Mind Over Body
Emergent research suggests that what you think about your weight could be the culprit behind your unachieved health goals. Weight bias is defined as any negative pattern of behavior, thoughts, judgments, or beliefs associated with body weight or size. Real-world examples of weight bias include being excluded or shamed for one’s size, continually being told by doctors to lose or gain weight for non-weight-related issues, associating one’s size with intelligence, responsibility, capability, morality, self-worth, and many more.
There are so many valid reasons to want to be a different weight. Depending on your physiology, losing or gaining weight could help greatly with fertility, mobility, mental health, temperature regulation, sleep quality, cardiovascular and respiratory strength, injury prevention, and hormonal equilibrium. These motivations are real and valid and scientifically supported. However, it’s marrying these motivations with shame where sabotage occurs. Increasing evidence shows that when people “internalize” weight bias or stigma, or come to believe it, that it consistently predicts the development of weight gain for the overweight and weight loss for the underweight.
So, in summary, people who “apply negative weight stereotypes to themselves” and “self-derogate” because of weight are much more likely to experience weight rebounding— the rapid re-gaining or re-losing of weight due to implementing unsustainable behaviors coupled with negative self-talk.
Adding Injury to Injury
As listed in this editorial, people who suffer from weight bias are also much more likely to “overestimate their body size,” develop eating disorders, objectify themselves and others, “avoid” seeking out vital healthcare, eat or exercise as a method of coping with anxiety, have maladaptive and dysfunctional relationships, “suffer from depression,” and carry out thoughts of suicide.
Dr. Rebecca Ruhl of the University of Connecticut told CNN that “a common perception is that a little shame or stigma might motivate people to [gain control of] their weight, but that is not what we see in research.” In fact, this actually “contributes to unhealthy eating behaviors” such as metabolically destructive fasting, starving, and binge eating, thus keeping weight goals unattainable. On the other hand, “when [people] shift the conversation to healthy [and encouraging] behaviors, it tends to be much more effective.”
What Dr. Ruhl seems to be addressing here is that with weight-related goals, the journey matters just as much as the destination. The slow, gentle, healthy integration of habits that can be reasonably sustained for a lifetime paired with an attitude of compassion, understanding, and respect for the here-and-now body is essential for progress. Healthy changes made unhealthily aren’t healthy. Full stop.
How can I fight weight bias?
Where does the solution lie? How can we combat weight bias while also promoting health goals?
In an essay published by the Journal of Eating Disorders, several suggestions are made to invite the public to act against weight bias. Here are a few of them expanded:
Recognize the prevalence of weight bias in mainstream media. Understand that the bodies shown in widely available advertisements, films, shows, social media feeds, illustrations, and video games are not attempting to demonstrate what’s ‘normal.’ Seek out media that shows a wide variety of body types and moves away from harmful stereotypes such as “the fat comedian” or “the skinny babe.”
Understand that shame is not motivating. Maybe people who suffer from weight bias “believe that they deserve the stigma and discriminatory treatment” that they are subjected to. Some even encourage it, hoping that hearing enough insults will motivate them to change for good. However, “evidence indicates that shaming individuals with weight-related issues does not motivate positive behavior changes.” If a change is needed to improve their quality of life, elevate the individual in question. Help them learn that they should care for their bodies out of respect for themselves rather than out of dissatisfaction or hatred.
Learn all the factors that can contribute to a person’s body size. Genetics, race, gender, class, housing, income, location, nationality, education, learned behaviors, traumatic events, and individual choices each play a vital part in what a person can look like. Resist the urge to oversimplify weight-related issues to ‘a discipline problem.’ In fact, studies show that “although individual choice and agency are recognized in weight management, a society that highly values individualism may greatly overstate the ‘controllability’ of [weight],” which then creates weight bias.
Encourage weight-sensitivity training for professionals, medical personnel, politicians, counselors, church leaders, sports coaches, and teachers. For someone who struggles with shame and weight bias, one of the scariest places to go is the doctor’s office. Many fear that their concerns will not be listened to and that they will instead be chastised about their size. The same can be said for socializing with other traditionally trustworthy figures in our society such as schoolteachers, spiritual leaders, and similar mentors. These members of our society should be firm shields against weight bias to help ensure that everyone is treated equally and has the same chance of success.
Remember that a person’s size is not a measure of mental health. There are patients who are clinically obese and anorexic. There are others who are clinically underweight and actively bingeing. For example, the idea that you must be thin to be diagnosed with an eating disorder is incorrect. “Individuals with obesity experiencing weight stigma often turn to unhealthy eating behaviors in line with eating disorder symptomatology, such as fasting, extreme dieting, frequent episodes of binge eating, and compulsive exercise.” Keep this in mind as you go about interacting with people and their diverse bodies.
Stand up for yourself and others. Weight bias is harmful. Unchallenged, millions of people are vulnerable to discrimination and cruelty because of their weight. To illustrate a point, “race, national [and] ethnic origin, color, religion, sex, age, [and] disability” are protected in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, [but] weight is not.” Additionally, it is legal to discriminate against others based on their weight in the United States, which is unbecoming of ‘the nation of safe harbor.’ “All people, regardless of body size, deserve respect, equity, and dignity, and to live without stigma and discrimination.”
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