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The Destructive Power of Internalized Weight Stigma

Many higher weight people think that weight stigma may only affect their self-perception and self-esteem. Not so. It may also negatively impact their health.

According to research (Himmelstein, M. S., Puhl, R. M., & Quinn, D. M. (2017, November 9). Weight Stigma and Health: The Mediating Role of Coping Responses. Health Psychology. Advance online publication., accessed 11/17/17), “A large and methodically diverse literature links exposure to weight stigma to a range of poor health outcomes including obesity, weight gain, metabolic syndrome, physical activity avoidance, heart disease, stress, and depression.” For this reason, “…it may be useful to address weight stigma and coping in the context of weight management and obesity treatment programs, to help protect individuals from negative health effects of experiencing weight stigma.”

If you have depression, anxiety, low self-esteem or difficulty accepting your body at a higher weight, weight stigma may be having a negative impact on you. The good news is that if you use fewer of the behaviors that research cites as exacerbating health consequences and more of the adaptive ones, you may be able to reduce these consequences. Self-blame, negative self-talk, crying, isolation, and avoidance are considered maladaptive coping mechanisms, while adaptive ones include positive self-talk and recognizing that society is to blame for stigmatizing you. I would add to coping strategies maintaining social ties, focusing on internal and not external validation, not dieting or weighing yourself, and learning to value your body whatever its size.

You may be caught in a vicious cycle. Feeling badly about your size, you may isolate and stop seeing friends, thinking, “I can’t bear for them to see me this big” or “What will they think if they see me like this?” You may cease engaging in activities you enjoy—physical, mental and emotional—and stay at home more. This will make you more sedentary and more likely to be bored and lonely. And we know what that can lead to: comfort eating. Or you may hate your body so much (due to internalized weight stigma) that you diet or deprive yourself of nourishment and engage in excessive over-exercise to the detriment of your health.

The researchers who authored this article conclude that, “In general, coping via healthy lifestyle behaviors was associated with better health (less frequent depressive symptoms, greater self-esteem, higher physical health scores, and higher psychological well-being scores.” Start practicing healthier coping behaviors, especially engaging in more positive self-talk. Talk with a therapist or life coach. Return to activity and social engagement. You’ll feel better about yourself and won’t be so vulnerable to weight stigma.



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