CW: Discussion of weight bias/fatphobia throughout.
It’s a miserable but realistic assumption that whenever someone in a larger body dares to exist in the world, some unwelcome troll will chime in with some irrelevant mention of that person’s health. This is not limited to the virtual kind – it extends to strangers in the street and even ‘well-meaning’ loved ones. It’s amazing how many people become a critic when it comes to how those in larger bodies should behave.
No matter what angle you take, this behaviour stems from weight bias. Believing that you can judge someone’s health by their weight is fatphobic, suggesting someone should change their lifestyle because of their size is fatphobic, thinking that having a thinner body makes you a nutritional guru is fatphobic. If that’s not a good enough reason to keep quiet, there is increasing research that shows how weight bias is detrimental to wellbeing. So to anyone who feels the need to spout this nonsense: if you care about their health, stop talking about their weight.
Weight Bias and Stress
Being discriminated against due to size is unsurprisingly stressful. Himmelstein et al (2015) investigated how weight bias affected levels of cortisol – the hormone that is released when we suffer from stress. In the study, participants were excluded from a shopping task for one of two reasons: group one were told that it was full, and group two were told that their shape and size was not appropriate for the clothing involved in the task. Whilst not everyone in the weight bias group (group two) showed a stress response, participants who already considered their weight as ‘heavy’ experienced a prolonged rise in cortisol levels.
This shows how the experience of weight bias, combined with the pre-existing belief that they are too heavy, caused a stress response. It’s possible that these participants considered their weight to be ‘heavy’ as a result of weight bias in the past, or a perceived difference between them and society’s typical thin ideal. The discrimination will trigger an negative self belief they already had, leading to an all-round stressful experience.
The stress caused by fatphobia is bad news for our wellbeing. The prolonged rise in cortisol levels means that the features that are supposed to help us during a fight-or-flight response, such as raised heart rate and slowed metabolism, stay switched on. Cortisol affects almost all bodily functions, and long term exposure has been linked to digestive problems, weight gain, heart disease and mental illness to name a few .
Weight Bias and Physical Health
A study by Pearl et al (2017) investigated the detrimental effects of weight bias on physical health. Participants were all considered “obese” on the BMI scale. Of this group, 32% met the criteria of metabolic syndrome – a cluster of conditions that can increase the risk of heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes. Commentary of the “obesity epidemic” argues that size is a high risk factor in developing these illnesses, so why didn’t all participants have the same health status?
What’s fascinating about this study is that it also measured Weight Bias Internalisation (WBI). This is the extent to which someone believes they deserve weight bias – for example, someone who believes that their high weight is bad will have high WBI, whilst someone who does not believe their weight is an issue will have low WBI. The results showed that having high WBI heightened an individuals chances of having metabolic syndrome, therefore increasing their risk of illness. Whilst this was one of the first studies to link weight bias and metabolic syndrome, it does echo earlier research which stated that weight bias increases risk of death by 60%.
So why is this the case? Well, the researchers suggest that it ties in with the stress that high WBI-ers experience. High stress levels have been linked with heart disease and high blood pressure, and it’s possible that the stress that their weight concerns put them through daily has actually contributed to their cardiovascular issues. Weight bias can also impact health care; people with higher weights risk being misdiagnosed by medical professionals, or may avoid seeking treatment due to fear of discrimination.
Weight Bias and Disordered Eating
Let’s make this clear – weight bias is not an effective weight loss method. If encouraging someone to hate themselves thin was a viable strategy, diet industries have put themselves out of business by now. While those affected by weight bias are more likely to have made repeated attempts to reduce their weight, research shows that repeated efforts to reduce weight hardly ever result in a reduced weight. Weight gain is the most likely outcome, and this will likely come with a side of yo-yo dieting which is potentially more risky than staying at the original weight.
Meal times shouldn’t be stressful, but eating with others can bring diets up to scrutiny. Some people feel compelled to defend their own food choices, such as justifying a portion size with “I’m watching my weight” or “I’ve not eaten all day”. But even more invasive is when people take it upon themselves to criticise how others eat. Why do it? Is it a feeling of superiority? A genuine concern? Or just a big steaming pile of fatphobia on the dinner table? Unpleasant, right?
Experiencing weight bias can actually cause an increase in calorie consumption, has been linked to binge eating and is common in people who eat to cope with distress. There is a social stigma that these behaviours are controllable, but this stigma is only keeping weight bias alive and perpetuating this cycle. Sometimes people eat emotionally, they eat past fullness or they don’t make the “healthiest” choice – it’s okay, you don’t need to mention it. Telling someone to change their eating habits because of their weight is counter-intuitive, literally causes them to eat more and subsequently gain weight.
Weight Bias and Mental Health
The link between weight bias and eating disorders is impossible to ignore. Experiencing fatphobia increases a person’s chances of developing an eating disorder, with Binge Eating Disorder being the most common diagnosis. Weight bias can also stop eating disorder sufferers from seeking and receiving help; people avoid speaking out due to fear that they are “not thin enough”, and unfortunately some doctors practice this view. Patients who don’t meet the weight criteria are often the most medically compromised but instead of receiving treatment, many praised for their weight loss with no second thought for the costs they’ve endured.
Those who are discriminated against because of their weight are also more likely to experience mood or anxiety disorders. Again, this can be linked to the persistent stress of living in a world that can’t accept your appearance. Obviously there’s a total lack of consideration for mental wellbeing when people play the “health” card.
Tackling Weight Bias
However well you dress it up, however concerned and well-meaning you feel, making these comments is literally worse for someone’s health than keeping quiet. If you ever look at someone and feel worried about their weight, understand that this is YOUR issue. Falling victim to diet culture isn’t your fault but you have the power to change it. Have an quiet word with your prejudice and keep your mouth shut.
On the other hand, if you are ever at the receiving end of such comments – it is not your fault. Please remember that these words stem from another’s ignorance and insecurity. They do not serve you. Walk away, block and delete, hit them with the facts; the choice is yours.
No matter how you tackle them, remember that your wellbeing is more important than those small minded, shallow beliefs. Just because they’re serving as a volunteer for the diet industry, it doesn’t mean that you need invest any emotional labour into educating them. But if you think they could do with the knowledge, send them this way.
What’s your experience with weight bias? Have you ever found yourself judging others for their weight? Or have you had to deal with unwelcome comments about your size? Lets talk below!