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The target of the National Eating Disorders Associations (NEDA) second annual Weight Stigma Awareness Week (WSAW), September 28 – October 2, 2020, was to amplify conversations in regards to the harm, shame, and pervasiveness of weight stigma as well as spark action against fat-phobia and diet culture.
During Alsana St. Louis 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 holiday season fast approaching, this week has been valuable for the 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 referred to as weightism, weight bias, or fat-phobia, weight stigma is an application of prejudice built on the belief that folks surviving in larger bodies are less healthy, less attractive, and therefore less worth respect or taking on space within our world. Weight stigma can even cause highly educated medical professionals to feel justified in discriminating on the foundation of body type, mostly penalizing persons surviving 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 awareness of the pervasive problem of weight stigma within 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 start to practice unsafe feeding and exercise behaviors, which commonly donate to the development of eating disorders.
Weight discrimination does not, well, discriminate; folks of all ages and genders are impacted.
Misconceptions about weight, especially since it relates to health, are extremely harmful for larger-bodied individuals. But while our culture punishes people in larger bodies more overtly than individuals 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).
Individuals with “thin privilege” – or those surviving in lower-weight bodies – are also harmed by weight stigma. While they may not be bullied or ignored in exactly 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 items to be feared and avoided. Some thin-bodied individuals would rather risk their lives to be able to remain at a certain weight, even developing rigid food rules or forgoing prescribed medications that may cause weight gain, to be able to avoid being the thing of hate and discrimination. And how do 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 develop to be always a more inclusive culture moving forward, we've 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 the obsession with compulsory slenderness and the racist pseudoscience that led to fatness being related to racial inferiority.
“…racial discourse was deployed by elite Europeans and white Americans to produce 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 the 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 could be incomplete with no shared belief that no one should be pre-judged by their physical characteristics.
Weight stigma and the medical community
Weight control initiatives have played a position 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 within our culture. Based on NEDA, considering that the rise of the obesity prevention movement (aka the war on obesity), the frequency of weight stigma has increased approximately 66%. The investigation is clear: overemphasizing weight can encourage disordered eating and have counterproductive, even dangerous, effects.