by Ashley Solomon, PsyD
Parents, we’ve all had those moments, right? (I sure hope I’m not alone here). The ones when your three-year-old repeats the nasty thing you just said about your neighbor to her face the next time she’s out in her yard… Or when your two-year-old starts yelling “damnit!” on the airplane for the whole cabin to hear after you muttered it dropping your bag on your foot…
Our kids are watching. They are listening. They are absorbing. For better or worse!
As parents and caregivers, most of us are aware that we need to avoid creating shame for the children in our lives regarding their weight or shape. But as living, breathing human beings, we are also saddled with our own weight bias.
I have lots of friends who desperately want their children to grow up free of the burden of negative body image and shame that they suffered throughout their lives. And so they commit to never calling their child “fat” or putting them on a diet.
But what they fail to recognize is that their own internalized weight bias is shaping their children’s perceptions of the world around them and themselves. They are watching.
If you’ve read this far, most likely that’s because you’re relatively self-aware and genuinely want to create a culture of body acceptance for your family. Or it’s because your Netflix isn’t working. But either way, below I’m sharing how we can start to recognize and address our own weight bias.
What is weight bias?
Weight bias means holding on to ideas and stereotypes about people based on their weight, shape, and size. In Western culture, this generally means maintaining very positive perceptions of people at lower weights (often at the expense of other qualities) and having very negative perceptions of higher weights.
Weight bias is insidiously interwoven into the fabric of our culture. It shows up in nearly every sector of our society, from our schools to our workplaces to our courtrooms, and, as I’ve discussed before, it hurts us all.
We’re taught from a very early age to fear fatness and to pursue the thin ideal. A powerful study highlighted just how early these attitudes develop. In the study, toddlers demonstrated preference for more average weight dolls over obese-looking dolls. Lest you think these preferences were innate, infants actually preferred the obese dolls, meaning the shift occurred as the children became more aware of others’ attitudes. Further, the toddlers’ preference for the lower-weight versus higher-weight dolls correlated with their mothers’ anti-fat attitudes.
In fact, a Rudd Center study identified that much of the weight-based victimization that occurs toward kids actually happens in the home.
We see that parental attitudes toward weight and shape do have an early and powerful influence on the development of children’s beliefs and feelings about weight. In fact, a Rudd Center study identified that much of the weight-based victimization that occurs toward kids actually happens in the home.
But how do you know if your attitudes reflect weight bias?
Detecting our own weight bias
First, as a reminder, it is important to remember that we all possess bias. The differences among us relate more to how much we recognize and acknowledge that bias. We can start to recognize our bias through examining some of our subtle or not-so-subtle beliefs.
Take the following belief, for example. What do you think of these statements?
- People of higher weights are in poor health
- Parents have control of their children’s weights
- People of higher weights need to just get moving and stop eating so much
- Thin people are more in control of their lives
- If people don’t want to be looked at or commented on for their weight, they should try to do something about it
- If kids are of a higher weight, their parents are probably enabling them
These are all myths, but they are pervasive and alluring ones. What’s even trickier is that some of us take a look at these statements and quickly dismiss them as false, but when we scratch beneath the surface, they still remain.
How does our weight bias influence our behavior?
Our weight bias influences the decisions we make, the way we interact with others, and how we treat ourselves. We can see our weight bias particularly at play when we:
- Choose a different seat on the train to avoid sitting next to the larger person
- Encourage our partner to take a walk after dinner to “make up” for eating dessert
- Call on our lower-weight colleagues more often to speak in meetings
- Select the doctor at the practice who is smaller because “they obviously know more about taking care of themselves”
- Assume that the parents of your child’s higher-weight friend are permissive or must not pay much attention to their children’s well-being
- Make jokes or negative comments about fat characters on television
- Tell ourselves we are lazy or unmotivated because we just can’t seem to lose weight
Most of the time, our weight bias resides beneath the surface of our conscious awareness. Most of us do not go around intending to shame others or trying to create a negative weight culture. But the reality is that unacknowledged weight bias impacts our loved ones, and it impacts ourselves.
Examining our attitudes and modeling healthier behaviors
We cannot “turn off” ideas that have become internalized, but we can examine them and ask ourselves:
- “Are these thoughts coming from a place of fear about weight?”
- “Is saying or doing this going to communicate to my child that I am not comfortable with people of different sizes?”
- “Even if I believe that thinness is better, can I choose to suspend those beliefs for right now, knowing that they are not helping my child?”
Coming to terms with our own weight bias is a powerful step in moving forward. The reality is that we actually have a lot more power over our behaviors than we do our thoughts. So even if these thoughts about “thin equals good” or other weight biased messages remain sticky in our brains, we can choose to demonstrate body acceptance-based attitudes and behaviors. For example,
- We engage in the activities we enjoy without avoidance of them based on body anxieties
- We refrain from talking about our concerns about our size or anyone else’s, even if we have them
- We let go of micromanaging our kids’ eating and allow them to practice getting in touch with their bodies and preferences
- We avoid comparing directly or indirectly our loved one’s bodies to others’
- We talk openly about size diversity and the way in which nature creates a variety of shapes and sizes
- We stand up to body shaming, whether being enacted by our children’s peers, teachers, coaches, or doctors
Examining and addressing our own weight bias is an act of bravery and commitment. It communicates to our children that we are willing to do hard things.
Dr. Ashley Solomon is a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in the treatment of eating disorders and co-occurring conditions. She has spent her career dedicated to helping patients and families navigate these difficult illnesses, as to training, prevention, and advocacy efforts. She received her doctoral degree in clinical psychology from the Xavier University, and completed her pre-doctoral residency training at Friends Hospital. She completed a post-doctoral fellowship in eating disorders at Insight Behavioral Health Centers, with a specialization in BED. Dr. Solomon currently serves as the Executive Director of Eating Recovery Center, Ohio. She oversees the CORE Program, a specialized treatment program for patients with BED. Dr. Solomon is dedicated to advancing evidenced-based practice and in the use of technology in treatment. Dr. Solomon is a currently an active member of the Academy for Eating Disorders, Binge Eating Disorder Association, and IAEDP.