Earlier this month, we looked at how diet culture can sneak into our thoughts despite our best efforts to avoid it. Today, we’ll explore how diet culture can lead to internalized weight stigma and fatphobia – a real, but often unseen problem.

Before beginning, I would like to make it clear that while I have done my best to explain weight stigma, I have never experienced it myself. As a thin person, I don’t have to deal fat-shaming and therefore cannot possibly grasp the entirety of its effects on a person. However, regardless of whether or not we personally experience it, addressing fatphobia is an important step towards creating a more inclusive and accepting world for everyone.

What is weight stigma?

Weight stigma (also known as fatphobia) describes the often socially acceptable negative attitudes about fat people. This may include stereotypes and misconceptions that people with bigger bodies are lazy, unintelligent or lack self-control and discipline. It appears in almost all types of media and affects which bodies we perceive as valuable or desirable.

Why is weight stigma harmful?

Weight stigma comes from the belief that weight is mostly controlled by diet and exercise, and that if someone tries hard enough, they should be able to manage their weight. However, research shows that weight is affected by many other factors, including genetics, health conditions, social and financial status, and certain medications. In other words, watching what you eat and exercising may not be enoughto affect your weight.  

When weight stigma is internalized (i.e. you’re not aware of it), it can lead to weight bias or discrimination. Weight bias can cause people to feel shame about their bodies, and increases their risk for depression, anxiety, poor body image and eating disorders. Fear of judgement may prevent people from engaging in physical activity or going to the doctor. In short, weight stigma can lead to many negative health consequences.

Are you accidentally fat-shaming?

Weight stigma is not always as obvious as outright insults about fat people. Here are some less obvious examples of how internalized weight stigma shows up in our thoughts and conversations:

·      Praising someone for weight loss.

·      Saying “I feel fat” when what you really mean is “I feel sad or insecure.”

·      Immediately rushing to someone’s defence when they call themselves fat.

·      Talking negatively about your own body.

·      Assuming that if someone is fat, they need to lose weight to be healthy.

All of the above examples are subtle ways that we reinforce the idea that thin equals good and fat equals bad.  While it can be uncomfortable to unpack our own biases, it’s an important first step to moving past them.

The bottom line

If you’ve grown up surrounded by the diet mentality and glorification of thin bodies, it’s not easy to change how you think overnight. Be kind to yourself and recognize that you’re learning. While uncomfortable, addressing fatphobia is an important step in ensuring we create a safer and more inclusive world for our friends, family and children. Remember - healthy people come in all shapes and sizes!

Interested in learning more about what you can do to fight weight stigma and fatphobia? Check out Obesity Canada’s Bust the Bias video series and our No Size Fits All resource.

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Sarah Morland, RD

Registered Dietitian

Sarah (BSc, RD) is an Edmonton-based registered dietitian and blogger for Nourish Move Thrive. She believes that food should nourish both the body and soul, and that physical activity should be fun. She enjoys debunking nutrition myths and translating scientific evidence into practical advice.

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