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Weight stigma may be more dangerous for higher weight people than carrying around a great deal of weight. Culturally generated, fat blaming and shaming have reached the heights of hysteria in this country. Whether you carry a higher weight or rigidly restrict food or purge in terror of weight gain, it’s crucial that you understand the health and mental health damage that internalized weight stigma poses.
Here’s a recent article I wrote for therapists on treating internalized weight stigma. (“Three Steps to Challenge Internalized Weight Stigma” by Karen R. Koenig, LCSW, M.Ed., https://www.socialworktoday.com/archive/exc_0719.shtml, accessed 7/12/19)
As an eating disorders therapist, I treat many high weight clients. Some are 40 pounds heavier than they would like to be, while others weigh over 300 pounds. In either case—in fact, in most cases—clients who weigh more than the norm have internalized culturally-induced weight stigma which is damaging to both their physical and mental health. Our job as social workers is to help them stop internalizing negative feelings about their size or shape by understanding how they came to adopt these false perceptions in the first place.
During initial sessions with high weight clients, I listen for how they feel about their bodies. They may tell me that they accept them, enjoy a social life and even run 5 or 10K marathons—but generally, they hold the same negative prejudices about their bodies as society does. Because attuning to appetite and making healthier food choices consistently takes time and practice, I raise the issue of internalized weight stigma to offer clients a healthier way to view their bodies right now.
Step #1: Factors that affect weight other than food and activity
Clients are usually surprised to learn that the long-accepted weight theory of calories-in and energy-out is old hat and that there are myriad factors that contribute to what a person weighs, including:
After discussing the possibility that some or many of these factors have affected their weight, I ask clients if that makes them feel any differently about their body size. For many, considering these factors begins to challenge their inner narrative of having done something (or many things) wrong to become a large-size person. For example, they see how for generations, their relatives were big people, large-boned and strong. Some recognize how a childhood spent eating delicious Southern cooking or cheap fast food due to poverty set the stage for craving high-fat, high-sugar foods. Some connect being sexually assaulted or bullied as a teenager with their need for weight to act as a buffer between them and the world. Many open their minds a crack to the idea that the way their body functions—such as storing fat efficiently rather than burning it off quickly—may be different than the way their size 2 best friend’s body functions. Others realize that all the fat-shaming they endured from Dad only made them want to eat more!
Step #2: Why weight-loss diets fail long-term
Next, I talk with clients about why diets do not work for permanent weight-loss and may, in fact, put pounds on them. I start with four quotes from psychiatrist Randolph M. Nesse’s enlightening book, Good Reasons for Bad Feelings: Insights from the Frontier of Evolutionary Psychiatry:
Usually, I can see a light go on in clients’ heads as they realize—often for the first time—that it is not their innate laziness, sub-standard self-care, lack of discipline, poor self-control, stubbornness, or greed for pleasure that has made them the size they are. Most are both saddened and regretful about this realization. Those who are substantially shame-based blame themselves, believing they brought on the problem by dieting—as if they should have known better. But many are angry at the media, their parents, and our culture for duping them into thinking that weight-loss diets are bound to succeed.
We spend a good deal of time talking about their dieting efforts and I reframe their failures as our bodies doing their thing, that is, slowing down the metabolism to conserve calories to survive. For some clients, this is both the good and bad news, bringing them relief because it means they are not bad people after all, but also generating fear and helplessness at how on earth will slim down without dieting. Most welcome my introducing them to intuitive eating and health, not weight goals, and the idea that our bodies can lose weight and keep it off if we stop depriving them of the nutrients they need and the pleasures that food may bring.
Step #3: Understanding the origins of weight stigma
Once higher weight clients recognize that weight has many determinants they never dreamed of and that the restrictive diets they have endured for years have likely been the cause of weight regain, they are ready to explore what causes weight stigma. I tell them that a major factor is their bad luck to be born into the most fat-phobic, thin obsessed culture in the history of the world, a culture that is, paradoxically, also oddly fixated on food. In many ways, it is just a matter of biology and rotten timing.
However, there are other factors as well. Our culture (well, most of it) accepts that it is wrong to make fun of and joke about Blacks, women, Jews, Muslims, transgendered, gay, lesbian and physically or mentally challenged people. Why, then, are people not called out for humiliating and denigrating higher weight folks? One answer is that because we have learned to demonize fat, we have also learned to demonize those who carry it around. Weight stigma is as institutionalized as racism, religion still teaches that gluttony is one of the seven deadly sins, and our culture blames the victim in accordance with its “you broke it, you fix it” mentality.
Moreover, we are stuck with the very human trait of confirmation bias, a form of selective attention that allows us to see what we want to see and little else. Many people refuse to recognize that we do not know what we do not know and that includes biases that run deep below our radar. Our blame-shame oriented culture believes in a virtually equal playing field, personal responsibility above all else, and that if one person can do something, so can everyone else. What a perfect recipe for weight stigma.
It is essential that higher weight clients understand that the root of weight stigma stems from outside of themselves. They are not the cause of it and have the choice to not buy into it. Substituting curiosity and compassion for blame and shame, our clients need to develop their own rational, true narratives of how they came to be their current size. By helping them discover their own stories of how they got to where they are (even as they were trying to get somewhere else through dieting), and to block out and shut off society’s weight stigma introject, we give clients the gift of body acceptance as they go on to learn how to become “normal” eaters and live a healthy life.
Nesse, Randolph M. (2019) Good Reasons for Bad Feelings: Insights from the Frontier of Evolutionary Psychiatry. New York City: Penguin Random House.
“Why People Become Overweight,”. (n.d.). Harvard Health Letter. Retrieved June 26,
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