Body Image and Weight Stigma

Photo of Amrie DeFrates, RD
Amrie DeFrates, RD

By Amrie DeFrates, RD

Weight stigma – the discrimination against body types that fall outside of society’s ideal, is vastly important in discussing the body image – the personal perception of one’s body.

Weight stigma is a culturally created concept that perpetuates assumptions, and therefore discrimination and prejudices against those who do not fit the “ideal” body type that is perpetuated in society. Body image, on the other hand, is about the relationship with one’s own body, including any thoughts, self-talk and behaviors related to one’s appearance.

While weight stigma cannot be blamed for causing poor body image, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to say it surely can reinforce negative self-talk. Not only is weight stigma hurtful, it also reinforces that being anything other than thin with just the right amount of curvature is something to be feared.

When self-esteem is low and body image is negative, it becomes increasingly difficult to find the motivation to make time for self-care. When feeling negatively, it is difficult for a person to be intuitive about their needs and self-care because the external pressures to look a certain way are speaking so loudly.

As a registered dietitian, I consistently see how poor body image can create a dynamic where each food-related decision comes with the fear of weight gain, loss of control and unworthiness. In more plain language, these fears translate into not getting that promotion at work, missing out on making friendships or a having a romantic relationship.

So long as there is an emphasis on weight as an indicator of health and worthiness, decisions about food and eating are made within the context of fear and consequences. The ability to tune into one’s own preferences and satiety cues is inhibited by such fears, and food becomes a mode of control or self-soothing, rather than nourishment.

Those fears and the need for control are reinforced by weight stigma. And not only is that because of what is portrayed as desirable in the media and day-to-day life, but also because of the value that many healthcare professionals place on weight.

What would a world without weight stigma look like? It would look like a doctor’s visit where weight isn’t announced in the hallway, in fact, maybe it isn’t even taken. It would be the difference between concerns being heard out rather than weight being blamed. It would mean no more unsolicited advice about diet and exercise, or risk for disease in a larger body. It would mean no more assumptions that body size represents laziness or a lack of willpower. It would mean all bodies would be represented in movies and magazines.

Unfortunately, change of this significance can be slow to come, though it is beginning to happen through efforts such as the Health At Every Size® (HAES) movement.

For individuals, the thought of finding a way to move from hating their body to loving their body might be just as daunting as waiting for society’s values to change. Rather than focusing on such an overwhelming goal, it is helpful to begin by making an effort each day to find value in attributes other than the physical being. For some, that may look like keeping a gratitude journal, using positive affirmations, or seeking the help of a qualified professional such as a therapist and/or registered dietitian.

The solution is not found in changing the body, but in placing value on qualities other than the physical being.

Amrie DeFrates is a nutrition expert and registered dietitian (RD) in San Diego, California. She graduated Cum Laude with a Bachelor of Science in Foods and Nutrition from San Diego State University and completed the dietetic internship at UC San Diego Medical Center with an emphasis in Medical Nutrition Therapy. Amrie has experience in nutrition therapy for eating disorders at the residential, partial hospitalization, and outpatient levels of care. She strives to stay current with research and treatment modalities through continuing education and trainings. Learn more at defratesnutrition.com