While other forms of discrimination have become taboo, it’s still common to hear negative comments centered on a person’s weight, said Lindsay Roush, a behavioral health consultant at Memorial Weight Loss & Wellness Center.
Roush calls fat shaming – also known as weight stigma, weight bias or fat phobia – one of the last forms of discrimination that’s socially acceptable. But that doesn’t mute its impact, she added, noting that this type of bullying can lead to depression, isolation and a loss of self-worth in its targets.
“It’s not that different from racial prejudice or homophobia,” Roush said.
Roush, who is a licensed clinical professional counselor, prefers the term “fat shaming” over its less-direct alternatives. “I think it needs to have a name that’s ‘in-your-face,’” she said.
Fat shaming has always been a problem. But the online anonymity of social media has put a spotlight on the issue, with stories touting celebrity weight gains or posts mocking those who are overweight regularly going viral, she said.
Fat shaming isn’t limited to hurtful comments. In its subtler manifestations, it can lead to missed promotions or job opportunities due to managers’ stereotypical assumptions about an overweight individual’s ability to perform on the job. It can even make those affected reluctant to seek medical care if they fear a physician’s judgment.
Why do people feel comfortable shaming others for their weight? Roush said it’s often rooted in fear and insecurity, feeding on a culture that values thinness. Instances of fat shaming can even cause people who don’t struggle with their weight to fear becoming overweight themselves.
Sometimes, fat shaming from friends and family comes wrapped in concern for the person’s health. But “we need to think about the words we’re using,” Roush said. She suggested approaching a loved one who is overweight with compassion and understanding, leading with questions rather than making assumptions. Ask that person if he or she has concerns about weight issues and their impact on quality of life, setting up a conversation that centers on solutions rather than judgment.
Roush shared the following tips for people who experience fat shaming:
If you feel comfortable and safe, speak up. Tell the person that these kinds of comments are unacceptable.
If fat shaming has had an effect on your well-being and self-esteem, consider talking with a counselor.
Practice body acceptance, learning to love yourself in the body that you’re in.
If you desire to make a change, get involved in programs such as those offered by the Memorial Weight Loss & Wellness Center.