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Ways “Fat” Stigma is Harmful to Our Health

min read

By Kathi Cameron, MA, RCC

Although there are some parts of the world that value fatness and the overweight body, North American isn’t one of them. To be thin in our culture is to be beautiful, successful, professional, smart, valued, and in control of oneself. The opposite can be said about our beliefs about fat, overweight, and obesity. To be fat is to be lazy, gluttonous, of low intelligence and self-control and it’s these faulty beliefs that drive the stigma of fat and fat shame.  

Interestingly, long term research examining large populations of people suggest that greater health and longer life relates more with carrying more fat on our bodies than those within the “healthy” ranges of the body mass index. There are many negative outcomes of fat stigma that may not only be harmful to our mental and physical health, but also to our inability to lose the weight our society demands we lose…

1. Mental Health

As an overweight or obese person living in a society that devalues and shames them, it comes as no surprise that this population report higher rates of depression, suicidal thoughts, and even weight gain than their skinnier counterparts.

The pressure to lose weight from family, friends, strangers, and medical practitioners is enough to make anyone turn to food as a way to cope. From chronic stress and anxiety to depression and self-hate, fat stigma can wear on one’s mental health resulting in eating and exercise disorders along with isolation and suicide.

2. Negative Self-Concept

The chronic, negative messages about being fat can lead to a low self-concept resulting in the belief that we don’t have self-control or the will power to change and won’t be valued in our society unless we do.  

These beliefs, in turn, fuel much of the desperation for quick and fast weight loss (why else would someone choose to swallow a tapeworm?).  Additionally, it is through the internalization of these faulty fat beliefs that we may feel we will be happier when we are 10-pounds lighter.

3. Dieting

From eating just grapefruit, eliminating all brown food, to sticking to a diet of candy corns and gummy bears, the diet industry relies upon our social beliefs that fat is evil and must be destroyed at any length necessary.

It seems like there is a new diet invented every five seconds or a work colleague recommending the latest detox drink to lose pounds quickly.  The reality is diets do not work, but the fantasy is that with enough hope and prayer, this diet will be the last diet we ever have to try.

4. Fat Shaming

From reading the latest tabloid headline to online pics of our favorite celebrities caught off guard, the media doesn’t shy away from fat or body shaming those in the limelight.  In North America, it is shameful to be fat, but commendable to lose it and “take back control” of one’s body.

Cellulite (a term coined by the beauty industry), for example, is the natural dimpling of the fat stored under the skin, yet the media and beauty industry would have us believe it’s unsightly, a choice, and something within our control.  The belief of control over one’s weight leads us feeling ashamed and guilty if we can’t control it (or wind up gaining more).  

5. Eating Disorders

No more dangerous is our fear and disdain for fat than the resulting eating disorder that may follow. From anorexia and bulimia, to extreme exercise and an unhealthy focus on clean eating, eating disorders have increased in both genders due to the growing pressure for the perfect body.

Turn on the TV or computer screen and we are overwhelmed by images of beautiful, sexy, young, thin, and muscular packages. It makes sense that kids are starting to diet at a young age or shaming others about food choice and body shape.

6. Exercise Abuse

Many still believe that the longer and harder one works out, the fitter and thinner they will be. From marathons and ultra-fitness competitions to “super-sweat” fitness classes that can go for hours, more is better…right?

Fat stigma has not only influenced the fitness industry by helping to increase memberships, but has also helped spread the fear of fat through classes and programs designed to help get rid of that unsightly bulge. There continues to be confusion in the fitness and exercise industry that to be fit one must be fat-free when, in reality, one can be fat and fit.

7. “Health” Promotion Programs

A researcher from the University of British Columbia, Patricia Vertinsky, once suggested that health promotion programs are just value-based judgements wrapped up in scientific packages.  She suggested that the promotion of health through weight loss programs was based on nothing but judgements (due to the lack of research suggesting a strong link between fat and health).

Health promotion programs are popping up more in elementary and secondary schools and focused on healthy eating and healthy choices. What appears to be an innocent attempt at making positive change could lead to disordered eating and a fear of food in young people. Remember, there is no such thing as a “good” food or “bad” food…it’s just food.

8. Aversion to Medical Care

It has been reported that many obese people put off going to the doctor for annual checkups because they fear the fat shaming and blame by the physician.  Dr. Arya Sharma, a Professor of Medicine and Chair in Obesity Research and Management at the University of Albert, suggests stigmatization of a person with obesity by a medical professional will not motivate that person to lose weight.  In fact, this may prevent future doctor visits and attention to the prevention of illness down the road.

Research examining fat stigma in helping professions such as nutritional support, personal training, and other medical professions suggest the presence of many faulty beliefs about fat.  The result is a “blame the victim” mentality which, in turn, helps no one and keeps the patient from visiting her doctor.

9. Avoiding the Gym

Studies in exercise psychology have suggested that one of the most prevalent barriers to group exercise participation among an obese population is fear of judgement and standing out. Many overweight or obese people have stated their intention to trim up and lose weight before even entering a fitness center.

The fitness environment is not only intimidating for a new exerciser but filled with reminders that being fat is frowned upon. From the workout gear that only goes up to a size eight to the exercise machines that will not accommodate for a larger body, the fitness industry continues to cater to a small population of people.

10. Lack of Representation in Media

From movies and TV programming to magazines of every kind, it is rare to see an image of a larger sized person without the caption of “plus size” or remarks about body image.  While it is the norm to see fitness and nutrition advertisements depict happy, youthful looking, thin and “fit” looking models, we know this doesn’t reflect the population accurately.

A web search of words like “fitness”, “exercise”, and “healthy eating” will demonstrate the bias representation of thinness.  Until we are able to see bodies of all sizes represented in the media, without making note of it, we will continue to fuel the belief that to be thin is to be fit and healthy.  

11. Inter-Generational Influences

With health promotion programming, the growing interest in fitness and nutrition, coupled with the potential fear of fat among parents, it makes sense that the younger generations will be heavily influenced by the stigma of fat.  

To help reduce the stigma and make positive changes, it is important to challenge these beliefs and live life with a sense of balance and enjoyment.  Avoid talking negatively about one’s body in front of children or making negative comments about someone else’s body is a great start. Taking a stand against fat stigma and body shaming by speaking out will move us in the right (and healthy) direction.

Kathi Cameron, MA, RCC


Kathi has worked in the health and fitness profession for over 25 years and holds a degree in Kinesiology with master’s degrees in exercise and sport psychology and clinical counselling. She is currently a corporate facilitator in health promotion on topics relating to exercise, mental health, and addiction awareness. She is a firm believer in the prescription of exercise for positive mental health and that good health can be enjoyed at every size.

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