Jain: Weight stigma and body-shaming needs to end

Priyanka Jain, Staff Writer

Trigger warning: Weight stigma and body-shaming.

Weight stigma is a problem that is ubiquitous around the world. Especially in the era of social media, people’s judgments about others’ body shapes and sizes have opened the doors to an increase in bullying and victimization. But weight stigma is not okay. It enables people to falsely believe they have the authority to judge another’s body. It steals an individual’s power over their body and perpetuates a system where people take injurious actions to fit the ideal body type. 

To start off, weight stigma refers to any “discriminatory acts and ideologies targeted towards individuals because of their weight and size.” Weight stigma is especially targeted towards people who may be overweight or suffer from obesity and is often accompanied by several false prenotions and stereotypes about overweight or obese individuals. For example, overweight people are frequently deemed to be lazy, have a lack of willpower or moral character, have bad hygiene, are unintelligent and unattractive. These injurious stereotypes giveaway to microaggressions—eye-rolling or overt displeasure in one’s appearance, for instance—or physical assault. Overweight or obese individuals even endure severe discrimination in the hiring process, are more likely to be paid less and often receive a worse quality of medical care.  Furthermore, they are less likely to receive the same opportunities and privileges that thin people may have.

People who are overweight or obese are often disparaged and blamed for their condition. But what many do not know is that one’s body size and shape is not entirely under their control. According to an international expert in obesity, Professor John Dixon, obesity is a complex condition determined by genetic, biological and environmental factors. He says that certain aspects that influence one’s ability to lose or gain weight are a mother’s genes, what she ate during pregnancy, what she fed the child in early years and the makeup of a child’s microbiome (community of microorganisms that live in the gut). These factors are mostly set-and-stone when the child turns four, and there’s not much the child can do to alter their metabolic abilities. Thus, this translates into some individuals being more inclined to gain weight compared to others. Although exercising or dieting can alter one’s body shape and size, it does not alter the intrinsic properties of the body, meaning one’s susceptibility to gain or lose weight. 

Weight stigma is increasingly prevalent in the media in which people frequently take to social media to body shame others. People think they have the right to police others on their bodily appearance. As a result, people are deprived of control over their bodies; many alter their bodies—whether in a healthy or unhealthy way—to gain social acceptance, privilege and better opportunities. In many movies and TV shows, overweight individuals are severely underrepresented compared to thin individuals, especially when it comes to women. Many marketing companies even sell weight-loss products, perpetuating that weight is entirely under one’s control and a personal responsibility. 

Weight stigma has so deeply integrated itself into our social psyche that people tokenize their bodies—by maybe making themselves thinner or more fit—to pursue greater social acceptance and opportunities. But these actions can easily devolve into serious issues, like eating disorders, body dysmorphia or self-rejection.

Fatphobia has even led the way to skinny-shaming. People often chastise naturally underweight individuals for not eating enough, even though bodies can be genetically predisposed to being thin or underweight. In addition, people often think that underweight individuals suffer from eating disorders, like bulimia or anorexia. 

As such, body-shaming of any kind is simply not okay. It is time to stop judging people and gauging the worth of others based on their physique. TV shows and movies should allow an equitable representation of all body types and not associate body types with stereotypical personalities or traits. And before you judge another based on their body shape or size, remember that one’s physique is often not in their control. Learn to merit other’s character, intelligence and skills at face value rather than through appearance bias. The only way to end this oppressive stigma is to give the power back to the people and allow them to express themselves and their bodies however they please. No one has the power to take away that freedom.