Weight Stigma and Weight-Based Bullying
We are completely entrenched in diet culture, a society obsessed with thinness and dieting. Weight and food bias are so commonplace, contributing to our thoughts and actions in ways that they are hard to even recognize. No one is immune to these biases, and if they’re left unchecked, they can manifest in interactions that play a part in the development of an eating disorder.
October is National Bullying Prevention Month, an awareness event created to prevent childhood bullying and promote kindness, acceptance, and inclusion. The best-known environmental contributor to the development of eating disorders may be the sociocultural idealization of thinness, but weight-based bullying or even just appearance-based comments is another important environmental contributor. In this article, we will cover weight stigma and weight-based bullying, their impact, and what we can do to make a difference.
What are weight bias and weight stigma?
Weight bias refers to negative weight-related attitudes, beliefs, assumptions, and judgments toward others based on body weight or size. Internalized weight bias can occur when these negative weight-related beliefs are absorbed and believed about oneself. Weight bias can lead to weight stigma, or the disapproval of someone based on their weight. Stigma is seeing someone negatively because of their weight, which can morph into treating someone negatively for their weight. Stigma can look like stereotyping, bullying, and discrimination on the basis of weight, as well as exclusion and marginalization in media, in the workplace, in health care, and more. While weight bias affects people of all sizes, those in larger bodies experience the greatest weight stigmatization.
The Impact of Stigma
There are no areas of life that are exempt from weight stigma. It can occur in both private and public settings by family members, friends, employers, coworkers, health care professionals, and institutions. Comments or behaviors that imply disapproval of, make judgments about, or outright harass or exclude individuals in larger bodies are examples of stigmatization. Some other examples include an unwillingness to serve, accommodate, work with, or care for a person because of their weight, as well as marketing and other messages that promote diet products as a way to “fix” the assumed issue of weight.
Additional examples of weight stigma in everyday life include:
- Comments from family or friends about your body, such as, “You’re not fat, you’re beautiful,” as if you can’t be both
- Unsolicited weight loss advice
- Weight-based discrimination in hiring and promotion opportunities
- Limited or no clothing options at popular retailers, as well as plus-size sections often hidden away in a corner or basement
- Airplane seats that do not accommodate people in larger bodies, airlines requesting that they purchase two seats, and judgment of those around them on the plane
- A person in a larger body visiting the doctor for an injury or common illness, and instead of receiving a proper exam or evidence-based intervention, is directed to lose weight
These examples make visible weight-biased beliefs that associate people in higher-weight bodies with laziness, lack of willpower, poor lifestyle choices, lack of moral character, bad hygiene, a low level of intelligence, and unattractiveness. With 54% of adults categorized as “obese” reporting being stigmatized by co-workers and 69% reporting being stigmatized by health care professionals, it is so important that we all work to educate ourselves on weight stigma so that we can improve the quality of life for those in larger bodies.
How Weight-Based Bullying Affects Children and Teens
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, approximately 40% of higher-weight girls and 37% of higher-weight boys are teased about their weight by peers or family members. In addition to contributing to the development of eating disorders, bullying can lead to low self-esteem, social isolation, and poor body image. Many individuals who struggle with eating disorders cite bullying as one of their initial triggers, making it all the more important that we educate our children, as well as each other, that bullying and weight shaming are never acceptable.
How can we make a positive change?
The first step in making a positive change is looking at ourselves. The thoughts and feelings we have about our own bodies can influence how we think about other people’s bodies. A good starting point is to examine our implicit biases, which everyone has. Questions to ask yourself include:
- Do I make assumptions about a person’s health based on their weight or size?
- When I say “healthy” and “unhealthy,” do I mean “thin” and “fat”?
Social Media and Purchasing Power
Choose which individuals and organizations to give your time and support to on social media, as well as real-life dollars. Questions to ask yourself about the people and brands you follow include:
- Does this person share diet culture messages that position thinness as superior to fatness?
- Is this brand committed to weight and size inclusivity? Does it offer clothes for a wide range of body sizes?
- Is this company trying to sell me something to “fix” a perceived problem with my size, shape, or weight?
- Who benefits from me feeling bad about my weight or size?
In order to change the incorrect “fat equals bad” narrative, it helps to follow people who spread messages that recognize and appreciate size diversity. Unfollowing accounts that either don’t represent people in larger bodies at all or perpetuate stereotypes about those people, as well as curating our feed so that it includes weight-inclusive and diverse accounts, is another great step toward positive change.
Activism and Advocacy
Our last example of how to create positive change is to get involved in activism and advocacy. You can connect with organizations like the Association for Size Diversity and Health® (ASDA) or the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA). One of the most important things you can do to advocate for those in larger bodies is to speak up in your own life. Have difficult conversations with those around you that challenge the idea that thinner is always better, interrupt instances of weight discrimination, and advocate for accessible and size-friendly seating, equipment, and layouts at your school, workplace, gym, and the places you shop. If we all made a collective effort to work on our weight-based biases, we could prevent weight-based bullying and ultimately end weight stigma and all the suffering it causes.