repeats…

The cost to the NHS

There is no excuse or justification for fat shaming a person because of their weight – even on the grounds of ‘health’.  It just doesn’t work.

No one is arguing that obesity costs the NHS.

But does this justify shaming people?

If shaming people into changing behaviors worked there would be no smokers, drug addicts, alcoholics or gamblers. All of whom, coincidently, also cost the NHS.

Some media sources find a rapt audience with their never-ending headlines disparaging what overweight people cost in NHS resources for healthcare.

Not only does this increase the fear of being fat in our society, but it doesn’t even help.

In fact, it does the opposite – a recent study showed how it has helped fuel a rise in disordered eating, eating disorders and ironically, more weight gain.

Who would choose to be fat in today’s culture?

Weight shaming as entertainment?

No longer is it a private issue of ‘feeling fat’ or ‘being fat’.

Fat shaming is now a source of acceptable entertainment. By popularizing shows such as The Biggest Loser, Celebrity Fat Club, and My 600-pound Life, it’s become a gladiatorial spectacle as well as voyeuristic. 

Have you noticed that your body has become public property? Everyone can literally weigh-in now.

What we can do…

To stop weight stigma, bias and weight shaming we all need to:-

  • Be part of the solution.
  • Address the social, economic and environmental causes of weight gain. (Need convincing? Read my review of The Health Gap: The Challenge of an Unequal World in the Book Review section. )
  • Educate – show the causes of obesity are complex.
  • Change the reporting of obesity.
  • Challenge body size stereotypes.
  • Challenge the one-size-fits-all diet and fashion industries.
  • Practice what we preach – no fat talk allowed.
  • Teach that every body, and everybody deserves respect.
  • Agree that what you are matters more then what you look like.
  • Cultivate a culture of acceptance of diversity as well as a culture of respect and kindness.

These will influence the weight debate, and help stop the 1,540,000,000 searches asking “What is the ideal weight?”

For full references please get in touch.

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