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Fat Shaming and Weight-Based Biases Are Bad for Health

New research links weight stigma to unhealthy eating habits and less exercise.

Key points

  • Experiencing weight-related stigma does not prompt people to engage in healthier behaviors.
  • Stigma was also associated with feeling less able to control one’s eating and exercise habits.
  • In short, fat-shaming does not motivate weight loss.

Despite strong evidence to the contrary, both laypeople and medical professionals continue to endorse the idea that shaming people who are fat is an effective way to promote healthy behaviors or weight loss. Fitness centers use fat-shaming as a marketing strategy and online trolls make a sport of attacking people based on their weight. New research conducted across six different countries makes it clear that experiencing weight-related stigma does not prompt people to engage in healthier behaviors. Instead, being teased or treated unfairly because of your weight is associated with more unhealthy eating, less exercise, and more stress.

Andres Ayrton/Pexels
Source: Andres Ayrton/Pexels

Anti-fat bias is common around the world, with people who are fat experiencing negative stereotypes and outright discrimination due to their body size. In this newly published study led by researchers at the University of Connecticut, nearly 14,000 adults across six different countries (Australia, Canada, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States) completed an online survey focusing on health-related behaviors and social experiences. Survey participants, who were all members of WW (formerly known as Weight Watchers), reported whether they had ever been teased, treated unfairly, or discriminated against as a result of their weight. In every country, over half of the survey respondents reported experiencing at least one of these types of weight stigma. Participants also answered questions related to exercise and eating habits.

Overall, results were highly consistent across countries, with few notable differences. Across the board, experiencing weight stigma was linked with negative outcomes. Survey respondents who experienced weight stigma were more likely to report eating as a way to cope with negative emotions and more likely to report avoiding fitness settings because of feeling stared at or judged. Stigma was also associated with feeling less able to control one’s eating and exercise habits. Additionally, those who experienced weight stigma also experienced higher levels of general stress. It’s important to note that these results held up even when the authors controlled for variables like participants’ body size, age, sex, education level, and how long they’d been a member of WW.

Source: Cottonbro/Pexels

These results clearly challenge the idea that fat-shaming will motivate weight loss. Instead, experiencing weight stigma increases the likelihood of engaging in the kinds of behaviors that tend to lead to weight gain. Weight stigma appears to increase stress levels, which are similarly linked to weight gain. The findings from this new study are consistent with other research documenting how experiencing anti-fat bias can increase physiological dysregulation in the cardiovascular, immune, and metabolic systems.

The results of this study are limited by the fact that they only document correlational, not causal relationships between variables. Likewise, although this is the first multinational study of the outcomes of weight stigma, the six countries included were all Western and primarily English-speaking. It’s also worth noting that WW has itself been accused of promoting body-shaming.

Overall, this study is an important addition to the body of research documenting how anti-fat biases can be detrimental to the emotional and physical health of people who are fat. There is no evidence that body-shaming is an effective way to motivate weight loss. Instead, both obesity and anti-fat bias appear to be increasing over time. Fat-shaming and weight-based discrimination are not just wrong, they’re active threats to individuals’ well-being. The scientific evidence is clear: fighting weight stigma is essential to health promotion.

RODNAE Productions/Pexels
Source: RODNAE Productions/Pexels
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