Research published in PLOS ONE this morning has found that people who experience discrimination based on their weight are likely to gain more of it. Similarly, negative attitudes lead people who are obese to not lose weight, showing that discrimination has greater implications than poor mental health for fat people.
Living with a spoiled identity (often referred to as stigma) has a strong impact on the health and well-being of members of marginalised populations.
Research on stigma, and the resulting discrimination, has found negative effects on health in racial minorities, members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans*, intersex, asexual, queer community, and people with chronic illness.
More recently, this research stream has turned to the stigma placed on fat people and the impact this may have on their health and well-being. With the increasing numbers of fat activists sharing their stories online, more academics are paying attention to the impact of anti-fat attitudes on the health and well-being of fat people.
Fat Studies researchers are working to build a body of literature around fat stigma, hoping to illuminate the experiences of fat people living with discrimination and oppression.
Anti-fat attitudes are found across cultures; across the lifespan; and across professions. It’s not surprisingly then that the evidence suggests fat people experience discrimination and oppression, and that this has a negative impact on their identity, self-esteem, mental health and physical well-being.
The PLOS ONE study by Angelina Sutin and Antonio Terracciano from the Florida State University College of Medicine explores the impact of weight discrimination on weight gain and loss in people over 50 years old in the United States.
The 6,000 subjects in the study had a mean age of 66 and were measured in 2006 and again in 2010. Subjects self-reported their height and weight.
Normal weight individuals who experienced weight discrimination were more likely to become obese by the follow-up than those who did not.
Obese people who experienced weight discrimination were much more likely to remain obese by the follow-up than those who did not. Other kinds of discrimination (based on sex, for instance, or race) didn’t have the same link with weight.
And the effect of this kind of discrimination was independent of factors such as age, education and ethnicity.
The authors propose several reasons why weight discrimination may lead to weight gain (or inhibit weight loss). They draw from previous research that has found that weight discrimination contributes to binge eating, lack of confidence around exercise, and decreased self-esteem.
In a 2012 study, researchers Rebecca M. Puhl, Corinne A. Moss-Racusin, and Marlene B. Schwartz concluded that fat people who internalise weight discrimination were more likely to engage in binge eating.
“Internalising” in this sense means that people integrate the negative attitudes of those around them into their identity. This usually leads to a decrease in self-worth and health-seeking behaviour.
Unsurprisingly, they also found that stigma and discrimination were not factors that motivated people to try to lose weight. I think we can make this simpler – shame is never good for anyone’s well-being.
People respond to stigma in one of four ways: withdrawal, covering, passing, or coming out. Some people with a spoiled identity simply withdraw from society; they engage with the outside world as little as possible.
Some are able to pass, to pretend to not be a member of a stigmatised group. Consider someone who doesn’t disclose her sexual orientation to her friends and co-workers or a light-skinned member of a racial minority who is mistaken as white by his peers.
Many people with spoiled identities engage in covering; an identity management technique characterised by acknowledging and openly accepting the shame of the stigma. Think of the fat person who regularly apologises for their size and openly states shame for their body.
The final identity management technique is coming out. Coming out means to embrace the spoiled identity by rejecting the ideas linked to it by the mainstream culture.
We most often seen this strategy in people who identify as gay or lesbian, but it applies to other stigmatised groups as well. I’ve written before that coming out as a fat is a way to negotiate the experience of a hostile environment.
I’m currently working on research that explores whether people who come out as fat (who claim and develop a fat identity) are better equipped to handle the stigma, discrimination, and oppression they experience.
Similarly, researchers from Monash University conducted a study that examined how people active in the Fatosphere (an online community for fat activism) negotiate stigma and weight discrimination. They found that fat people who engaged with online communities were less likely to internalise weight discrimination, and more likely to engage in health-seeking behaviour.
Shaming fat people does not promote health or behaviours that leads to mental or physical well-being. What it does is create a culture of shame for people of all sizes.
Fat people are shamed for being fat. Non-fat people are shamed for engaging in behaviours that may lead to fatness. And this shame only reinforces weight anxiety in across the lifespan. Weight anxiety may be good for the weight-cycling industrial complex, but not for individual health and well-being.