Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Weight Stigma: Bad for the Body and Mind and Soul

This past week, I was fortunate enough to attend a symposium on the UCLA campus on Weight Stigma that was organized by a campus research group, Dish Lab.  It was a very interesting day and I learned a lot. 

Some high level things that really stood out to me were things like this:

  • Dr. Abigail Saguy discussed how the media frames the issue of weight.  If we frame it as a public health crisis we have the potential to unintentionally create negative consequences for anyone who is heavy.  
  • Dr. A. Janet Tomiyama presented some of her research that showed being told you are too fat correlates to higher BMI later in life.  Weight stigma leads to increased stress which then leads to increased cortisol levels.  Those high levels of cortisol may then lead to and trigger more weight gain which leads to more stigma.  
  • The keynote speaker, Dr. Brenda Major, shared how stigmatization leads to negative health-related behaviors. She also discussed that unlike other minority groups that might be stigmatized, those who are heavy tend not identify as a group or express pride in being a member of the group.  

As I sat there, I thought more and more about how weight stigma is so pervasive in our society.  From individuals to the media to even government, "obesity" is bad and if you have that "disease" you have a problem that needs to be fixed.  You are a burden on the healthcare system and you need to change. But what I finally realized was this: if you agree with Dr. Major's assertion that stigmatization leads to unhealthy behaviors then we need to understand what are these unhealthy behaviors.  It dawned on me like a lightning bolt: "Maybe the most common unhealthy behavior that anyone whose been stigmatized because of their weight has engaged in is dieting."

If you are heavy and feel shamed because of it (like many people do), you'll do anything to change that feeling of shame.  And unfortunately, the only way most people know how to fix it is to try to lose weight by going on a diet, and they might succeed for a short time but then the law of averages will likely take over and just like the other 95%, they will regain their weight and all of a sudden they are back to square one.

Just today, Evelyn Tribole, co-author of Intuitive Eating tweeted this:

It was an intersting research article discussing glucocorticoids and how they may play a role in weight gain.  Ever been shamed, made to feel less than or discriminated against?  It's pretty stressful.  Ever go on a diet or feel an intense drive to lose weight?  It's pretty stressful.  If we take some information from this article then we see that continued stress plays a role in our eating behavior.  BOOM!  Lighting bolt again for me.  Weight stigma, stress, dieting may be a cycle of events that dooms us to a constant struggle with our bodies and with food.

In the end, the day was more than just a day of learning, it was one of those days that was a real game-changer for me.  It solidified what I already know is true about Intuitive Eating and making peace with food but it added a new and very important layer to that understanding: feeling shamed because of your weight is not just bad for your ego, but it's bad for your health.  Although I wish we could change society and how we view those who are heavy, I can't.  So instead we need to start by changing how we view ourselves. Learning to accept and appreciate the body you have today is vital to learning to have a healthy relationship with food.


  1. Excellent observation - excellent post. Thank you

  2. Yes to this! And to think that some 'professionals' (not to mention many average Joes and Janes) think that the way to solve the 'obesity crisis' is to shame us even more!

  3. I think the research on girls who were called 'too fat' leading to more weight gain later is also likely related to dieting ... perhaps more so than to 'stress'.

  4. I like your post very much i had nice time while reading your post

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