Today marks the first day of BEDA's (Binge Eating Disorder Association) first annual Weight Stigma Awareness Week, which runs from September 26th to the 30th.
What is weight stigma?
Weight stigma, also known as weightism, weight bias, and weight-based discrimination, is discrimination or stereotyping based on one's weight, especially very large or thin people. The term is a misnomer as the stigma arises from the condition of being obese or schadenfreude arising from the suffering from the disease, and not the mass of the individual stigmatized in this manner. Weight stigma reflects internalized attitudes towards the obese that affects how these people—the targets of bias—are treated.
A person who is stigmatized possesses a weight that leads to a devalued social identity, and is often ascribed stereotypes or other labels denoting a perceived deviance which can lead to prejudice and discrimination. Common, “weight-based”, stereotypes are that obese persons are lazy, lack self-discipline, and have poor willpower, but also possess defects of intelligence and character. Common weight-based stereotypes of non-obese persons are that non-obese persons are unattractive, anorexic, unhealthy, diet and/or exercise excessively. There is no experimental or scientific evidence to indicate that these stereotypes are true, although pervasive social portrayals of obesity create and reinforce biased attitudes.
Weight Bias and Bullying in Schools:
Weight stigma, including weight-based teasing, bullying, and social isolation, is a common occurrence among the lives of children and adolescents. Although overweight and obese youth experience higher levels of stigma, underweight youth also experience weight stigma.
Recent research shows that weight-based victimization in the school setting is highly prevalent, occurs across all grade levels, and is more common than other forms of teasing and bullying. Despite its prevalence, some overweight and obese students report that school-based policies to prohibit victimization are not being enforced.
Numerous studies have documented the adverse consequences weight stigma has on the psychological and physical health of youth. Children and adolescents who experience weight stigma are at increased risk of depression, anxiety, poor body image, suicidal ideation, as well as disordered eating behaviors, binge eating behaviors and avoidance of physical activity. Weight stigma has also been found to be associated with poorer educational outcomes and increased school absences.
Research has shown that peers and teachers, along with parents, are the primary sources of weight stigma experienced by youth. Thus, schools are an appropriate and important venue for environmental level policies and interventions to reduce weight stigma and victimization. School-based interventions aimed at changing the social environment of the school (i.e., norms regarding weight-related harassment), have been shown to reduce the amount of stigma experienced by youth.
Obesity Society: Youth Weight Bias and Bullying in Schools
When I was younger the rules were: thin is pretty, fat is ugly.From the tender age of two until I was 12, adults seemed to be in awe of my thin body. I had one neighbor count my ribs every time I saw her, and another neighbor who, when I complained that I wanted rounder hips, said, “Trust me, one day you’ll miss those hip bones.
The body ‘compliments’ stopped when I entered puberty and I gained weight and fat –natural life processes that I didn’t think of as “bad” until others around me started to tell me that this new weight looked “bad” on me. One day my mom called me her “stocky daughter” and I was mortified.
Because of comments like those, I spent the next 16 years of my life on diets, exercising and speaking self‐loathing body thoughts. And for 16 years I denied my body its genetically natural weight and shape.
It was a miserable existence.
Kathleen MacDonald: BEDA Stories PDF
There is clear evidence of weight stigma and bias in multiple aspects of daily life for obese individuals. Negative perceptions of obese persons exist in employment settings where obese employees are viewed as less competent, lazy and lacking in self-discipline by their co-workers and employers. These attitudes can have a negative impact on wages, promotions and decisions about employment status for obese employees.
Research studies also show that obese applicants are less likely to be hired than thinner applicants, despite having identical job qualifications. There are also increasing legal cases emerging where obese employees have been fired or suspended because of their weight, despite demonstrating good job performance and even though their body weight was unrelated to their job responsibilities.
OAC: Understanding the Negative Stigma of Obesity and its Consequences
Discrimination against overweight people--particularly women--is as common as racial discrimination, according to a study by the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University.
"These results show the need to treat weight discrimination as a legitimate form of prejudice, comparable to other characteristics like race or gender that already receive legal protection," said Rebecca Puhl, research scientist and lead author.
The study documented the prevalence of self-reported weight discrimination and compared it to experiences of discrimination based on race and gender among a nationally representative sample of adults aged 25- to 74-years-old. The data was obtained from the National Survey of Midlife Development in the United States.
The study also revealed that women are twice as likely as men to report weight discrimination and that weight discrimination in the workplace and interpersonal mistreatment due to obesity is common.
Unfortunately, weight stigma also exists in healthcare settings. Negative attitudes about overweight patients have been reported by physicians, nurses, dietitians, psychologists, and medical students. Research shows that even healthcare professionals who specialize in the treatment of obesity hold negative attitudes.
It is not yet known how bias among healthcare professionals affects the quality of care they provide to obese patients. However, some studies have indicated that obese patients are reluctant to seek medical care, and may be more likely to delay important preventative healthcare services and cancel medical appointments. One reason for these experiences may be weight bias in healthcare settings.
OAC: Understanding the Negative Stigma of Obesity and its Consequences
“I grew up with a Mom that was morbidly obese from compulsive overeating. Through out her life she experienced a lot of hurt and discrimination because of her weight. Discrimination and plain ignorance ultimately killed her. In May of 2008 she was admitted to the hospital with shortness of breathe. She received a blood transfusion and seemed to be recovering. The doctors did not know why she needed a transfusion. One doctor thought a bone marrow test should be done but then quickly dismissed the idea because of my Mom's size. The doctor even joked about her being to big...laughing that she (the doctor) was so petite & getting to my Mom's hip would be too hard because of her size. In the end that test would of proved beneficial. Less then a year later my Mom died suddenly from complications to amlyoidosis. A disease that would have been detected with a bone marrow test.”Has weight stigma touched your life? I invite you to share your story on Weighing The Facts. Email me at email@example.com.
Fran Erbe: BEDA stories PDF