What is Weight Bias and How Does it Effect YOU?


This week is weight stigma awareness week. Last week, I attended a lecture about Health At Every Size, a new movement that encourages acceptance of all body shapes and sizes and recognizes that health and weight are not necessarily correlated.

That’s right: WEIGHT is NOT correlated with HEALTH.

This shocked me, because the messages I’ve received are that smaller bodies are healthier than larger bodies…right?

But it turns out those messages are not true. The result of a 2013 meta-analysis published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed the people categorized as overweight or obese, according to BMI, actually have LOWER mortality risk than those in the normal BMI range.

And yet, the line between health and weight is so clearly drawn that many of us can’t help but make the assumption…

Skinny = Healthy

Fat = Unhealthy

Imagine that you were sitting at Lenoir or Starbucks with some friends, looking at the photo below in a magazine or online. What are people saying?

thin woman
“Models photo shoot” by David Yu, Flickr Creative Commons

Now, imagine ya’ll are looking at this photo. What are people saying?

Large woman wearing floral dress and coat
“It’s been awhile” by Amber Karnes, Flickr Creative Commons

What is weight bias and where does it come from?

These assumptions are examples of weight bias. The Binge Eating Disorder Association defines weight bias as “negative judgment based on weight, shape, and/or size.” It can be both explicit and implicit, and it leads to weight stigma, or internalized shame resulting from weight bias.

Weight bias stems from a culture that inaccurately equates thinness with health, happiness, and success. Add to that the growing “war on obesity” which has become a war on obese people, and it is clear that weight bias is increasingly pervasive.

Unfortunately, it also starts young and often in the home: in one study, 47% of overweight girls and 34% of overweight boys were teased about their weight by family members. Many parents who struggle with their body image subconsciously pass this on to their kids, while others try intentionally not to.

What about weight bias for the thin folks (aka “thin-shaming”)?

I have written a few blogs about body image, and I try to veer away from promoting one body type over another, because thin people face assumptions that they are stuck up or vain or that they have an eating disorder. Songs like “All About That Bass” and campaigns like “Real Women Have Curves” send a negative message to thin women, and I’m not okay with that.

But…

When it comes to weight bias, people with large bodies have it worse. And here’s why:

People with large bodies don’t just face stigma from fat jokes, they also face discrimination. Weight discrimination has increased 66% over the past decade, making it comparable to rates of racial discrimination, especially among women.

Here are some of the inequities:

Education—compared to nonobese children, obese children are

  • Perceived as less likely to succeed by teachers and principals
  • Less likely to be admitted to college with comparable academic performance
  • Less likely to attend college
  • Subject to teasing and bullying which leads to increased absences and depression

Employment—compared to nonobese adults, obese individuals face

  • Lower employment with comparable qualifications and skills
  • Lower wages (1% to 6% less than nonobese employees)
  • Negative bias in performance evaluations

Health—compared to nonobese patients, obese patients experience

  • Negative stereotypes among health care professionals
  • Less time with their physicians
  • Increased depression, lower self esteem, and negative body image

In an earlier blog, I talked about how body shame hurts us all. And it does. However, the shame associated with larger bodies comes with a large dose of discrimination that affects people’s ability to get into college, get a job and get paid fairly, and get the medical attention they need. And that’s the real shame.

Help fight weight stigma by

  • Avoiding media that supports weight bias and weight stigma; read positive media like Yoga Body Project or join the Health At Every Size movement
  • Recognizing that body shame negatively affects everyone—large or small—but it results in some serious inequities for people with larger bodies
  • Taking Embody Carolina’s training to learn more about eating disorders and the healthy weight myth
  • Reading more about thin privilege and fat acceptance

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