We live in a world where size dictates first impressions and skewed perceptions around a person’s health status. Let’s better understand the way fatphobia and weight stigma undermines our society.
If you break down the word, fatphobia simply means fear of fat. And I think we can all agree that our culture has a major fear of fat.
According to 2017 figures, weight loss is a $66 billion industry. From bars, shakes and pre-portioned meals to teas and pills, there is no shortage of products that promise to help you drop pounds fast. You can diet online and in-person, have your digestive tract shrunk or chopped up, and even have your stomach pumped after you eat (yes, the FDA really did approve this “assisted bulimia” contraption). It seems people will do just about anything to avoid being fat or to rid themselves of fat, regardless of the side effects and medical risks.
Open up any magazine or social media platform, and you’ll see thin bodies galore.
Thin is beautiful in our culture. Yes, curves in all the right places is great too, but a flat stomach usually is a requirement.
But it wasn’t always this way. Beauty ideals have shifted over the past several centuries and while thin is in, it used to be a sign of poverty. Plumpness was preferred in the Victorian era, while slenderness rose to popularity in the 20th century a la flapper girls of the 1920s and the tiny-waisted housewives of the 1950s. The rise in digital media no doubt has contributed to the increasing focus and value of a woman’s physical form. As a result, weight stigma has steadily grown, making it an issue that impacts public health and our culture.
Let’s take a closer look at how fatphobia and weight stigma has an effect on our society.
1. Diet culture is a patriarchal tool of oppression.
Look beyond the surface, and you will recognize diet culture is a product of patriarchy that keeps women in small spaces, both physically and emotionally. If we’re constantly focused on the latest diet and trimming away fat, then we won’t have time to be politically active or fight for social justice. But I digress — this is a separate discussion on the link between feminism and diet culture.
2. Weight stigma perpetuates a negative cycle.
According to a 2014 article, “weight stigma is defined as the social devaluation and denigration of people perceived to carry excess weight and leads to prejudice, negative stereotyping and discrimination toward those people.”
Weight stigma often leads to a vicious cycle of stress, increased eating, increased cortisol, increased weight gain and further weight stigma. In fact, shaming someone for being larger not only causes them to gain more weight, it causes psychological harm as well.
3. Body sizes tell us nothing about our actual health.
There’s nothing good that comes out of being biased against people of certain sizes, because there isn’t much you can tell about someone simply from looking at them. You don’t know if they have a medical condition, if they have an eating disorder, what kind of food they have access to, or if they have recently lost weight. You literally have no idea what that person is going through.
The tendency to judge people by their appearance has caused an increase in discrimination and bias against larger people as well as internalized weight stigma, which is particularly harmful. That leads to certain health conditions being over-diagnosed in larger people and under-diagnosed in smaller people because we align size with health. On the flip side, when the focus is taken off weight and directed towards helping people find enjoyable lifestyle and self-care behaviors which support good health, we see positive changes.
4. Weight stigma has negative public health consequences.
Unfortunately, weight stigma is extremely pervasive — in our health care system, in our educational system and all throughout the workforce. That promotes an environment where larger people are more likely to experience anxiety, depression, low self-esteem and body image issues.
It’s been shown that weight stigma increases the risk of eating disorders, and has even been suggested that weight itself isn’t the cause of all the “obesity-related health conditions,” but weight stigma. So all the work to “combat obesity” may in fact be part of the problem, and is only perpetuating the extreme focus on weight.
5. We aren’t considering the impact of our social surroundings.
We can’t ignore the fact that some biological risk factors are just not controllable. There are countless factors that can impact body size, and just a few are those we can actually modify. And arguably, social determinants of health can have a much bigger impact on our health than our lifestyle behaviors.
Ultimately, it’s important to realize that picking and choosing who we treat with respect harms everyone. Fatphobia and weight stigma are continuously taught to us by our culture, family, and friends, which creates a pervasive narrative telling us that only people of certain sizes are worthy of health and happiness.
If we want to start creating positive change, then it’s time to start checking in with reality.
Adapted from the original article.
HEADER IMAGE: BENJAMIN WONG
Taylor Wolfram, MS, RDN, LDN is Chicago-based Registered Dietitian who helps others lead a life of compassion that improves their overall relationship with food, exercise, and their bodies. As an expert in eco-ethical and vegan lifestyles, she’s passionate about helping individuals end their struggle with food and live an unrestricted life in the kitchen. Learn more about Taylor at Whole Green Wellness.