Weight Bias and Weight Stigma: Let’s End Weight Shaming

This post was originally published on carobcherub.com on 2/26/19

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 that we’re all beautiful humans in this world, and 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 patients with excess weight that feeling bad about our bodies is not 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!

Self-assessment

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 at 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 against people for their race ethnicity, religion or gender. Have you noticed, however, that it seems acceptable in our society still to discriminate against people who’re overweight? This negative weight-related attitude, belief, assumption, and judgment toward individuals who are overweight and obese is called weight bias.

Weight bias is pervasive in our country and if you’re overweight or obese you’ve most likely experienced this. Weight bias can be as simple as verbal teasing and as hurtful as physical aggression and social exclusion, and leads to societal devaluation, discrimination, and rejection of individuals with excess weight. In fact, weight bias is present in almost every aspect of our culture, including in the healthcare system, job searches, media, and in our relationships.

Weight bias in your healthcare professional’s office

You may have experienced weight bias when you’ve been to your healthcare professional’s office. Physicians, nurses and many types of healthcare professionals have been surveyed and found to have negative attitudes towards people with excess weight. Research shows that even healthcare professionals specializing in the treatment of obesity still have weight bias.2 Experiencing this type of bias, people with excess weight often avoid preventive care.3 I hear stories from patients how they felt ashamed after visiting their healthcare professional; patients described that 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 excess weight can experience bias in every step of employment. For example, people with excess weight are less likely to be hired than people of normal weight even with the same qualifications.4 Studies have shown that people with excess weight are less likely to have opportunity for advancement.4 Also, people with excess weight may be paid less than people who are not overweight.4

Weight bias in the media

In addition to weight bias in healthcare and in in the workplace, you’ll find weight bias in the media. For example, when a news story about overweight or obesity includes images, 60% of the images used show the body only with the face of the individual blurred or cropped out of the image.5 The overweight are 23 times more likely to have their head cropped out of a media image than a normal weight individual. This practice of showing obese body parts is not protecting the individual in the photo and only serves to dehumanize people who have excess weight.

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

Weight bias comes from an oversimplified view and inaccurate beliefs about the disease of obesity. In reality, the causes of obesity are complex, and it’s not simply the fault of the person suffering from obesity that they’re overweight. Some believe that shame will help overweight or obese people to lose the weight. The opposite is actually true. Shaming individuals for their excess body weight doesn’t motivate positive change. Shame actually encourages individuals who’ve experienced weight bias 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 is completely understandable that we internalize this weight bias. However, when we internalize weight bias and begin to discriminate against ourselves, this is far more damaging. Weight bias internalization is defined as a person’s belief that they deserve the stigma and discriminatory treatment as a result of being overweight or obese.7 People who internalize weight bias have more maladaptive health behaviors, such as eating disorders, experience difficulty losing weight, and have trouble maintaining weight loss.8

If you have significant weight bias against yourself, then you might have significant anxiety and depression related to your weight and you dislike or even hate yourself because of your weight. You’re willing to accept disrespect from others because you feel that you do not deserve respect. 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 have been telling yourself some very negative thoughts, you can begin to shift away from those negative thoughts right now.

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. Actually, the opposite is true… 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

Here is an exercise that can start lifting your negative feelings about your body and yourself and begin to feel better today.

Here are the instructions for the exercise:

Read the affirmations below out loud to yourself now. When you read these affirmations, take a moment to feel the emotions as they surface. It may feel awkward or fake, and that’s okay. But allow yourself to feel those feelings 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 that will help you remember to do this. You can set reminders on your phone daily, or put these on a post it on your calendar. Or write them with a sharpie on your mirror. When you read through these affirmations, allow yourself to feel the emotions as they appear.

After you do this exercise, you might feel better about yourself right away, or it may take time before your weight bias against yourself starts to lift. Now that you are overcoming your weight bias against yourself, you will probably become more aware of the weight bias occurring all around you. You can now see that 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 at your current weight and realize that you’re attractive and lovable right now, you’ll choose healthier ways of eating and moving because you’re worthy and you deserve to treat your body well. Plus, we all deserve to feel good about ourselves. We are all divine humans on this earth living this beautiful life together.

If you want to know more about improving your mindset about your weight or if you want guidance on how to lose weight, check out my new ebook The Obesity Solution, a compassionate step-by-step guide to losing the weight and keeping it off.

References

1. 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 1-10Ata, R.N. et al. “Weight Bias in the Media: a Review of Recent Research.” Obesity Facts 2010; 3:41-46Angela S. Alberga,Shelly Russell-Mayhew, Kristin M. von Ranson, and Lindsay McLaren. “Weight bias: a call to action.” J Eat Disord. 2016; 4: 34Puhl 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.2007.521Scott Kahan Rebecca M. Puhl, “The damaging effects of weight bias internalization.” Obesity Volume 25, Issue 2 February 2017 Pages 280-281

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