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.


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

10 Things We Say That Hurt Body Image

I don’t speak for all women. These are just some comments I have heard and–regrettably–said in my life. Comments delivered with the best intentions that nevertheless sting, because they move me away from a confident, body-positive headspace. Comments I now try to avoid.

1. Don’t worry–a lot of guys really like curvy women.

Heteronormativity aside, this statement reinforces the notion that a woman’s worth lies solely in her ability to sexually attract a man by comforting her with the idea that men still find her body sexy. It’s like saying “all that matters is your ability to get a man to sleep with you, and being fat hasn’t totally compromised that ability.” Ouch.  Try “you’re an amazing/strong/intelligent/ creative/etc woman!”

2. Wow; I can’t believe you weigh that much. But the weight looks really good on YOU.

Weight varies. And the same weight can look very different on different people–I get it. But body-shapebrushing aside our ridiculous standards of beauty and acting like I am a “special case” either comes across as condescending–”don’t worry; you don’t LOOK fat”–or as an indirect, self-inflicted wound–”Your weight would never look as good on me.”

Let’s assume for a moment the revolutionary idea that no weight is inherently good or bad and that no body is inherently flawed. Wow. That frees up a lot of room in the conversation for celebrating the attributes of a person that really matter, doesn’t it?

3. Oh my gosh–you’ve lost soo much weight… how did you DO it?”

This goes hand-in-hand with “how do you stay so thin?” A lot of things can cause people to lose weight or maintain a thin frame. Genetics. Diet and exercise. Fasting. Eating disorders. Grief. Depression. Anxiety, and a host of other mental health issues. Not to mention cancer, lupus, AIDS, certain medications, mono, the flu…

Don’t assume that a person’s weight loss or thinness is intentional, and don’t assume they want to talk about it.

If you know a friend/co-worker/family member has embarked on a new diet and exercise regimen and they are losing weight, let them take the lead in talking about it. Reflect their feelings (increased energy, confidence, sense of pride) rather than focusing on weight loss.

And if you just happen to notice someone’s sudden weight loss or petite frame and you are genuinely concerned? Try telling them you are concerned without mentioning weight (“I noticed you haven’t been yourself lately” or “You seem a little stressed/overwhelmed; is everything ok?”). Then give them space to talk.

In the end, it’s not their weight that matters, and focusing on a person’s body or weight loss can detract from appreciating their holistic value as a person.

4. Did you see so-and-so-from-high-school’s new profile pic? She got FAT.

AKA “I can’t believe how much weight she’s gained.” This is fat shaming. Pure and simple. And no good can come if it. Besides, you have no idea what may be happening in that friend’s life beyond her FB pages. Leave her alone. You got your own life to worry about, right?

5. Those jeans make you look so skinny!

As opposed to all my other clothes? This is a pseudo-compliment. It insinuates that I am not actually skinny and thus need a pair of jeans to make me look skinny, and that by pointing out my miraculously skinny look, you are somehow doing me a favor.

Imagine a world where “looking skinny” is no better or worse than looking any other way, and what mattered was how we felt. Well, we can move closer to that world NOW by trading the skinny complement for something more meaningful, like “I can tell you feel confident when you wear that outfit” or “You look really happy today.”

6. I wish I had your arms/stomach/thighs/whatever.

Really? I wish I had 20/20 vision. The power to teleport. The ability to do crazy hard math problems in my head. C’mon, you can wish better than that!

7. I hate it when fat girls wear _____ .

Fat shaming hurts all of us. So, just don’t.

8. She is so anorexic.

Is she really? Because anorexia is a complex, life threatening, mental illness (that’s right, ya’ll, I said “mental” because it’s not just about weight…). Using “anorexic” as a derogatory adjective to describe a thin person is not only offensive to that person, it perpetuates the stigma and stereotypes around eating disorders. Maybe she is anorexic. Maybe not.

If she is a close friend and you are honestly concerned about her mental health, don’t gossip about her behind her back. Read about ways to be supportive and helpful or check out Embody Carolina’s training. And if she’s not a friend or someone you are honestly concerned about? Leave her alone. Get back to living your life!

BLD0851989. I look so fat today!

Look, we all have those days. Even the feminists and the fat acceptance folks and the media image warriors. The days when it gets to us. The fat days. And it’s ok to have that day and let yourself wallow. Lean on your friends. Although thinness is definitely valued in our culture more than fatness, even thin people have body shame, and skinny shaming sucks too. In the end, fat shame and skinny shame are really just two sides of a multi-sided problem. Many women–large and small–bond over a shared body hate, and body shame hurts us all. So instead of feeding it, let’s work to STOP it!

10. You have such a pretty face.

This is almost the flipside of the “butter face” insult. Pretty face, huh? I also have a super sexy brain, a smoking hot personality, and drop-dead gorgeous talent. A woman is more than a body and a pretty face, and there are countless complements you could give a woman that lets her know you value more than the physical features of her face. Try: “you have a great sense of style.” “You are so well-organized.” “I really admire your cool-headedness.” “You have such a way with words”….

What is your favorite non-body complement to give or hear?

Tell us in the comments!