Health & Wellness

Ending Weight Stigmatization

A conversation about how it occurs and how to stop it.

Our editor in chief, Theresa DiMasi, discussed weight stigmatization with Rebecca Puhl,  PhD, deputy director for the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut. Here's what she had to say:

 

On how far we’ve come

 
There has been an increasing awareness of body positivity. More people are pointing out that fat-shaming is unacceptable and that we need to have broader acceptance of people regardless of what their bodies look like. Yes, we see an effort to include larger body sizes in magazines or TV, but that’s not what we predominantly see in advertising and fashion. The shift is starting, but there’s a long way to go.

 

On how social ideals still stigmatize people


In the past 50 years, ideas of physical attractiveness, especially for women, have focused on this ultrathin ideal: Thinness equals beauty. The other piece that’s involved is that we live in a society and culture that blame a person who is overweight or has obesity. If you don’t conform, then you must be lacking the character traits that make a person thin. But when we look at all the factors that combine to create a person’s body weight or that cause obesity, personal behavior is only one piece of the puzzle.

 

On where stigma appears 


Weight bias isn’t only spotted in the media—it gets expressed in different ways. In a healthcare situation, it could be blaming a patient for lack of weight-loss progress. Judgmental language such as, “You have to learn how to push yourself away from the table,” can be harmful. Most doctors don’t have the resources or training to know what’s effective. Also raising concerns: airlines charging passengers if they take up more than one seat; weight limitations at amusement parks; and TV shows that ridicule people because of their body weight. Stigma can also come in the form of comments from a co-worker, friend, or family member. All of this negativity can cause the targets to internalize the hurtful remarks, leading to a yearning to be invisible for self-protection.

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On meaningful changes to make 


Creating strong anti-bullying programs in schools and providing the proper training on how to handle obesity for health-care providers—starting in medical school—were two ways that people felt we could combat weight stigma, according to a survey published in the January 2017 issue of Obesity Science & Practice. Other areas worth exploring: including stigma-reduction strategies in family settings, and eradicating weight-related mockery in the media.

 

On the positive images we need to see 


The more that we can push messages that portray women, their ambition, and their accomplishments that have absolutely nothing to do with the size of pants they wear, the further we will go.

 

On men’s experience of stigma 


Although it’s more common among women, boys and men are also teased, stigmatized, and treated unfairly because of their weight. It’s important to raise awareness that there are long-standing damaging consequences for men, too.

 

On what you can do right now to resist stigma  


You must avoid the self-blame and you must not internal­ize the experience as being your fault. You must know you’re deserving of respect and dignity even when other people don’t treat you that way. For a patient who has experienced stigma in health care, for example, we recommend talking with patient advocates or having a frank conversation with your doctor about the language used when discussing your weight.

 

On being OK with who you are and wanting to improve at the same time

It’s not a contradiction to accept yourself and want to improve. When you’re accepting of yourself, you have more emotional resources available to invest more in your life. When you’re not OK with yourself, when you’re blaming yourself, that really creates barriers in being able to use those other resources for positive well-being.

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