Reflecting on Words

The Harm of Accepting Weight Stigma

Thirty years ago, Sandra Boynton put wisdom of the ages into an amusing book: Don’t Let the Turkeys Get You Down. Today, a new study published in Obesity brings life to the importance of that advice. Rebecca Pearl and colleagues present new evidence that the harm of fat shaming is worse when a person takes it to heart. They found that people who internalize the weight stigma they encounter may have up to three times the risk for metabolic syndrome compared to people who don’t. Pearl explains:

WBI [weight bias internalization] has been shown previously to be associated with binge eating, reduced physical activity motivation and engagement, and poorer self-reported physical health. However, this is the first report of which we are aware to demonstrate a possible association between WBI and metabolic syndrome.

In a companion commentary, Rebecca Puhl and Scott Kahan make sense of this finding:

It should not be surprising that WBI is so pivotal, as modern psychology demonstrates that the meaning we assign to external events, not the objective events themselves, determines our emotional reactions and health outcomes.

In other words, the harm becomes comes especially sharp when a person takes weight stigma – or any insult – to heart. In the case of weight bias, it seems to stack the odds. A person’s health becomes more likely to suffer from obesity. Perhaps this happens because of a stress response that becomes worse when weight bias goes inward.

The real question is how to reduce the harm. Puhl and Kahan correctly say that obesity care must go beyond weight management. Clinicians must take into account the mental and physical effects of living with obesity.

Weight bias presents a tough challenge to the health and wellness of people with obesity. If we cannot eliminate it altogether, then maybe we can reduce its impact. Coping strategies to prevent and reduce internalized weight bias might hold promise for doing just that. We need smart research to find the best strategies.

Click here for the study and here for the commentary. For more on internalizing weight bias, click here.

Reflecting on Words, photograph © Julie Jablonski / flickr

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January 26, 2017

4 Responses to “The Harm of Accepting Weight Stigma”

  1. January 26, 2017 at 6:21 am, Joe Gitchell said:

    Thanks, Ted–such important reminders of working first to see all of our fellow humans as our brothers and sisters.


  2. January 26, 2017 at 9:57 am, Michelle Vicari said:

    I wanted to share this little experience with you I had the choice to let the turkey’s get me down that day or take action. I was strong enough empowered by my knowledge that people like the Obesity Action Coalition, Rudd Center and others are chipping away too. I encourage others to chip away… for those that aren’t strong enough.

    • January 26, 2017 at 2:35 pm, Ted said:

      You make us all stronger, Shelly. Thanks!

  3. January 26, 2017 at 9:58 am, Allen Browne said:

    Rebecca Puhl and Scot Kahan are right on – Obesity care is about way more than weight, it’s about improving the quality of life.