Weight Stigma: What Parents Need to Know

Today is the final day of Weight Stigma Awareness Week. Hosted by Binge Eating Disorder Association (BEDA), the theme of this year’s annual online event is Teaching Kids the Truth. Podcasts, blogs, and videos released this week have revolved around talking to kids about weight stigma, exploring their perceptions of weight bias and body image, and how we, as adults, can play an active role in combating weight stigma, starting with our kids. Here’s what we feel it’s important for parents to know:

What is weight stigma?

Weight stigma is discrimination or stereotyping based on one’s weight. What comes to mind when you hear the word “fat”? Perhaps mean, unhealthy, lazy, stupid, disgusting, unlovable, failure, something to be feared? These are words that come to mind for most people. Have you ever looked up the definition of “fat?” You don’t see any of these words. You see the definition when used as a noun and as an adjective. You also see some synonyms, and oh, who knew that it can also be used as a verb? What’s happened is that overtime, the word “fat” has become linked with these other things, all of which we can agree are unpleasant or bad. You could do the same with the word “thin.” If you strip away the associations we’ve made with the word — like pretty, healthy, desirable, successful, popular, happy, willpower, etc. — you find nothing more than an adjective and a verb. Yet we still overwhelming see “thin” as good. Weight stigma is what occurs when culturally-driven associations, negative attitudes, judgments, and emotions associated with certain body sizes affect the treatment of groups of people, mostly those who fall into the categories of “fat” and “thin” by our culture’s standards. And although skinny-shaming is definitely a thing, fat-shaming and weight bias among larger individuals is far more prevalent in our culture.

Where do we see weight stigma?

Weight stigma is perpetuated in our culture through media and advertising and through government and industry-driven campaigns aimed at children — like Play 60, Let’s Move, and Michelle Obama’s school lunch reform — that promote healthy behaviors while at the same time instill fear of fatness in children, well, and in all of us. These campaigns and the importance placed on combating the “obesity epidemic” (another hotly debated phenomenon) leave us more deeply entrenched in the notion that one cannot possibly be fat and healthy, happy, popular, desirable, successful, pretty, etc. And at the same time, they reinforce that those should be our core values. What about happy? Okay. But not the others. We too are also perpetrators of perpetuating weight stigma. Through our conversations with others, through the way we talk about our own bodies and the food and exercise choices we make, and through unspoken prejudices.

How does weight stigma affect our kids?

All of this impacts our kids. Sadly, children soak up our culture’s distaste for fatness at a very early age, and they too become entrenched in the negative attitudes and judgments we associate with the word “fat.” Case in point: 50% of 3-6 year old’s are worried they’re fat. Kids of all shapes and sizes experience this fear of fatness, even those who we would not label as such, and they experience some of the same issues. But let’s consider how kids who are fat by our culture’s standards are impacted by not only targeted bias but also by the insidiousness of unspoken weight stigma and negative attitudes toward fatness. These kids exist in a world where everywhere they turn, they’re told that they’re disgusting, unlovable, lazy, stupid, and well, failing at life. Can you imagine? Maybe you can. Maybe you can because that was you. Well, here’s what we know about these kids:

  • They are more at risk of being bullied.
  • They are more likely to engage in unhealthy eating and dieting practices, and kids who diet are more likely to develop eating disorders and are more likely to be overweight as adults.
  • They are more likely to experience distress about their size, leading to low self-esteem, depression, isolation, and shame.

What can we do about it?

Though taking on Michelle Obama and the NFL linebackers featured in the Play 60 ads might seem intimidating, we are not powerless in the fight against weight stigma. We can have a major impact on those around us, especially our kids, and this can create a ripple effect. The importance of raising our kids in a body-positive environment free of weight bias cannot be overstated. Why? Because they are our future. Planting these seeds early is key because weight bias becomes harder to change the longer we’re entrenched in it.

Parents, here you go — 10 ways you can combat weight stigma at home:

  1. Pay attention to how you perceive and talk about your own body, not just others’.
  2. Eliminate “fat-talk” and “diet-talk” from your conversations, but especially around your kids.
  3. Avoid commenting on your child’s weight. If you make their weight a priority, they will too.
  4. Avoid tightly controlling your child’s eating and exercise habits. Instead provide nutritious foods and options that are not-so-nutritious, and encourage your child to listen to his or her body. To learn more, Ellyn Satter is a wonderful resource.
  5. Compliment your child on their kindness, their creativity, or how hard they studied for a test. Not on their appearance. This reduces the value they place on what they look like and communicates that who they are is what’s important.
  6. Encourage body acceptance, regardless of size.
  7. Maintain a scale-free home. Throw it away; don’t just hide it. Even if your child doesn’t weigh themselves, weighing yourself communicates the importance of the number on the scale.
  8. Use instances of weight bias in the media as teaching moments and opportunities to develop your child’s critical-thinking skills.
  9. Model and encourage treating everyone with kindness and respect, regardless of shape or size.
  10. Do not equate weight and health. Believe it or not, weight has nothing to do with health. Rather, healthy behaviors lead to overall health, regardless of shape and size. Research has shown this time and again.

Awareness is the first step toward action. To learn more about weight stigma, check out the Weight Stigma Awareness Week website. Join the fight against weight stigma. You are not powerless. Every one of us can be a part of the movement. The first step is examining how we might be contributing to weight stigma, then choosing to make changes and to lead our children down a different path.

by Jessica L. Betts, MS, RD, LD
REbeL Program Director