Next week is Weight Stigma Awareness Week (Sept. 28 to Oct. 2), and if there was ever a year to be aware of the physical and mental health impacts of weight stigma, it’s 2020. There’s so much hand-wringing about the association between “obesity” and elevated COVID-19 risk, despite the fact that there’s no magic wand we can wave to make everyone — including thin people with underlying health conditions — have “average” risk. We need more mask-wearing, less fat-shaming.
When you have prejudiced attitudes and beliefs about weight, and direct them against someone based on their weight, that’s weight stigma. There’s this pervasive idea in our society that if you shame someone enough about their weight, they’ll “do something about it.” But fat cells don’t feel stigma, people do — and shame is not an effective motivator for positive change. Research confirms this.
Instead, weight stigma, especially when someone internalizes that stigmaand fat-shames themselves, can harm both physical and mental health. Not only does weight stigma increase the risk of depression and anxiety, but it can cause chronic stress. This stress contributes to higher levels of inflammation and oxidative stress, along with disordered eating behaviors — including comfort eating, yo-yo dieting and possibly eating disorders. People who experience weight stigma often avoid exercise in an attempt to hide their bodies and avoid further stigma. Given what we know about the importance of physical activity in maintaining and improving health for people of all sizes, this is adding insult to injury — all this stress, disordered eating and exercise avoidance increases risk for heart disease and Type 2 diabetes.
Lest you think these health effects are due to weight, not weight stigma, think again. Study after study finds that the negative health effects of weight stigma are over and above any effects that weight itself could have on health, and they happen regardless of actual body size. Someone in the “normal” range on the body mass index (BMI) charts can internalize weight stigma, hating their body because you think it should be smaller and living in fear of gaining weight.