Combating Weight Stigma: Katie Thompson, MS, LPC, NCC

BEDA promotes cultural acceptance of, and respect for, the natural diversity of sizes, as well as promoting a goal of improved health, which may or may not include weight change.  The views expressed by our featured bloggers are their own.

Katie Thompson

Katie Thompson, MS, LPC, NCC, has been a primary therapist at Castlewood Treatment Center for two years.  Katie graduated from Marquette University with a BA in Communications, Education.  She later earned a Masters of Science in Counseling Psychology from the University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee. Previously, she was a therapist at Rogers Memorial Hospital in the residential program for eating disorders and anxiety disorders.  Katie facilitates various groups at Castlewood, including all of the Eating Disorder groups, is an active participant in the research team and specializes in eating disorders and anxiety disorders; specifically binge eating disorder. Katie coordinates the Binge Eating Disorder Program at Castlewood Treatment Center and facilitates the BED groups in both the residential and PHP levels of care. She is skilled in using DBT, CBT, IFS, ERP and group therapy. Katie is trained in Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) and has earned her certification in Internal Family Systems Level 2. Katie lectures regionally and nationally on Eating Disorders, Binge Eating Disorder and treatment interventions.

When and How Do We Talk to Our Children About Weight Stigma

Stigma is a social phenomenon of restricted belonging based upon characteristics deemed unacceptable by the mass of a societal group.  Weight stigma is when an individual’s weight characteristics fall outside the realm of what is considered acceptable by a larger society and it is a complicated subject which has many sources and tributaries that are often misunderstood.  As an Eating Disorder clinician I often deal with weight stigma within the walls of our residential program when the clients’ own weight stigma plays out against each other and often against themselves. I have long been aware that I really do not fully understand all of the sources of weight stigma.  I am a woman in this society and I have experienced weight stigma in many ways and I have at times used weight stigma against myself.

As a mother to a little girl, I wanted to save her from ever feeling like she was not good enough and I am acutely aware that one of the primary ways people feel “not good enough” is often expressed through the body. As a result of my job, I have learned how crucial it is not to denigrate myself and my body in front of my daughter. I have never done this in front of her.  We do not use the word “fat” in our home and we do not focus on bodies as a definition of ourselves.  I thought this was enough.  I was naïve.  So naïve.

My five year old daughter started school about three weeks ago and in the last three weeks I have had several encounters with her that stunned and scared me.  Maybe these are things that other parents are used to hearing from their sons and daughters, but as mentioned earlier my daughter and I have no previous dialogues like the ones I found myself facing.  Four things happened, maybe they are not a big deal to others, but to me they represent how powerful our peer relationships are AND how Weight Stigma becomes ingrained.

The first incident was a week after she started school, she was getting dressed and she pushed out her belly and said, “Look at how fat my belly is Mom!”  Completely unprepared, I fumbled through a response of, “You’re not fat! Why did you say that Sweetie?!”  She giggled and moved on to the next thing and maybe the moment was over for her, but I was still shocked and wanting to go back and pepper her with questions: 1. Why did you say that? 2.  Did someone say it to you? 3. Where did you learn that word? 4. Do you really believe that?!  And so on, however, the moment had past for her.  I did not want to overreact and bring attention to something that could have been a fluke, so I stored it away in my brain and moved on.

After her first full week of school we went camping along the Meramec River in Missouri over Labor Day Weekend with family.  One of the days we went “floating” in the river and she needed a life jacket.  When I asked her to put the life jacket on she said, “That won’t fit over my fat belly!”  Again, I was stunned! Of course it fit and I was again beyond confused about this new descriptor my daughter was using to describe her completely normal midsection.  In this moment, I told her that was not a nice thing to say about herself and that it wasn’t true.

Three days later we were getting out of the car after school and she compared the size of her thighs to her friends saying hers were “skinnier.”  At this point, I was completely floored.  This cannot all be coincidence! I redirected the behavior and told her that everyone is different shapes and sizes and that this does not mean anything about us.  My daughter shrugged this off too, so I was left with the dilemma of making a bigger deal about it than she was and focusing on something that I saw as an issue that was not for her.  The last thing I want to do is bring her attention to something that is not in her best interest.

This past Friday, I met with the school counselor as a mother and as a professional.  She informed me that during the previous school year she had a problem in the fifth grade classrooms at lunch when a group of girls were making fun of other girls for actually eating their lunches. She informed me that it went on for a long time and she was never able to identify who the “ring-leaders” were because the girls would not tell.  The counselor said that eventually some parents showed up to eat with their kids to make sure they were eating.  Talk about Stigma.   That same evening on the way out to dinner, my daughter was singing a song she learned in the neighborhood and one of the taunts in the song is of being fat.

In the three weeks my daughter has been in school, she has learned a lot of valuable things.  She is learning the 7 Habits of Happy Kids and is learning how to be a leader.  She is learning when it is appropriate to socialize and when it is not. She is learning how to read and it appears she is rapidly learning about Weight Stigma.

Weight Stigma is pervasive, it has always been around, but it seems to have become more prevalent and on some levels more tolerated; almost normalized.  It is almost as if Weight Stigma is something we as a culture have globally accepted as a part of what children learn about at school.  From my work, I know that it is not true that our culture has globally accepted Weight Stigma, but I fear that there is a divide between those fighting against Weight Stigma and the rest of the population.  For many reasons, bias involving weight is ignored, pushed aside and normalized in our media, schools and personal homes.  Some of this is related to how difficult it is to acknowledge our own roles in Weight Stigma.

With any stigmatized group, the larger culture has to take a look in the mirror to address personal biases before there is change on a larger scale.  There has been improvement in stigmatized groups such as interracial couples, race in general and same-sex relationships and in all of the change that has happened, individual personal biases had to be challenged for larger change to occur.  That is one of the main issues with Weight Stigma, the individuals of our culture need to take personal stock of their own biases about weight.  Our leaders, educators, medical professionals, sports coaches and mental health clinicians all must look in the mirror and identify the ways we are perpetuating Weight Bias against ourselves and others.  Until this happens we cannot shift what we are modeling and demonstrating to others, especially our kids.

When I feel alone in my head about all the change that needs to happen regarding Weight Stigma and when I witness something that I cannot really change, I sometimes feel overwhelmed with all of it.  I have learned to remind myself that I can absolutely impact my daughter’s life regardless of the messages she learns from peers and unfortunately sometimes from school and that I also have a voice in my profession with clients and with colleagues.  So I am on standby.  I am willing to speak about and educate as appropriate and necessary.  I offered to help the school counselor in the future if she encounters similar issues with the students.  I speak up with an insurance company that wants to deny coverage to an individual fighting for recovery based upon their weight. I write down my thoughts about the things I witness that are perpetuating Weight Bias even if I am afraid people are sick of hearing me talk about it.

Here is the last example of Weight Bias in action that I encountered recently.  I was enjoying the peace of reading on the porch of our cabin early in the morning when I heard something that shocked and saddened me all at once. A mother and a daughter walked by with their two dogs. The dialogue I overheard disheartened me. Please keep in mind the girl was about 7 or 8 years old.

Daughter: Whoa! I think I burned like a hundred calories on that walk! (Said with the joy of getting an A on a test)

Mom: You do?! (Said with approval)

Daughter: Yep! (With pride)

Mom: Well, me too!!! (By this time she notices me gawking on our porch–quite honestly I was reminding myself I was on vacation, not at work–and she actually smiled at me, like she’s proud of her “worldly” daughter who’s taken to calorie counting at such a young age)

Daughter: Oh look! I think even Daisy (one of the dogs) lost weight! She looks skinnier! (Said with joy and accomplishment)

This was the last of the conversation I overheard. Quite honestly, my horror yet complete awareness that this is a common reality for many little girls (and boys too) led my head into a tailspin and I stopped listening as they passed by.

This IS the reality for our kids. Why? Because our wars against our bodies and ourselves due to our fears of being stigmatized from having an “unacceptable” weight  have bled into our children’s day to day existences. Our constant misguided attempts at controlling our lives, emotions and realities through our bodies have unfortunately become their new normal. Our children get these messages at home (from us), at school (in PE & Health classes), at sports practice from coaches, and most intensely from the vast media that they engage with each and every day.

It is our fault. Each of us is guilty. We have bought into the lies and fantasies sold to us about weight, bodies, exercise, nutrition, control and perfection. We either believe it and wage war against our bodies to avoid stigma or we believe it and accept the stigma “held against” us about our bodies and ourselves as “unacceptable.”

This is about how pervasive this “dis-ease” with ourselves has become and how it is poisoning our children and their abilities to authentically experience themselves and their bodies. I wish I had heard the little girl tell her Mom that she enjoyed the walk because it was beautiful outside and that she loved being with her Mommy and her dogs instead of a dialogue about weight loss.

I do not believe I have the answers to how to de-stigmatize weight.  I do, however, believe that we must take personal stock in what role we play in perpetuating and communicating weight stigma to our children and larger society.