Weight Bias & Weight Stigma: Let’s End Weight Shaming (Guest Post)
I’m excited to introduce my next guest writer, Jen Pennock (MD). She’s written an informative and inspirational post on weight bias and weight stigma. In the age of rising obesity rates, it’s important to remember that obese people are still lovable and beautiful (or handsome!). Regardless of your size, you are enough. Be sure to read the entire post, which ends with a simple exercise to boost your self esteem and self love.
So many of us feel shame about our weight. We feel too fat, or we think our belly is too big, or our hips are too wide. The truth is we’re all beautiful humans in this world. You can shift your feelings about yourself and your body so that you love yourself just as you are in this moment.
I am a doctor who specializes in helping people who suffer from obesity. So many of my patients feel shame about their bodies and about themselves as well. I understand…I was obese for 10 years of my life and I used to feel shame about my body and myself. I realized through my own weight loss journey as well as working with hundreds of overweight patients that feeling bad about our bodies isn’t necessary.
What would it be like to not have those negative thoughts or feelings against your body? Would you lose motivation to lose weight? Some people feel that if they need to feel bad about their weight in order to stay motivated to lose weight. That’s not actually true. Fear or shame about your weight may initially motivate you to start a diet or physical activity plan. However, fear and shame are not good long-term motivators. Self-love is a much better long-term motivator…and way more pleasant!
Take a minute to answer these questions about how you feel about your weight. If you answer “yes” or “maybe” to a few of these questions, then you probably have some weight bias against yourself.
Do you feel less attractive than most other people because of your weight?
Do you feel anxious about being overweight because of what people think of you?
Do you sometimes hate yourself for being overweight?
Is your weight is a major way that you judge your value as a person?
Do you feel that you don’t deserve to have a fulfilling social life as long as you are overweight?
Do you feel like you’re not your true self because you’re overweight?
These questions are part of an assessment tool developed by Laura E Durso and Janet Latner. The two are from the Department of Psychology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa to evaluate weight bias internalization (1).
Weight bias is all around us
Let’s first start by trying to understand why we feel shame about our weight. Weight bias is all around us and has been seeping into our awareness since we were babies. In our culture, we’re generally careful to not discriminate based on race, ethnicity, religion or gender. However, it seems acceptable in our society to discriminate against people who’re overweight. This negative weight-related attitude toward overweight and obese individuals is called weight bias.
Weight bias is pervasive in our country. If you’re overweight or obese you’ve most likely experienced this. Weight bias can be as simple as verbal teasing. On the other hand, it can be as hurtful as physical aggression and social exclusion. The bias leads to societal devaluation, discrimination and rejection of overweight individuals. In fact, weight bias is present in almost every aspect of our culture, including in the healthcare system, job searches, media and relationships.
Weight bias in your healthcare professional’s office
You might experience weight bias when you visit a healthcare facility. Physicians, nurses and other healthcare professionals have been found to have negative attitudes towards heavier people. Research shows even healthcare professionals specializing in the treatment of obesity still have weight bias (2). People with excess weight often avoid preventive care due to weight bias (3). I hear stories from patients how they felt ashamed after visiting their healthcare professional. Patients describe how their healthcare provider didn’t take their symptoms seriously. And, regardless of the reason for their visit, patients were told they needed to lose weight.
Weight bias at your job
Weight bias is not limited to healthcare; it occurs in the workplace. People with extra weight experience bias in every step of employment. For example, people with excess weight with equal qualifications are less likely to be hired than people of normal weight (4). Studies show they usually have less opportunity for advancement (4). Also, people with excess weight may be paid less those that don’t (4).
Weight bias in the media
In addition to weight bias in healthcare and workplace, you’ll find it in the media. For example, 60% of the images of overweight subjects used in the news or media have the face blurred or cropped out (5). The overweight are 23 times more likely to have their head cropped out than a normal weight individual. Showing obese body parts doesn’t protect the individual in the photo and only serves to dehumanize the subject.
Weight bias in our relationships
Weight bias is so prevalent in our culture that it seeps into our relationships. A parent may shame a child for being overweight. Your spouse may ridicule you for your weight. Your friends may tease you or exclude you because of your weight. Weight bias is a seemingly acceptable form of discrimination.
Weight bias is misguided and harmful
Our weight bias comes from an oversimplified and inaccurate view about obesity. In reality, the causes of obesity are complex. Some believe shame helps overweight or obese people lose weight. The opposite is actually true. Shame for excess body weight doesn’t motivate positive change. Shame encourages individuals to attempt unhealthy eating plans and follow unsustainable exercise behaviors (6).
Why feeling bad about our weight isn’t helpful
Since weight bias is all around us, it’s understandable how we internalize weight bias. However, when we internalize weight bias and discriminate against ourselves, we create long-term damage. Weight bias internalization is defined as a person’s belief that they deserve the stigma and discrimination as a result of being overweight or obese (7). People who internalize weight bias have more maladaptive health behaviors, such as eating disorders, difficulty losing weight and have trouble maintaining weight loss (8).
If you have weight bias against yourself, you might have anxiety and depression related to your weight. You may dislike or even hate yourself because of your weight. You’re willing to be disrespected because you feel you deserve it. You feel unattractive and don’t deserve a fulfilling social life or attractive partner.
Let go of your weight bias against yourself and feel better now
You probably know someone who is overweight who seems to feel competent, attractive and lovable. You can feel that way too! Even though you’ve been having negative thoughts, you can shift towards positivity.
And, remember, it is OK to let go of these thoughts. You don’t need these negative thoughts to keep you motivated to lose weight. In fact the negative thoughts about your body are actually interfering with your ability to lose weight.
Take action to lighten your weight bias against yourself right now
Below is an exercise to start lifting your negative feelings to feel better right now. Here are the instructions for the exercise:
Read the affirmations below out loud to yourself. When you read them, take a moment to feel your emotions as they surface. It may feel awkward or fake, and that’s okay. But allow yourself to feel with curiosity and amusement. Try not to judge yourself; and if you do begin to judge, observe your judgement with that same curiosity and amusement.
I am competent
I am attractive
I am lovable and I am loved
I am my true self
I am enough
Great! Now, I’d like you to repeat that exercise at least twice a day. Save these affirmations somewhere clearly visible. Ideas include daily phone reminders, calendar post-it notes or sharpie on your mirror. When you read the affirmations, allow yourself to feel the emotions as they appear.
After you do this exercise, you might feel better about yourself right away. Alternatively, it may take time before your weight bias starts to lift. Now that you’re overcoming your personal weight bias, you’ll become more aware of the weight bias occurring around you. You can see weight bias as misguided and false, and it’ll be easier for you to stay true to your own positive beliefs about yourself.
Once you start to feel better about yourself and realize you’re attractive and lovable right now, you’ll choose healthier ways of eating and moving. You’ll begin to realize you’re worthy and you deserve to treat your body well. We all deserve to feel good about ourselves. We are all divine humans on this earth living this beautiful life together.
About the Author:
Jen Pennock is a medical doctor and author of The Obesity Solution. She specializes in endocrinology and obesity medicine. Since obesity is so common in people with diabetes, her practice has naturally shifted through the years towards treating more obesity. Jen’s patients appreciate her non-judgemental, compassionate attitude and her careful, thoughtful listening. She has been honored by Pittsburgh Magazine as one of The City’s Best Doctors every year since 2012.
- Laura E. Durso, Janet D. Latner, Understanding Self-directed Stigma:Development of the Weight Bias Internalization Scale, Obesity, volume 16, supplement 2, November 200, pages S80-S86
- Schwartz, M et al. Weight Bias Among Professional Specializing in Obesity. Obesity Research Vol 11, No 9 Sept 2003.
- Obesity Action Coalition . Weight Bias in Healthcare. A Guide for Healthcare Providers, 2014.
- Rudolph, W et al. “A meta-analysis of empirical studies of weight-based bias in the workplace” Journal of Vocational Behavior Volume 74, Issue 1, February 2009, Pages 1-10
- Ata, R.N. et al. “Weight Bias in the Media: a Review of Recent Research.” Obesity Facts 2010; 3:41-46
- Angela S. Alberga,Shelly Russell-Mayhew, Kristin M. von Ranson, and Lindsay McLaren. “Weight bias: a call to action.” J Eat Disord. 2016; 4: 34
- Puhl RM, Moss-Racusin CA, Schwartz MB. “Internalization of weight bias: implications for binge eating and emotional well-being.” Obesity (Silver Spring) 2007;15(1):19–23. doi: 10.1038/oby.2007.521
- Scott Kahan Rebecca M. Puhl, “The damaging effects of weight bias internalization.” Obesity Volume 25, Issue 2 February 2017 Pages 280-281