Combating Weight Stigma Through Nonviolent Communication: Kathleen MacDonald

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.

WSAW headshot 2Kathleen MacDonald is known on the national level as a dedicated advocate in the education and prevention of eating and body image issues and policy as it relates to eating disorders and mental health parity. She is fully healed from nearly 20 years of chronic dieting (that began when she was 10 years old), anorexia, bulimia, EDNOS, exercise bulimia, disordered eating, and body dislike. As a result of her journey, Kathleen is committed to speaking out about the truth that it IS possible to fully recover from these diseases that affect countless millions of other young women and men on a daily basis and that steal the lives of thousands annually. Kathleen believes that it is not necessary for people to suffer with these diseases for years on end and she also believes that there is an accepted normalcy of “dieting” in our culture that preys upon the minds and bodies of young men and women, preventing them from enjoying their full human potential.  Kathleen has been humbled to receive various awards for her advocacy including:  “The Community Partner Award” from Michigan’s Community Mental Health Services, The Eating Disorders Coalition’s “2009 Award for Action,” and the first Kirsten Haglund “Award for Advocacy.”  She has been featured in documentaries such as “Made Over in America,” and interviewed for several articles on eating disorders and policy, including for “The Hill,” and The New York Times.  Kathleen is a Board Member of the F.R.E.E.D. Foundation and Eating Disorder Activist Network; past Board Member of the Kirsten Haglund Foundation; a member of the: Academy of Eating Disorders, Friends and Family Action Council (EDC), Eating Disorders Professional League of Michigan, and supports many other eating disorders organizations.  Through the F.R.E.E.D. College Speaking Tour Kathleen has spoken out to thousands of students and college staff about body image issues and eating disorders.  Perhaps most importantly, the Speaking Tour introduces audiences to Gretz (Kathleen’s dog who helped her recover), who provides hope that it IS possible to love your body at its natural weight, shape and size by teaching his ‘mantra’ — “It is a given you are beautiful, because you are alive.”

Outside of work Kathleen finds joy and peace in hiking, running, fly-fishing, knitting, reading and spending time with family and friends. She is currently owned by a rescue English Setter and a google of rescue cats.

Nonviolent Communication (NVC”) and Weight Stigma? —

What’s the Connection and Why it Matters.

–Kathleen MacDonald


Weight Stigma and Nonviolent Communication (“NVC”) are such juicy and complex topics that we certainly will not cover all the in’s and out’s here in this blog.  This blog is meant to serve as a summary guide, and is only the cusp of NVC within the realm and realities of Weight Stigma.


For those without knowledge of Weight Stigma, one thought that might arise is, “Well, no one literally behaves violently towards someone who’s fat, so why do you even need to bring up Nonviolent Communication?”  But for those who have experienced Weight Stigma, the reasons for bringing up and engaging in Nonviolent Communication are several, frequent (sometimes daily),  intimate and highly personal.  Those of us who have experienced Weight Stigma could offer up countless examples of violent communication, such as: words spoken to us; look received; seeing bodies exploited in media because of weight, shape, external appearance, and size, etc..  Perhaps right now you’re thinking of instances when you personally have encountered violent communication, verbal or non-verbal, because of your very own body.  Perhaps you’re thinking of when you endured being called names, laughed at, teased or shamed.  This kind of violent communication may occur outwardly, but all too often it permeates inwardly to your heart, your soul and your self-esteem.  And this is why we need to bring up Nonviolent Communication, especially during Weight Stigma Awareness Week (“WSAW”).


First: What is NVC?

Marshall Rosenberg, Ph.D., developed Nonviolent Communication (“NVC”) in response to two questions that he began pondering as a young boy:

  1. What happens to disconnect us from our compassionate nature, leading us to behave violently and exploitatively?
  2. And conversely, what allows some people to stay connected to their compassionate nature under even the most trying circumstances?

In examining those questions, Dr. Rosenberg was struck by the “crucial role of language and our use of words.”  Nonviolent Communication was therefore “founded on language and communication skills that strengthen our ability to remain human, even under trying conditions.  The intent is to remind us about what we already know -about how we humans were meant to relate to one another- and to assist us in living in a way that concretely manifests this knowledge.”[1]  Though there are so many important aspects of NVC, perhaps the most important one for Weight Stigma Awareness Week is this: that Nonviolent, or Compassionate, Communication encourages both speaking and listening to others, from a compassionate place within our hearts. 

As you probably guessed, Dr. Rosenberg entitled “Nonviolent Communication” after Gandhi’s use of the term nonviolence, which refers to, “our natural state of compassion when violence has subsided from our heart.”  And as you probably also guessed, NVC exemplifies the old adage, “easier said than done!”  But NVC is possible to welcome into your everyday life, even if the person(s) you’re engaging is not themselves familiar with NVC.  Here’s how:

NVC Holds Two Basic Premises:

  1. As human beings, we act in ways that serve getting our needs met;
  2. In doing so, our actions come from the best place possible at the moment we engage in our actions.

Our actions might include our thoughts, how we speak, react, judge, criticize, feel, think and listen.   Using NVC, we reframe the language and how we express ourselves, as well as how we hear others, which creates conscious responses and actions based on three principles of NVC awareness: what are we perceiving, what are we feeling, and what are we wanting?  

Paying conscious attention to what we perceive, feel and want leads us to respond to others in empathetic and respectful ways versus with judgment, criticism, defensiveness, shutting down, etc..  By deeply listening to others, and to ourselves, and responding with empathetic attention, we create an opportunity for mutual respect that enriches our lives, the lives of those around us, and our world, including within our Self.

NVC Has Five Basic Components::

  1. Observations: What are the concrete actions affecting our well-being?
  2. Feelings: How do we feel in relation to what we observe?
  3. Needs: What are our needs, values, desires, etc., that create our feelings?
  4. Requests: What are the concrete actions we request in order to enrich our lives?
  5. Receiving: Receiving the above four components of information from others, by compassionately listening.

So, to put it altogether: when employing Nonviolent Communication in a situation or conversation, first we observe what is happening in a situation: what are we observing others (or ourselves) doing or saying that is enriching or not enriching our life?  (Theoretically, this may sound easy enough to do.  However, when we engage in Nonviolent Communication, oftentimes the hardest part is learning to observe without placing any judgment or evaluation with your observation.)  Second, we state how we feel when we observe the situation.   Third and fourth, we identify and express our needs that are connected to our feelings.  Below is an example Dr. Rosenberg offers for these components of NVC.  It involves a mother expressing to her son how she feels about his socks:

“John, when I see two balls of socks lying under the table and another three next to the TV, I feel irritated because I am needing more order in the rooms that we share in common.”

This might seem a bit obtuse of an example in relation to Weight Stigma, but I want to encourage you to look at the example anyway and see if you are able to recognize how John’s mother observed without judging.

In contrast, how about if John’s mother had expressed herself this way:

“John, when you act like a slob and toss your dirty socks around the house without care, you disrespect my need to keep a clean house.”

Are you able to see the difference?  Did you notice judgment and evaluation in the mother’s second statement?  Here are some places I noticed judgment and evaluation: “you act like a slob;” “you toss;” “your dirty socks;” “without care;” “you disrespect my need.”   Those word choices are judgments and evaluations of John, whereas her first statement was about her observations, feelings and needs, without any judgment or evaluation of John.

The ‘moral’ of this example is that when we judge and evaluate (or diagnose) someone’s actions, including ourselves, we are apt to create blame, criticism, and shame versus respect and understanding.

Let me just walk us through the last few components of “the basics of NVC” and then we’ll look further at how NVC applies to Weight Stigma.  The fourth component of NVC is stating a request.  You are encouraged you to make your requests as specific as possible so that you establish a greater potential for your needs, via your request, to be met.  The request from John’s mother is:

“Would you be willing to put your socks in your room or in the washing machine?”

Again, while I realize this example might not seem directly weight-stigma related, I used it because I want you to see how even in the most banal of life-situations,  nonviolent communication can make a significant difference, create a world where we, and others around  us, enrich our lives and make life more wonderful, for everyone.

Employing NVC in Response to Weight Stigma:

Think of a time when you felt judged (including by yourself) diagnosed or criticized because of your perceived body weight, shape or size.  How did that feel for you?  How did you respond?  How do you hold that memory in your mind and heart?  What were your needs when it happened and afterwards?

Conversely, think about a time when your perceived body weight, shape or size was without judgment (including of yourself, by yourself).  How did that feel for you?  How did you respond?  How were your needs met?  How is that memory stored within you?

We define Weight Stigma, also known as weightism, weight bias, and weight-based discrimination, as discrimination or stereotyping based on one’s weight, shape and/or size.  Weight stigma affects how those who are the targets of weight bias are treated by their fellow human beings.  Some common occurrences of Weight Stigma include phrases and labels such as: obese persons are lazy and lack self-discipline; larger bodied people have poor willpower; fat people lack intelligence; unattractive; anorexic; unhealthy; diet and/or exercise excessively or not enough; they have high blood pressure; and the list of judgments and evaluations goes on and on and on…

Nicole’s Experience: 

“Do you have high blood pressure?”

“I’m sorry?” Nicole asked.

“Do you have high blood pressure? You look like you have high blood pressure.”

A small exchange ensues but it’s not until she is gone that I realize that she made an assumption that because I was heavier, I must have high blood pressure.  Last check it was in the 120’s over 70’s.

These people who feel the need to go out of their way to point out the obvious are…dealing with issues themselves, obviously.  I just don’t like that it’s training generations to accept this type of behavior and act out on it. Discrimination in ANY form is just not cool and needs to be nipped in the bud. Negative reinforcement doesn’t work for anyone.  It’s been proven.  Hatred and Rage is all you breed with stigma. It needs to stop. Now.  — (from WSAW 2012)

Upon Reading Nicole’s Experience:

  • What did you observe?
  • What were you feeling?
  • What were your needs as you thought about responding?
  • What kind of requests would you put forth in your response to this comment? 

Were you Angry?  Appalled?  Dismayed?  Felt the comments she received were justified?  Perhaps you belted out a few four-letter words?  Indulge yourself now and jot down what you observed, what you were feeling, what your needs were as you perhaps considered a response, and what your requests would be if you could put them forth to the person who approached Nicole.

Looking at Nicole’s experience through the lens of NVC, I was struck with wanting to know more about the needs of the person who approached her and asked her about her blood pressure.  I was curious to know why they felt that way about Nicole; I wondered what stigma’s they held true about a person’s health because of external appearance that they considered to be “heavier” (I highly doubt the person who viewed Nicole knew her weight, and even if they did, you can’t tell much about a person, let alone about their health, simply because of a number on a scale) ; I also wondered what Internal Weight Stigma (“IWS”) that person might be holding onto (IWS can play a significant role in our lives, including and especially in how we respond to ourselves in situations like Nicole’s, and how we respond to others in situations involving Weight Stigma, and Internal Weight Stigma also often leads to a state of internal toxicity and shame).  

Nicole’s Response Options:

Nicole could respond using violent communication, which might go something like this.

Nicole: “You are an ignorant bastard.”

Person: “Yea, and you’re a fat wh*re!” …and so on.


Nicole could respond using NVC, which might go something like this:

Nicole: “So, you feel my blood pressure must be high because of how I look.  Is that correct? ” Assuming the person responded affirmatively, then Nicole would say, “Is there anything else?”

Person: “Yea, as a matter of fact there is.  I’m a tax-paying citizen and it’s people like you who raise my taxes thanks to Obamacare and all you fat people that I’m going to have to pay for because you’re unhealthy, lazy and quite frankly, ugly to look at.”

Nicole: “So, you feel that it’s people like me who, because of my weight, raise your taxes.  And you feel that I’m unhealthy, lazy and ugly to look at.  Is that correct?”

Person: “Yea, and another thing, why don’t you care about your health and stop eating so much fast food and try dieting?  How can you stand to look at yourself in the mirror?”

Nicole: “OK, so you feel it’s people like me who, because of my weight, raise your taxes.  And you feel that I’m unhealthy, lazy and ugly to look at and that I don’t care about my health.  You feel that I should stop eating fast food and I should go on a diet and you wonder how I can stand to look in the mirror? Did I get it? Is there anything else?”

Person: “Nope, that pretty much sums up how I feel about you fat people.”

Nicole: “I imagine that all those things must make you feel angry and frustrated when you see people of my shape and size?”

Person: “You got that right!”

Nicole: “It must be hard to walk around angry and frustrated at other people.  I imagine it must be hard to be you in a world where people are of various shapes and sizes.”

Person:       “Yea. So why don’t you lose weight and make this world a better place?”

Nicole:        “So you feel that if I lost weight, this world, your world, would be a better place?”

Person:       “Yea, I do.”

Nicole:        “That must be frustrating to not be in control of other people’s bodies and their weight.”

Person:       “Yea, I guess so.”

Nicole:        “So since you can’t control other people’s bodies, what do you need in order to feel less angry and frustrated at “fat people”?”

Person:       “I don’t know.  But I’ll tell you what, both my parents were fat like you and they are now diabetic and I have to take care of them, on top of work fulltime and take care of my own family.”

Nicole:        “That sounds like a lot.  It must be really hard to see your parents suffering with diabetes and have to find time to help them, as well as raise your own family and work full time.”

Person:       “Yea, it sucks.  I wish they were healthy and would live to see their grandkids grow up.”

Nicole:        “So you wish your parents were healthy so they could live to see their grandkids grow up?  Is there anything else?”

Person:       “Yea, I don’t want to get fat like them and have to have my kids                         take care of me.  That’s why people like you scare me so much.”

Nicole:        “It sounds like you are afraid that if you were to gain weight, you would develop diabetes and your kids would have to take care of you instead of you taking care of them?  As a parent, I can only imagine how scary that must feel.”

Person:       “Yep.  And my spouse is a fitness teacher, and I don’t want them to ever think I’m fat.”

Nicole:        “It sounds like there’s a lot of pressure to stay a certain weight or shape.  That must be hard to live as a result of ‘fearing gaining weight.”

Person:       “Yep.  I’ve always been on a diet. It sucks.”

Nicole:        “It sounds like you’ve had a lot of experiences in your life that have made you afraid of being larger, and as a result, you get frustrated at people of my size because you feel rather helpless and afraid when someone is similar in size to your parents.  Did I get it?”

Person:       “Yea.  I guess so, I just never thought of it in that way.”

Nicole:        “Would you be willing to learn about a concept of Health At Every Size?  I think you might find some relief in learning about it.”

Person:       “I guess it can’t hurt.”

Hopefully you noticed a difference between the NVC approach to responding vs. the non-NVC approach.  What I noticed was that when Nicole responded using NVC, Nicole was able to hear and empathize with the person, and the person was able to be open to learning something to help break their thought-process about “fat” people.   I imagine some might be thinking the above dialogue ended a little too idllyic, and I can understand that, especially if you’ve had similar conversations not end so well (I know I have).  But the point is, Nicole tried.  She did her part to listen without judging.  She did her part to empathize and hear the person’s needs.  She did her part to respond with compassion.  Regardless if the person had responded by telling Nicole to “F’ off!” or responded with openness to learning about Health At Every Size, the important thing is that Nicole cared for herself by responding compassionately to a person whose needs were different than her own.  As a result, how do you feel the memory will be imprinted on her heart and mind?  How will you choose to talk with your Self and others, especially when addressing Weight Stigma?

Lastly, I want to give you an example of why nonviolent communication with your Self, matters.

Self: I have always been fat and I have tried every diet.  Everyone tells me that I’ll be happier when I’m thinner.

Using NVC, these might be your responses to your Self:

  1. Observe your Self:  I feel like I have always been fat and I have tried many diets because I believed I would be happier if I was thinner.
  2. How did you Feel (when you read your answer)?  Dieting all those years and pursuing “thinner will make me happier” felt awful, painful, and lonely at times.  I never felt good enough.
  3. What were your Needs? I needed to feel loved and I did not feel loved in my own body.  I needed to feel like people weren’t judging me.  I needed to feel like I loved myself.  I needed to feel no shame about my body.  I needed to feel good enough, including my body, not in spite of it
  4. What are the Requests you want to make of your Self? I want to request that I let go of the obsession of pursuing happiness via a thinner body.  I request of myself that I talk back to my inner critic when it tells me I’m fat and ugly and not good enough.  I request that I speak compassionately to my body at whatever weight or shape it’s at.  And I request that I love myself.

While the answers might not seem that “life-altering,” imagine if you hadn’t employed NVC when responding to your Self? Here’s an example of violent communication towards your Self:

  1. Observe your Self: I am fat and I should diet.
  2. How did you Feel? I should be able to just get over my feelings and lose the weight!
  3. What were your Needs? Needs? What needs? I don’t deserve to need anything.
  4. What are the Requests you want to make of your Self? That I finally lose this damn weight!! 

How will you choose to talk with your Self and others, especially when addressing Internalized Weight Stigma?

Before we move onto the next and final piece of this document, “How To Apply NVC in a Culture That Might Not Be Ready for HAES,” I want to share a story with you, shared by Dr. Rosenberg in his Workbook on NVC.

Waiting for a bus at the Greyhound Bus Terminal in San Francisco, I saw a sign that read, “Teenagers: Do Not Talk to Strangers.” The evident purpose of the sign was to alert runaway teenagers to the dangers that await them in large cities: pimps, for example, are known to stalk lonely, frightened teenagers at terminals.  With practiced warmth, they offer friendship, food, a place to stay, perhaps some drugs. Before long, they have trapped the teenagers into prostituting for them.

I felt sickened by this reminder of how human beings can be so predatory, but as I walked into the waiting area, my spirits lifted almost immediately.  There I saw an elderly migrant farm worker with an orange on his lap.  It was all that remained of his brown-bag lunch, which he had apparently just finished eating.  Across the room, a toddler nestled in his mother’s lap was staring at the man’s orange.  Noticing the child’s gaze, the man immediately stood up and walked toward him.  As he drew near, he looked at the boy’s mother, and with a gesture, asked her permission to give the orange to the boy.  The mother smiled.  Just before reaching the child, however, the man stopped, cradled the orange in both hands, and kissed it.  He then handed it to the child.

Sitting down next to the man, I told him that I was moved by what I had seen him do.  He smile, seeming pleased to have his act appreciated.  “I was particularly touched by your kissing the orange before giving it to the boy,” I added.  He was silent for a few moments, his expression earnest, before he finally responded,  “I have lived for sixty-five years, and if there is one thing  have learned, it is never to give unless I give from the heart.”

I’ll venture to say that most of us like to think of ourselves as compassionate givers who give from the heart.  That is a wonderful way to regard ourselves, and we also must be open to learning from the times when we might have given from a place other than the heart.  Giving does not need to come in the form of an object –it could be a smile to a driver in the car next to you, who is also stuck in traffic; it could be a simple, “Good morning!” to your coworker in the elevator with you; it might be holding the door for someone; it might be changing a diaper at 3 a.m… In so many ways, we constantly give of our Self throughout the day, so there are bound to be times when something prevented us from giving from the heart.  Perhaps we were running late as a result of traffic, so we didn’t say “Good morning!” to our co-worker in the elevator; we were focused on a project that needed to be completed, so we held the door impatiently for someone, etc..  NVC teaches us that whether giving from the heart or giving from another place, the important thing to remember is to place no judgment on yourself.  While giving from the heart can bring us much joy in this life, it is meeting a need(s) of ours, just as not giving from the heart meets a need(s) of ours.

The reason I wanted to digress with the story of the ‘Kissed Orange’ before jumping into “How to Apply NVC in a Culture That Might Not Be Ready for HAES,” was to remind us of one of the core values of NVC –cultivating a world of peace in a world of conflict.

How many of you have run into conflict when trying to explain the concepts and values of Health At Every Size (“HAES”)?  My guess is every single one of you reading this just mentally raised your hand or nodded in agreement, “I have!”  What seems so sensible to you and to me (HAES), obviously raises discord amongst some treatment providers, medical professionals, fitness personnel, researchers, and even the First Lady.  During Weight Stigma Awareness Week, we will likely encounter responses to our blogs that adamantly propagate, “Obesity Kills! Fat is bad!”  How we respond will be central in changing one of the last forms of discrimination that we call, “Weight Stigma.”

As you encounter comments on your blog, or to your face, that cut through your heart, your soul, your hard work, and even the facts, here are some reminders for how you can stay grounded in, and practice, NVC:

Embracing Conflict: Reminders

  1. Slow down.
  2. Slow down some more.
  3. Ground yourself in PRESENT moment feelings and needs.
  4. Focus on Empathy, Connection and Compassion.
  5. Continue to Empathize until everyone’s feelings and needs have been understood.
  6. Only after “e” has occurred, then explore solutions to the conflict.

It will be important to remember, especially as you embrace conflict in conversation with people who vehemently disagree with HAES, people who truly believe that if people just lost weight they would be healthier and happier, and with people who believe fat people are lazy and anorexic people are vain, it will be important for us to remember that those people have needs and their comments and beliefs are serving their needs.  Using NVC, we can help uncover and understand their needs without judging or evaluating, and in doing so, we will help eliminate Weight Stigma.  Equally important will be to remember that without understanding others’ needs, understanding without judging their needs, we cannot truly empathize.  Empathizing with others creates the space in our intellect and our heart to truly connect.  When we truly connect, we create the space needed to encounter conscious understanding, harmony and balance, wholeness, equality, mutuality, safety and cooperation, among other universal desires.

Responding and engaging in NVC will likely be challenging at times, intellectually and spiritually.  Please ask for assistance and support along the way.  We’re on this Earth together and supporting one another is one of the greatest gifts of giving form the heart that I can imagine, especially during WSAW.


May you daily remember that you ARE beautiful, because you are alive.  ~Kathleen

[1] Roesenberg, Marshall B. Nonviolent Communication A Language of Life. Encitas: PuddleDancer Press. 2003. Print