Understanding Weight Bias, Weight Stigma, Fat Shaming, and Fat Phobia

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: August 2023

We live in a society that is often fixated on appearance and unrealistic beauty standards. Weight bias, stigma, fat shaming, and fat phobia have become issues that have a profound effect on people with obesity and those with larger bodies.1

Understanding these concepts is essential to becoming inclusive of all bodies. In doing so, we can help foster a more compassionate and accepting society.1

What are weight bias, weight stigma, fat shaming, and fat phobia?

These terms describe several forms of discrimination and prejudice directed toward people based on their size and weight. These beliefs promote harmful stereotypes. They give power to a more narrow, untrue, and unrealistic view of beauty.1,2

Weight bias

Weight bias refers to the negative attitudes and beliefs society holds toward people who are perceived as overweight or who have obesity. It is a form of discrimination that can happen in various settings, including healthcare, education, employment, and social interactions.1

Weight bias continues the false notion that body weight is solely a result of personal choices and behaviors. Weight bias puts the blame directly on the person. It ignores the fact that weight and obesity are the result of a complex mix of genetics, hormones, the environment, and socioeconomic factors.1,2

Weight stigma

Weight stigma is the shame directed at people who are overweight or living with obesity. Weight stigma is the result of weight bias. It often leads to social exclusion, body shaming, and even verbal or physical abuse.2,3

People facing weight stigma may experience:2,3

Fat shaming

Fat shaming is a harmful expression of weight stigma. People with larger bodies are subjected to ridicule and humiliation for their appearance. This can occur in:4-6

  • Public spaces
  • Mass media
  • Workplaces
  • Schools
  • Social media
  • Relationships with friends and family

Fat shaming further enforces the myth that body size determines a person's worth or value. It puts a person’s weight front and center. This ignores the countless talents, strengths, and qualities that define each person.4-6

Fat phobia

Fat phobia is the irrational fear and avoidance of people who have larger bodies. This fear is often rooted in prejudices and stereotypes. It can lead to discrimination and exclusion in many areas of life.6

Fat phobia promotes harmful and unhealthy weight-loss practices. People who are targets of this phobia may engage in extreme diets and dangerous weight-loss strategies, rather than focusing on overall well-being.6

The harmful effects of weight bias, stigma, fat shaming, and fat phobia

Weight bias, stigma, fat shaming, and fat phobia are all very damaging. They continue harmful stereotypes and create a toxic environment for people with larger bodies. These negative experiences can lead to serious effects such as:1-6

  • Anxiety and depression
  • Disordered eating
  • Isolation and avoiding social situations
  • Low self-esteem and self-confidence
  • Negative body image
  • Reduced physical activity
  • Stress
  • Thoughts of suicide

This all creates a vicious cycle that can contribute to weight gain and obesity, putting a person more at risk for other health conditions. For example, people facing such discrimination may avoid medical care because they fear being judged. This leads to worsened health outcomes.1-6

How to be an advocate for body inclusivity

Promoting body inclusivity builds a more compassionate and understanding society. Advocates are needed to challenge weight bias and stigma. Advocates work toward breaking down the harmful stereotypes that fat phobia and fat shaming create.3-6

Here are some ways to be advocates for body diversity and inclusivity.

Seek education and awareness

Start by educating yourself and others about weight bias, stigma, fat shaming, and fat phobia. Understand the complexities of weight and the various factors contributing to body size.1,4,6

Use intentional language

Be mindful of the language you use when discussing weight and bodies. Avoid using derogatory terms or making jokes at the expense of people with larger bodies. Use people-first statements rather than using labels to identify someone. For example, saying “a person with obesity” reinforces the fact that a person is not defined by their weight.2,4-6

Challenge stereotypes

Speak up when you encounter weight bias or fat-shaming conversations. Challenge stereotypes, and highlight the importance of accepting and embracing body diversity.2-6

Support body-positive initiatives

Engage with and support body-positive movements and organizations. Follow social media accounts that promote body diversity, self-love, and acceptance.2-6

The Health at Every Size® (HAES) movement is focused on spreading messages of body positivity and inclusivity to the masses. Learn more about their work and how you can get involved.

Promote inclusivity in healthcare

Encourage healthcare professionals to adopt a weight-inclusive approach. This approach focuses on overall well-being rather than solely on weight loss.2-6

Media representation

Advocate for more diverse and inclusive portrayal of bodies in media, fashion, and advertising. Encourage the portrayal of people of all shapes and sizes.2-6

Practice self-acceptance

Lead by example, and practice self-acceptance and body positivity. Treat yourself and others with kindness and respect, no matter their body size.2-6

Be an ally

Show empathy and support to those facing weight bias and stigma. Be an ally in their journey toward self-acceptance and inclusivity.2-6

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