Let’s Celebrate Body Diversity, Not Stigmatize It

Group of friends

Kelsey Rose

Master's Student, Nutritional Sciences

Imagine a world in which we all ate the same food, had access to the same resources, slept the same amount, lived in the same environment, and performed the same amount of physical activity each day. What would that world look like? Would everyone look the same?

No. In fact, we would still be surrounded by people with a range of different body types and sizes. Body size is just like any other characteristic that makes us unique.5

Still, there is an overwhelming belief in our society—even for some of the most socially conscious among us—that it’s acceptable to discriminate against people based on their body size.

Our culture rejects larger body sizes, labeling individuals who live in large bodies as gluttonous, lazy, weak-willed, and sexually unattractive.2 Unlike racial or certain other forms of discrimination, many people perceive weight status to be within a person’s control.2 Therefore, they hold people accountable for body types that are thought to be “undesirable” or “unhealthy.” This notion of personal responsibility is the foundation of weight bias and contributes to prejudice and discrimination based on body weight.

There is an overwhelming belief in our society—even for some of the most socially conscious among us—that it’s acceptable to discriminate against people based on their body size.

But the stigma experienced by people with larger bodies is more than rude comments. It often manifests in lack of educational and employment opportunities and poor health care.Weight bias can also cause psychological impacts, like increased binge-eating behavior, depression, lack of motivation to engage in physical activity, and increased stress.Additionally, people with larger bodies are pressured to lose weight and are encouraged to use extreme or unsustainable weight-loss approaches that may rob them of concentration, appetite, energy, and happiness.

Despite increased research and attention to weight stigma within the public health community, estimates suggest that weight discrimination has increased by as much as 66 percent over the past decade.3

As weight stigma increases, negative public health implications also increase. While awareness about weight stigma is essential for every field, weight stigma is a critical issue in public health because it gets in the way of effective preventive health care. Even after controlling for lack of education, income, health care, and illness, weight stigma has been shown to lead to less utilization of preventive care and lower quality of care when sought.3

Furthermore, due to the pervasive weight stigma in our culture, perceiving oneself to be “overweight,” irrespective of actual weight, is associated with greater use of unhealthy and potentially harmful weight control behaviors, such as taking diet pills.4

In reality, we don’t eat the same food, have access to the same resources, live in the same places, or even move our bodies the same amount.5 So why do we continue to measure our health by the size of our bodies rather than by our behaviors?

We need to challenge the assumption that thinness is synonymous with health—a simplistic view that overlooks the reality of diversity in body size and type, which varies by heritage and genealogy—and adopt a more holistic and weight-inclusive view of health.

Maybe it’s time we start celebrating body diversity rather than starving it. As one of the top schools of public health in the nation, the University of Michigan School of Public Health has an opportunity to lead the discussion about challenging institutionalized social norms that prevent inclusion of all body sizes. By choosing to use non-stigmatizing images in presentations, avoiding harmful body criticism with friends, and consciously using respectful terminology, we can start to move toward a more sustainable, inclusive environment that recognizes the true potential of all individuals, regardless of their body size.

Resources

  1. Nutter, Sarah Shelly Russell-Mayhew, Angela S. Alberga, et al., Positioning of Weight Bias: Moving towards Social Justice. Journal of Obesity. 2016.

  2. Brenda Major, Jeffrey M. Hunger, Debra P. Bunyan, Carol T. Miller. The ironic effects of weight stigma. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 2015; 51: 74-80.

  3. Puhl RM, Heuer CA. Obesity Stigma: Important Considerations for Public Health. American Journal of Public Health. 2010;100(6):1019-1028.

  4. Anne Harring, Holly & Montgomery, Kara & Hardin, James. Perceptions of Body Weight, Weight Management Strategies, and Depressive Symptoms Among US College Students. Journal of American college health. 2011; 59: 43-50.

  5. Harrison, C, Chastain, R. How to Fight Back Against Weight Stigma. Audio Blog Post. Food Psych. Food Psych Programs, Inc. 28 August 2017. 26 August 2018.

About the Author

Kelsey RoseKelsey Rose is a second-year master’s student in the Department of Nutritional Sciences. Her research focuses on the prevention of eating disorders and disordered eating, with a specific interest in promoting body diversity and challenging weight-biased beliefs. In her free time, you can find her doing something outdoors, most likely with her dog Abeline.

 

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