End Weight Hate: Weight Stigma Awareness Week
Weight stigma is a social justice issue. Although Weight Stigma Awareness Week (WSAW) 2020 is behind us, efforts to End Weight Hate must continue.
The goal of the National Eating Disorders Association’s (NEDA) second annual Weight Stigma Awareness Week (WSAW), September 28 – October 2, 2020, was to amplify conversations about the harm, shame, and pervasiveness of weight stigma as well as spark action against fat-phobia and diet culture.
During Weight Stigma Awareness Week, eating disorder recovery organizations across the United States shined a spotlight on the important issue of weight stigma, while explaining its impact on mental health and eating disorder recovery. This fall, with the holidays fast approaching, this week has been valuable for our community to examine our assumptions about weight and health, and to remind us all of the importance of replacing our collective obsession with thinness with the belief that ALL bodies are GOOD bodies.
What is weight stigma?
Also known as weightism, weight bias, or fat-phobia, weight stigma is a form of prejudice built on the belief that people living in larger bodies are less healthy, less attractive, and therefore less worthy of respect or taking up space in our world. Weight stigma can even cause highly educated medical professionals to feel justified in discriminating on the basis of body type, mostly penalizing persons living in larger bodies. The medically sanctioned “war on obesity” attempts to shame people in larger bodies into changing their eating and exercise behaviors- often writing people with health concerns off until they lose weight.
Who is hurt by weight stigma?
This year’s WSAW theme, End Weight Hate, drew attention to the pervasive problem of weight stigma in our culture.
From research, we know that larger individuals face discrimination in the workplace, barriers in academia, and negative attitudes from healthcare professionals. Those who are pre-judged through the lens of weight stigma often experience body dissatisfaction so severe that they begin to practice unsafe feeding and exercise behaviors, which commonly contribute to the development of eating disorders.
Weight discrimination does not, well, discriminate; people of all ages and genders are impacted.
Misconceptions about weight, especially as it relates to health, are extremely harmful for larger-bodied individuals. But while our culture punishes people in larger bodies more overtly than those with thin privilege, dismantling diet culture (of which weight stigma is part) should be an equally urgent matter for ALL members of the eating disorder, fitness, entertainment, and medical communities (and beyond).
Those with “thin privilege” – or those living in lower-weight bodies – are also harmed by weight stigma. While they may not be bullied or ignored in the same way, they observe how fat people are treated throughout our culture and some can’t help but to see fatness or weight gain as things to be feared and avoided. Some thin-bodied individuals would rather risk their lives in order to remain at a certain weight, even developing rigid food rules or forgoing prescribed medications that may cause weight gain, so as to avoid being the object of hate and discrimination. And how can we blame them?
Weight stigma and race
Weight stigma is a reflection of our internalized attitudes toward weight, beauty, and health. While these attitudes are obviously perpetuated by diet culture on social media, by the fashion and entertainment industries, and almost everywhere you look, weight stigma did not begin on Instagram or during any of our lifetimes. If we hope to be a more inclusive culture going forward, we have to be honest and acknowledge the racist origins of fat phobia.
In Fearing the black body: the racial origins of fat phobia (NYU Press 2019), sociologist Sabrina Strings explores the racial factors that have contributed to our obsession with compulsory slenderness and the racist pseudoscience that led to fatness being associated with racial inferiority.
“…racial discourse was deployed by elite Europeans and white Americans to create social distinctions between themselves and fat racial Others. Black people, as well as so-called degraded or hybrid whites (e.g., Celtic Irish, southern Italians, Russians), were primary targets of these arguments.”
― Sabrina Strings, Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia
Without examining the intersection of weightism and racism, we can’t hope to untangle our complicated history or chart a new course going forward. It’s an uncomfortable but important conversation that can’t wait, as any fight to achieve equity for marginalized peoples would be incomplete without the shared belief that no one should be pre-judged by their physical characteristics.
Weight stigma and the medical community
Weight control initiatives have also played a role in weight stigma and the moral superiority of thinness. In recent decades, weight control campaigns have dramatically increased, with terms such as “Body Mass Index (BMI)” and “obesity epidemic” now virtually unchallenged and unquestioned in our culture. According to NEDA, since the rise of the obesity prevention movement (aka the war on obesity), the frequency of weight stigma has increased approximately 66%. The research is clear: overemphasizing weight can encourage disordered eating and have counterproductive, even dangerous, effects.
Weight stigma and family
Family or the home environment can also reinforce fat-phobic beliefs. Caregivers who love their children and only want what’s best for their optimum health sometimes inadvertently exacerbate or create anxiety around their child’s relationship with food. The child or adolescent, fearing their family’s rejection, may develop maladaptive attitudes towards food and their body, either burrowing into food for comfort, attempting to avoid it out of fear of weight gain, or something else within a vast spectrum of other eating disorder behaviors and fat shame symptoms.
Certain negative personality traits are often attributed to people who don’t fall into an ideal weight category. For example a larger-bodied person struggling with an eating disorder is more likely to be seen as lacking in self control, while a thinner-bodied individual struggling with an eating disorder – even if they have the same diagnosis – are more likely to be praised for their willpower, when in fact both both of them need professional care. Caregivers who focus on nutrition while also observing how their child interacts with and talks about food, their body, and others’ bodies can help create a new generation of body-accepting human beings. Caregivers who put their children on rigid diets and coach them to reach a specific, arbitrary weight, create a perfect storm for the development of an eating disorder,
How is weight stigma connected to eating disorders?
Weight stigma is also prevalent within the medical community, in which people in larger bodies are often asked to lose weight, change their diet, and up their exercise before any of their concerns will be taken seriously. When doctors equate weight to health, what hope do the rest of us have of breaking the stigma?
Those who are the subjects of weight stigma may feel powerless and pressured, and unfortunately, some members of the medical community can exacerbate body image issues. An individual may ultimately develop an eating disorder as a way of coping, and of disassociating with these feelings of powerlessness.
At Alsana, we know that many of our clients have developed eating disorders at least partially in response to these unfair social pressures, and toward the discrimination they have experienced based on their body type. This is why Alsana participated in Weight Stigma Awareness Week. We want people to know that these biases are truly harmful, even life threatening. We also want people to know that even those struggling with an eating disorder can find hope, as treatment can lead to lifelong recovery.
Fight weight stigma every week
- Educate yourself and share what you learn with other
- Cultivate self awareness by honestly assessing your own biases/assumptions about weight.
- Become an advocate and support legislation that promotes equal access to eating disorder treatment and all health care.
- If you or a loved one has experienced weight stigma, share your story to help break the silence and shame around fatness.
Alsana is here for you
If you are struggling in your relationship with food in a way that makes it difficult to eat mindfully and joyfully, we encourage you to find a body inclusive clinician to support you. If your relationship with food is causing anxiety or otherwise interfering with your ability to live a fulfilling life, please connect with us today.