What Is Weight Stigma?

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If you've ever been treated differently because of your weight—or if you've discriminated against someone due to their weight—you've experienced weight stigma. The term boils down to unfair treatment due to someone's size or shape, and it has a strong potential to be incredibly harmful to individuals' mental and physical health.

To protect yourself, and to ensure you always treat others with respect, it’s important to recognize and understand the consequences and resolutions of weight stigma. This awareness will help you contribute to a kinder narrative that supports every body size.

What Is Weight Stigma?

Weight stigma refers to discriminating against people because of their size. It is one of the most common forms of discrimination and social inequity in the world and is a major public health concern.  

Weight stigma occurs when anyone is discriminated upon because of their shape or size. That being said, it is most often seen in negative stereotypes and misconceptions about people who are living with obesity—like they are lazy, have poor hygiene, or lack willpower.

Weight stigma can lead to weight discrimination, which is when these stereotypes cause people with obesity to be treated unfairly. This mistreatment can occur in many settings, including the workplace, medical offices, schools, and at home. Sadly, negative attitudes towards people living with obesity are especially common in health care settings.

"Stories of patients seeing their doctor for a health concern and having that concern ignored completely or blamed on weight are extremely common," says dietitian Kourtney Johnson, RD, LD, the owner and founder of Intuitively Nourished.

Beyond medical offices, Johnson notes that being unable to find your size in a general clothing store or having parents make comments about their child's body size are examples of how weight stigma shows up in everyday life. Weight prejudice also exists in the media, where overweight characters are stereotyped as lazy or are always shown eating.

What Are the Consequences of Weight Stigma?

"Weight stigma is harmful because it can lead to decreased physical, mental, and emotional health," states dietitian Melissa Nieves, LND, RD, MPH, Founder of Fad Free Nutrition Blog.

"People who have been subjected to weight stigma are more likely to experience emotional health issues such as anxiety and depression, and are less likely to seek healthcare services due to being constantly shamed because of their body size by healthcare professionals," explains Nieves.

Studies routinely link weight stigma with increased psychological distress, including depression and anxiety. Experiencing weight bias can also lead to poor self-esteem, and increased body dissatisfaction, which may lead to unhealthy weight-control practices.

"Weight stigma can be particularly dangerous in healthcare settings because of missed diagnoses of serious illnesses or conditions," says dietitian Caroline Young, MS, RD, LD, RYT, owner and founder of Whole Self Nutrition. "For example, eating disorders can go undetected in larger-bodied patients when healthcare providers lack the awareness that people of all sizes suffer from eating disorders."

Nieves adds that weight stigma can impact people's health by leading them to disordered eating and dangerous physical activity routines, in the pursuit of arbitrary, socially constructed “beauty” ideals and diet culture.

Johnson agrees. "Weight stigma is harmful because it gives a false, unattainable idea of how people "should" look, when in reality our bodies are all different," explains Johnson, who adds that genetics, environment, health conditions, and medications are other factors that play a role in determining body size.

What Perpetuates Weight Stigma?

Weight stigma is perpetuated when it's ignored, misunderstood, or not called out as discrimination.

"It's perpetuated by the comments that people make, which are unfortunately normalized in our culture, regarding weight and health," notes Young. "People making negative comments about their own size or other people's sizes perpetuate weight stigma and keep us stuck in a world where all bodies are not welcome or safe from harm and judgment."

Young continues, explaining that perpetuation of weight stigma also occurs through examples like clothing brands not offering weight-inclusive sizing, airlines having improperly sized seats, and doctor's offices staying stuck in a traditional, weight-focused paradigm (where weight equals health).

Weight stigma is also centered around the misunderstanding that obesity is simply a personal responsibility, rather than understanding the complex mix of genetic, environmental, and biological factors that drive it. 

How Do We Stop Weight Stigma?

The following steps may help people recognize and decrease weight stigma and weight discrimination.

Awareness and Introspection

The first step in changing attitudes and eradicating weight bias is being aware of the problem. Johnson says that examining your own beliefs, actions, and words about body size is very important so you know what to work on.

Young agrees and adds "I recommend people start by looking honestly and curiously at their own conditioned thoughts, beliefs, and spoken words, and making adjustments in their words and actions from there."

Nieves notes if you have the assumption that people in larger bodies are “lazy” or “unhealthy,” try to question that assumption and where these ideas came from. "This will help you see that people come in all shapes and sizes, as nature intended, and that there is no one-size-fits-all way to be healthy."

You can assess your weight biases using this scientifically validated test.

Education

Johnson comments that it's important to expose yourself to information that can help break harmful patterns. The dietitians recommend the following websites, books, and podcasts to learn more about weight bias and acceptance:

Many organizations are also working with health care providers to ensure they recognize weight bias, so they can take steps to eradicate it. These include the World Obesity Federation, the UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy and Health, the Obesity Action Coalition, and Obesity Canada.

Change Your Words

"People making negative comments about their own size or other people's sizes perpetuate weight stigma and keep us stuck in a world where all bodies are not welcome or safe from harm and judgment," notes Young.

Start by complimenting yourself and finding what you love about your body. And speak up when you hear someone else making snide comments. Explain that weight bias is discriminatory and unacceptable. "Call out ANY type of weight stigmatizing behavior and implement a zero-tolerance policy," encourages Nieves.

A Word From Verywell

Weight bias is harmful and can lead to mental health issues including anxiety and depression. To help combat weight bias, it first needs to be acknowledged and understood. It helps to read evidence-based resources that can provide education about weight bias and discrimination.

Be part of the solution by combatting weight bias. Call people out when they use negative stereotypes about weight and explain that it's discrimination.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What does weight inclusive mean?

    In the weight-inclusive approach to healthcare, health and well-being are viewed as multifaceted, rather than based on weight status. In this approach, the effort is directed at improving health access and reducing weight stigma.

  • What is weight neutral?

    Weight neutrality is an approach that includes no talk of diet, weight loss, or negative body talk as a way to create spaces that don’t perpetuate weight bias or eating disorders.

  • What is a weight-normative approach?

    The weight-normative approach is a traditional healthcare practice where health and well-being are largely defined by weight and weight loss. It is often discriminatory and furthers negative weight bias.

7 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. World Obesity. Weight Stigma.

  2. World Obesity. Weight Stigma Briefing.

  3. World Obesity. Weight Stigma Policy Dossier.

  4. Obesity Canada. Weight Bias.

  5. Alimoradi Z, et al. Weight-related stigma and psychological distress: A systematic review and meta-analysisClin Nutr. 2020;39(7):2001-2013. doi:10.1016/j.clnu.2019.10.016

  6. Tylka TL, Annunziato RA, Burgard D, et al. The weight-inclusive versus weight-normative approach to health: evaluating the evidence for prioritizing well-being over weight loss. Journal of Obesity. 2014;2014:e983495. doi:10.1155/2014/983495

  7. National Eating Disorders Association. Moving from weight-neutral to body affirming.

By Cara Rosenbloom, RD
 Cara Rosenbloom RD is a dietitian, journalist, book author, and the founder of Words to Eat By, a nutrition communications company in Toronto, ON.

Edited by
Lily Moe
Lily Moe for Verywell Fit

Lily Moe is a former fitness coach and current Editor for Verywell Fit. As a wellness enthusiast, she can often be found in a hot yoga studio, trying a new recipe, or going for a long run in Central Park.

Learn about our editorial process