Is Your Weight-Loss Resolution Failing?

Self-stigma may be the reason.

Posted Jan 05, 2020

January is the month where many accelerate efforts at weight loss by eating less and exercising more. The science says long-term success is very difficult; rapid efforts like serious dieting tend to be hard to maintain and tend to trigger bounce-back regain.

One of the least recognized factors that can undermine efforts at healthier habits may be one of the most important: weight-related stigma. Stigma  — social devaluing of the person based on a characteristic — comes in many forms. But the one that is most emotionally damaging is self-stigma. Self-stigma is when the person being judged themselves agree with — rather the ignore or reject — the devaluation by others. There are widespread cultural ideas in mainstream U.S. society that equate high body weights with moral failings such as laziness.

Some people simply ignore such ideas when deciding how to value themselves. But others are more susceptible to internalizing such stigma and apply the negative judgment to themselves. This self-stigma is the stigma form most clearly associated with lowered self-esteem and depression; it directly damages our mental health.

One important observation about weight-related self-stigma is that people of all body sizes can be affected by it. It isn’t just faced by those who are technically overweight. Slimmer people can self-stigmatize as well by embracing the idea that they should define themselves as failures when they gain a couple of pounds.

New science is showing why this all matters for the success of our New Year’s weight loss effort. Self-stigma around weight triggers generates additional psychological stress that cascades into hormonal changes. Those changes, such as in cortisol production, then inhibit weight loss and undermine our capacity for appetite control. It promotes a sense of “why-bother” and hopelessness that makes people less able to find the motivation to exercise.

So, if you are struggling to lose weight in January, a little self-love can go a long way. Focus on feeling healthy and practice self-care. Congratulate yourself for the effort to be healthy, not the weight loss outcome measured on the bathroom scale. It may help you do better with those New Year resolutions.

References

Brewis, A. A. (2014). Stigma and the perpetuation of obesity. Social science & medicine, 118, 152-158.

Brewis, A., & Wutich, A. (2019). Lazy, crazy, and disgusting: stigma and the undoing of global health. Johns Hopkins University Press.

Brewis, A., SturtzSreetharan, C., & Wutich, A. (2018). Obesity stigma as a globalizing health challenge. Globalization and health, 14(1), 20.

Tomiyama, A. J., Carr, D., Granberg, E. M., Major, B., Robinson, E., Sutin, A. R., & Brewis, A. (2018). How and why weight stigma drives the obesity ‘epidemic’ and harms health. BMC medicine, 16(1), 123.