The Burden Of Weight Stigma- Why Fat Shaming Never Has A Positive Outcome – The PHIT Coach
August 9, 2018

The Burden Of Weight Stigma - Why Fat Shaming Never Has A Positive Outcome

by Jake Gifford

“We’re deep in an increasingly problematic epidemic!”

Whenever I see phrases reflecting a state of panic, whether it’s in an article, a tweet or any other media outlet, I feel like I’ve been somewhat sucked into budget horror film written by Tommy Wiseau.

We’re all told that obesity is a massive crisis towards our health and that more needs to be done about it. However, despite the introduction of silly taxes *cough* sugar tax *cough* and the increase in the number of weight loss interventions, there’s no evidence of a long-term solution to a complex problem.

Partly due to this perceived crisis, as a society we’ve developed an inherent fear of becoming fat. Whether that’s criticising love handles, loathing stomach rolls or doing everything in our power to remove cellulite.

The lengths and efforts some people will go to cleanse the World of what deep down many thin people feel is abhorrent and a health hazard is quite scary. Ultimately, whether our actions are conscious or subconscious we’re ostracising a demographic and devaluing people based on their shape and size as opposed to their values based on weak evidence at best.

Now I know at this point there will be Doctors, health professionals and people who’ve got a personal opinion, screaming at their screens; “obesity is a massive drain on the NHS!” but with that I can’t help but roll my eyes, shrug my shoulders and ask these people “where’s the solid evidence?”

Despite obesity levels increasing (ever so slightly) over the past few decades, we’re living longer and associated diseases such as cardiovascular disease have steadily been on the decline. The risks associated with obesity are often greatly exaggerated and statistics have been contorted to support a lazy narrative.

This blind rhetoric, which is completely disproportionate to the risks, has deeply rooted itself within societal attitudes and consequently pushed the fear of obesity at the forefront. Misaligned attitudes stagger progress in improving health outcomes by failing to appropriately address causality, social determinants and individual differences .

Now there's a plethora of vitriol disappointingly from the fitness industry that continue to place the blame on individuals and lifestyle choices. The majority of these people may never have experienced being classed as overweight and think taking a more direct and “tough love” approach is the way forward to combatting obesity.

In reality this mentality only somewhat works for a minority and the same small social circles, with untold implications on the long-term impact on both mental and physical health. 

Apathetic responses often conflict and fail to account for a wide range of problems, occurrences and differences a person may experience. Whether that’s illness, trauma, poverty or negative experiences with health behaviours, insensitivity and a lack of desire to understand simply fuel both weight stigma and fatphobia.

Wherever you stand on the face of obesity and whether you like it or not, weight stigma kills. Weight stigma stops those living in larger bodies attending doctors’ appointments or turning up for those ever so important medical screenings such as the smear test.

It creates more fear and anxiety in situations where people are already anxious enough as it is without the uncompassionate responses of friends, family, strangers and healthcare professionals.

This is because our bodyweight's murky correlation with health issues continues to be hyperbolised and therefore weight loss is often seen as a quick fix solution. The assumption always will be that if you're a larger person goes to the Doctors, you'll be told you need to lose weight to fix your symptoms.

Can't get pregnant? Lose weight they'll say! Gut health issues? They'll say lose weight again! What next, we'll reduce the risk of flu through weight loss? It's a lazy and naive approach to health and wellbeing.

But what’s the deal with weight stigma? I mean who cares if we hurt someone’s feelings in the sake of making them take responsibility for their health? Well quite a bit actually…

For those new to the term, weight stigma is the discrimination of people based on their weight or size. Weight stigma has often been associated with poorer body image, low self esteem, increased risk of disordered eating and higher levels of depression and anxiety.

Our words can be the difference between encouraging someone to achieve their potential and experience exercise and diet in a positive way or triggering an eating disorder and fuelling self-harm.

“But people can alter their weight unlike *insert other discriminatory factors here*” I hear people cry. Sure, someone's weight can fall on a spectrum or range and some people may find it easier than others, but victim blaming through weight stigma is a double-edged sword.

By placing the blame on victims, there’s a level of confliction between those who struggle and those who don’t. It means honest and important conversations are lost in translation and converted into heated debates where either side is on the back foot.

Consequently time and resources are wasted on individualising health outcomes and purely placing the responsibility on the victim, which fail to  include the target demographic within the conversation and create meaningful change.

Placing pressure to excessively diet and exercise exacerbates a problem rather than fixes it. For the majority, this pressure worsens health outcomes and reinforces the narrative that exercise is punishment and food is nothing more than something to fuel the body.

It convinces people that there's something inherently wrong with them, they're less valuable to society and even potentially a burden. It's confusing, traumatic and deflating when you're reminded this everyday whether it's through conversations or social media.

Whilst some may feel like one comment may not do much harm and some people just need to hear “the truth”, an ongoing bombardment of small comments can add up and lead to unjust outcomes for those on the receiving end.

If you're told something enough times, you'll soon start believing it to be the truth and it'll wear you down like a river eroding stone. Whether you believe it to be true or not, words have consequences and in some cases can stick with some people for a lifetime.

Life takes its toll and we’re all in this together one way or another. If we have any hope of progressing, we need to ensure we’re inclusive, empathetic and understanding of people who are going through experiences you might be fortunate enough not to.

That means being mindful of our words, having all important conversations, paying attention to the opinions of others and providing appropriate support that isn't the blanket "you need to lose weight" response.

Fat people are people too.

Key Takeaways

  • When it comes to obesity, it's important to take statistics with a pinch of salt and understand context.
  • Weight stigma and victim blaming helps nobody and the narrative surrounding "fatness" needs to be changed.
  • Empathy, compassion and inclusivity are powerful facilitators for change.

Further Reading

B., S. M., O’Neal, C. H., D., B. K., N., B. S., & Charles, B. (2012). Weight Bias among Health Professionals Specializing in Obesity. Obesity Research, 11(9), 1033–1039.

Bastien, M., Poirier, P., Lemieux, I., & Després, J. P. (2014). Overview of epidemiology and contribution of obesity to cardiovascular disease. Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases, 56(4), 369–381.

M., P. S., J., B. D., W., Y. M., L., H. W., M., G. J., & M., R. (2015). Impact of weight bias and stigma on quality of care and outcomes for patients with obesity. Obesity Reviews, 16(4), 319–326.

Puhl, R. M., & Heuer, C. A. (2010). Obesity Stigma: Important Considerations for Public Health. American Journal of Public Health, 100(6), 1019–1028.

Puhl, R., & Suh, Y. (2015). Health Consequences of Weight Stigma: Implications for Obesity Prevention and Treatment. Current Obesity Reports, 4(2), 182–190.

R., V. L., & A., N. S. (2012). Internalized Societal Attitudes Moderate the Impact of Weight Stigma on Avoidance of Exercise. Obesity, 19(4), 757–762.

Sousa, P. (2015). Comment on ‘cardiovascular disease in Europe 2014: Epidemiological update’. Revista Portuguesa de Cardiologia, 34(5), 381–382.

Vartanian, L. R., & Shaprow, J. G. (2008). Effects of Weight Stigma on Exercise Motivation and Behavior: A Preliminary Investigation among College-aged Females. Journal of Health Psychology, 13(1), 131–138.

Williams, O. (2017). Identifying adverse effects of area-based health policy: An ethnographic study of a deprived neighbourhood in England. Health & Place, 45, 85–91.

Jake Gifford

About the Author

Jake Gifford

Jake Gifford, MSc is a personal trainer based in Amersham, Buckinghamshire. Jake encourages people to reject diet culture and discover the benefits of exercise beyond the way you look. You can also find him on Instagram @thephitcoach

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