Updated: Mar 10
Have you ever heard of weight stigma? If you haven’t, you are not alone. You have probably seen or heard someone make comments associated with weight stigma, but you were not aware of it. You could have been the person perpetuating weight stigma or on the receiving end as well.
What is Weight Stigma?
Weight stigma is when a person is stigmatized based on their weight status, which often negatively affects their overall identity. People of any weight status can experience weight stigma, so anyone can receive negative messaging about their weight. This can happen through engaging in stereotypes, such as people who are overweight are “lazy or incompetent.” It can also happen through more explicit behaviors, such as teasing or bullying someone based on their weight.
According to Puhl and colleagues (2008), one of the most prevalent types of discrimination among adults is weight discrimination. They reported women are at greater risk than men since they are three times more likely to report discrimination than men (Puhl et al., 2008). Rates of weight or height discrimination are almost equivalent to rates of racial discrimination. Given these rates, these individuals tend to start internalizing the weight stigma, including marginalizing themselves (Christiansen, Borge, & Fagermoe, 2012).
What Does Weight Stigma Affect?
Research has demonstrated numerous negative psychological effects of weight stigma, including body dissatisfaction, increased anxiety and depression, and lower self-esteem (Hilbert et al., 2014; Puhl & Heuer, 2009; Vartanian & Novak, 2011). This is likely due to internalizing the negative messages about their bodies, resulting in the person self-perpetrating negative attitudes about their weight without additional need for external influence.
There are no benefits to weight stigma. I have heard the argument about how it can motivate people to work out more, but the research has shown otherwise. It does not help anyone and can further damage people’s self-esteem. If you hear something often enough, you will likely believe it. Not all bodies are the same. Some bodies are genetically bigger than others. It does not mean they are unhealthier than thin individuals. There are some thin individuals, who are actually more unhealthy than bigger individuals.
How to Challenge Weight Stigma Within Yourself
It can be difficult to challenge this ingrained belief since it is prevalent in almost everyone.
You can start by reflecting on the following questions:
What do you think about your own body?
How do you describe or talk about your body? How about other people’s bodies?
What beliefs do you hold about body sizes, including yours and others?
How do you feel about yourself if you look like someone else you know with a different physical body appearance?
It may be helpful to look at your own bias by taking this questionnaire.
Weight stigma is common and real in our society whether we are aware of it or not. I hope we can choose to be aware of it and to challenge it within ourselves and others. In reality, we don’t have the right to pass judgement on another person’s body. Everyone has their own journey and relationship with their bodies. People do not need another person’s unnecessary judgment to make their lives more difficult.
If you want therapeutic help in processing weight stigma, feel free to reach out to us through our site.
Stay tuned. The next topic is "Body Image."
Christiansen, B., Borge, L., & Fagermoe, M. S. (2012). Understanding everyday life of morbidly obese adults-habits and body image. International Journal of Qualitative Studies On Health And Well-Being, 7doi:10.3402/qhw.v7i0.17255
Hilbert, A., Braehler, E., Haeuser, W., & Zenger, M. (2014). Weight bias internalization, core self‐evaluation, and health in overweight and obese persons. Obesity, 22(1), 79-85. doi:10.1002/oby.20561
Puhl, R. M., Andreyeva, T., & Brownell, K. D. (2008). Perceptions of weight discrimination: Prevalence and comparison to race and gender discrimination in America. International Journal of Obesity,32(6), 992-1000. doi:10.1038/ijo.2008.22
Puhl, R. M., & Heuer, C. A. (2009). The stigma of obesity: A review and update. Obesity, 17(5), 941-964. doi:10.1038/oby.2008.636
Vartanian, L. R., & Novak, S. A. (2011). Internalized societal attitudes moderate the impact of weight stigma on avoidance of exercise. Obesity, 19(4), 757-762. doi:10.1038/oby.2010.234
Written by Elena Duong, Psy.D.
Edited by Susanna La, Ph.D.