I’ve Learned about Weight Stigma. What can I Do to Help?

By Sarah Nutter, PhD; Postdoctoral Scholar, University of Calgary; Obesity Canada EveryBODY Matters Committee

After learning about “healthy weight” social messages, the ways that these messages are contradicted by scientific research, and the consequences these messages have for people with obesity and large bodies, readers may be wondering what they can do to combat “healthy weight” messages in their lives. While there are many things people can do, we will focus on four strategies as a starting point.

First, everyone can reflect on their own experiences with weight[1]. When a person reflects about their own experiences with their body and body weight, they can begin to identify the ways in which their weight has influenced their lives. This can then help us to better understand how the body weights of others may have influenced their lives.

Second, we can also reflect on everyday conversations and experiences related to weight1. Experiences such as participating in, or telling, weight-based jokes perpetuates stereotypes about people with obesity. Commenting on another person’s weight loss, even if you are intending to compliment them for their appearance, reinforces weight bias because it implies that people are more attractive when they weigh less. Finally, we can stop engaging in ‘fat talk’[2], which happens when someone makes a negative comment about their weight, food intake, or lack of physical activity in relation to their body weight with the expectation that the person they are speaking to with reciprocate with a similar comment in return.

Third, we can think critically about the weight-related information we hear and read about in the media1. In this series, we have debunked some of the common beliefs and assumptions made about weight and people with obesity and examined how harmful these beliefs and assumptions can be. When hearing new information about a “miracle food” or “weight loss cure”, individuals can ask themselves whether or not that information is truly rooted in science and how much influence “healthy weight” beliefs have had in the creation of that information.

Finally, individuals can work towards shifting the relationships they have with food and physical activity and focus on these things from the viewpoint of health promotion, rather than for weight loss. Health At Every Size[3] is an approach to health promotion that focuses on intuitive eating, which means becoming more attuned to our bodies hunger cues and understanding exactly what kind of hunger we are experiencing. This approach also focuses on engaging in physical activity for pleasure and health, regardless of its impact on body weight.

By focusing on these, and other, positive strategies, we can reduce the influence of “healthy weight” social messages in our lives. We may also reduce the severity of weight stigma in society and help to create a world where every body belongs.

References:

[1] Nutter, S., Russell-Mayhew, S., Arthur, N., & Ellard, J. H. (2018). Weight bias and social justice: Implications for education and practice. International Journal for the Advancement of Counselling, 40, 213-226. doi:10.1007/s10447-018-9320-8

[2] Salk, R. H., & Engeln-Maddox, R. (2011). If you’re fat, then I’m humongous!: Frequency, content, and impact of fat talk among college women. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 35, 18–28. doi:10.1177/0361684310384107

[3] Bacon, L., & Aphramor, L. (2011). Weight science: Evaluating evidence for a paradigm shift. Nutrition Journal, 10, 9. doi:10.1186/1475-2891-10-9

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