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Weight bias: What is it and what can we do about it?
As the obesity epidemic continues to threaten our nation's health and well-being, how the general population perceives those who are overweight or obese is debatably an even more powerful societal issue. - photo by Stephanie Roque, MS, RD, CD
There is an issue that has been flying under the radar for far too long. It is an issue that has become a socially acceptable form of discrimination and is prevalent in every state throughout our great nation: Weight bias. The unfortunate reality is that 69 percent of adults in the United States are overweight and 35 percent are obese. To compound on this highly complex threat to our nations health and well-being, how the general population perceives those who are overweight or obese is debatably an even more powerful societal issue.

What is weight bias?

Weight bias is the formulation of unreasonable judgments and the resulting stigma that is created based on ones physical appearance, specifically for those who fall into the category of overweight or obese. Its important to take a moment to reflect on how this concept translates to everyday life, and the terms that may or may not come to mind in such scenarios. To illustrate this concept, consider the following, all-too-common scenario: A woman who is overweight is pushing a cart through the grocery store filled with foods typically deemed as unhealthy. Whether its conscious or subconscious, what are the initial terms that come to mind?

Too often, onlookers contemplate the words lazy, fat or stupid and phrases like lack of willpower, inadequate self-control and less ambition and productivity. Yes, this topic is uncomfortable. Yes, the emotions it arouses might make one shift in their seat. Nonetheless, it is vital that we, as a society, educate ourselves on weight bias, and reflect on our own perceptions and their impact on those around us.

How does weight bias impact our society?

Unlike the concept of weight bias, the impact of weight bias does not discriminate. Children and adults alike are at risk of experiencing the negative repercussions of weight bias in the classroom, workplace, grocery store and movie theater, or while strolling around the local park, to name just a few of the countless settings. In the school setting, weight bias takes many forms, including teasing and bullying. In the workplace, weight bias takes the form of employment discrimination and, again, teasing and bullying, which are certainly not solely childhood concerns. The media extends the reach of weight bias with its longstanding images of beauty and what it looks like to be healthy.

Even television shows tend to feature thin characters in central roles and heavier characters in minor roles, a concept of which popular actresses, including Jennifer Lawrence, have taken a strong stand against. The inevitable, detrimental outcome of this form of shaming is increasing rates of clinical depression and low body image and simultaneously plummeting self-esteem.

What can we do about weight bias?

It is time that we take a stand.

As community members, self-reflection is vital. Our tendency to formulate judgments based on ones appearance is often automatic and entirely subconscious. The University of Connecticuts Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity offers self-evaluation tools to assess the level of weight bias you may not realize that you already have (available here). It is not easy or comfortable to come to terms with these preconceived notions, but it is a vital step in the right direction toward addressing this social injustice.

One simple way to counteract weight bias within our society is to practice person-first language. In other words, one is not defined by their condition. Rather than using the phrase an obese person, person-first language transforms the phrase into a person who is obese. The condition no longer takes the front seat on how one is perceived, rather that the person is, first and foremost, a human being. Another incredibly powerful resource is Health at Every Size, which is an organization working to help us be at peace in our bodies and support people of all sizes in finding compassionate ways to take care of themselves.

Perhaps the woman at the grocery has already lost 100 pounds and she is creating her personal journey toward a healthier lifestyle that an onlooker is not considering. Perhaps her child is going through a food jag, otherwise known as a serious disordered eating pattern characterized by eating a select few foods, and those unhealthy foods in her cart are the only source of calories her child will consume. Perhaps she has $50 in the bank and she is doing her best to feed her family of four.

Shame does not motivate decisions to move toward a healthier lifestyle. As our nation continues to combat the obesity epidemic, advocating for and practicing compassion, understanding, and respect for one anothers journey toward a healthier lifestyle will only enhance these efforts.
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