What Is Weight Stigma?

"Overweight" and "obese" are medical terms used to describe when a person has excess body fat. Research estimates that by the end of this decade, the population of adults around the world who are overweight will reach roughly 38%, while adults with obesity will reach nearly 20%.

While obesity and excess weight can affect physical health in many ways, it can also severely impact mental health. This is due to weight stigma, which is defined as discriminating or stereotyping based on a person’s weight.

Read on to learn more about weight stigma and how it affects mental health.

overweight woman looking in mirror

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What Is Weight Stigma?

According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), weight stigma referred to as weight bias or weight-based discrimination. Weight stigma can be presented as verbal or physical abuse.

Research has found that the stigma and discrimination surrounding individuals who are overweight is more prevalent than discrimination based on race or ethnic background.

Stigma Definition

Stigma involves negative thoughts or perceptions against a person based on a specific characteristic.

In Personal Relationships

According to World Obesity, people with excess weight on their bodies often feel the most stigma from the people that are closest to them, such as spouses, parents, siblings, children, or friends. When looking at romantic relationships specifically, studies have shown that married couples can suffer greatly from weight stigma.

For example, one study looked at husbands and wives and their satisfaction in their marriages based on weight perceptions. When husbands thought their wives were overweight, the wife’s marital satisfaction decreased and more fights occurred between the couple in a one-year period. However, when the wives in the study perceived their partners as overweight, the level of marital satisfaction didn’t suffer at all.

At School

Researchers have studied weight bias in educational settings to examine how people who carry excessive weight are affected at their place of learning. One study found that people who were overweight or obese dealt with a lack of fair treatment at school than those who were of a healthy weight.

Another study examined the relationship between grades and obesity and found that students who were overweight turned in the same quality of work as their healthy-weight peers and received a lower grade. The study also found that teachers wrongfully assumed that students carrying excess weight needed more assistance with their studies, and were generally less able to succeed in their classes than those who were not overweight or obese. The researchers concluded that the teachers had a grading bias against students who were overweight or obese.  

At Work

In the workplace, many people are unfairly judged based on their weight.

According to the NEDA, as much as 45% of employers are less willing to hire a new employee if they are carrying excess weight. People who are overweight may also run into issues when they want to advance into leadership positions.

In Healthcare

Patients who are overweight or patients with obesity may experience weight stigma among healthcare professionals.

According to a review published in Primary Health Care Research and Development, there are several common themes that people with excess weight may experience when seeking health care, including:

  • Contempt for overweight patients
  • Patronizing behaviors
  • Disrespect
  • Ambivalence
  • Coming to the conclusion that all health issues are caused by a patient’s current weight
  • Poor communication

The review found that the negative perception and treatment of patients who are overweight or obese created significant problems for their quality of care. Issues with patient communication, patronization, and assumptions about weight gain, among other behaviors, lead to patients delaying treatment.

Trust in health care also decreases, which causes a lower quality of overall health in people who are overweight or struggling with obesity as they may have other health issues not related to their excess weight.  

Effects of Weight Bias

The negative effects of weight bias are both physical and psychological. Studies have shown that weight bias can lead to:

Among the physical effects, many people believe that being stigmatized for one’s weight may cause a person to feel motivated to lose weight. However, the opposite is true. Research has shown that people who are discriminated against because of their weight may also experience other issues, such as:

How to Cope

Being stigmatized because of your weight can be difficult to cope with, especially if you are experiencing the discrimination in many aspects of your life.

Research suggests that to cope with the stigma of being overweight you can practice a reappraisal coping method. This involves positive self-talk, letting go of others negative feelings toward your weight as it is their problem and not yours, and practicing self-love and acceptance.

How to Help

There are a few ways to help tackle weight bias and stop the stigma from continuing. You can:

  • Use respectful language when talking about weight.
  • Challenge the belief that body weight is the most important factor when it comes to assessing a person’s character or general health behaviors.
  • Choose appropriate images when talking about weight and health, and encourage people around you to portray a respectful representation of people in all shapes and sizes. This is especially true for people who are employed or involved in the media or healthcare professions.

Weight stigma can be challenging to address, but focusing on your own mental and physical health can help you perceive your own body in a more positive light.

A Word From Verywell

Since the majority of U.S. adults are either overweight or struggling with obesity, you are not alone in battling weight bias and stigma. Even if you do not fall into that category, it is important to be aware and mindful of the discrepancies and unfair treatment of people based on their body weight.

Body shaming or holding onto certain negative beliefs toward people with excess weight is harmful to their physical and mental health, as well as society as a whole. To truly tackle weight stigma, we have to abandon the belief that weight defines a person's character.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • When is Weight Stigma Awareness Week?

    Weight Stigma Awareness Week was developed by the NEDA in 2011 to help shed light on weight bias and eliminate the stigma that surrounds people with obesity or those who are overweight. The most recent Weight Stigma Awareness Week ran in September 2021, and the next one is expected to occur in the early fall of 2022.

  • What’s the difference between obese and morbidly obese?

    Obesity is the term used to describe someone who has a BMI of 30 to 39.9. Anyone over that range, or 100 pounds over their BMI healthy weight, is considered to be morbidly obese.

  • What is internalized weight stigma?

    Internalized weight stigma is a self-directed form of weight bias that occurs when a person who is overweight or obese is made aware of certain negative stereotypes associated with excess weight. Once these biased opinions are acknowledged, the person begins to devalue his or herself because of it.

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14 Sources
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