It’s very hard to avoid the fact that thinness is idealized in our culture, while being overweight is the source of endless shame and ridicule. Everywhere you look there are images of our culture’s idea of the ideal body, from ads on buses and billboards, to magazine covers, commercials, and the actors we watch in popular movies and tv shows.
Obesity is often seen as an example of sloppiness, laziness, unhealthy habits, and even a weak character. Children who are overweight often have to deal with ridicule at school and media messages telling them they are unattractive and unhealthy. Adults have it hard as well, especially women, whose bodies and appearance are scrutinized throughout their lives. All of these negative messages about weight contribute to an overall sense of shame. This has a devastating effect on those who are overweight or obese because of genetics, as well as anyone who is already overly conscious of their body and suffers from low self esteem. This weight stigma also plays a big role in the development of eating disorders.
What exactly is weight stigma?
A negative judgement of a person based on factors that are beyond their control, such as weight, body shape, or other physical characteristics, can be defined as weight stigma. This type of stigma is deeply engrained in our society, where a child as young as 3 years old will often display negative views towards an overweight person. Once these beliefs are instilled in a child it can be hard to reverse them, and in fact, they will usually get worse as the child gets older. The school years will often reinforce views of those who are overweight, with negative character traits being assigned to those who don’t fit into a certain body ideal. Grade school children believe that overweight classmates are lazier, less likeable, and more unhappy than their thinner peers. These negative assessments continue to persist among college aged adults, with the majority of young adults believing that overweight people are unattractive, less confident and motivated, and less deserving of attractive romantic partners.
This kind of stigma has a far reaching effect on everyone. Those who are overweight and want to drop pounds face challenges and more ridicule when joining a gym, asking a doctor or other professional for help, or trying to change their exercise and eating habits. Many of those who are overweight begin to avoid medical care or situations that involve physical activity altogether. They may also start to believe in and internalize the negative qualities attached to their appearance.
How does weight stigma contribute to eating disorders?
Weight stigma has a profound effect on body dysmorphia, or a warped perception of one’s body. This is a contributing factor to the development of binge eating symptoms. As these symptoms become a way for a person to cope with weight stigma, they will also begin to experience depression, anxiety, and overall poor mental health. In the end, their physical health is damaged as well.
Those with existing eating disorders like bulimia or anorexia are also affected by weight stigma. Almost 70% of eating disorder sufferers say they have had others make negative comments about their weight or body type. The negative comments only reinforced their eating disorder behavior. Other eating disorder sufferers come from families where obesity is common. They develop their eating disorder in order to protect themselves from becoming overweight and having all the stigma that goes along with it placed onto them.