Weight stigma is discrimination based on your weight. You can come into contact with weight stigma at a very early age.
Diet culture tells us that anyone who is overweight or obese is always unhealthy. Yet American research shows that nearly 30% of obese people are metabolically healthy. Conversely, more than 30% of normal-weight people are metabolically unhealthy.
Weight stigma can actually lead to less health. For example, obese or overweight people who experience weight stigma have more oxidative stress, higher inflammation levels, a higher risk of diabetes and more anxiety compared to obese or overweight people who do not experience weight stigma, research shows.
Weight stigma can also result in more unhealthy eating behaviors (such as sneaky eating, loss of control over eating, and binge eating), less exercise, and higher cortisol levels. Cortisol is our stress hormone and chronically high cortisol levels can lead to insulin resistance and high blood pressure, among other things.
Pregnant women also experience weight stigma. This manifests in less quality medical treatments, less mental health, less general health and undesirable consequences for the unborn child.
‘Your baby is overweight’
Recently a patient asked me what she can do about her 8-month-old girl being overweight. Her daughter was a happy baby with a healthy appetite and an increasing weight curve. The consultation office’s advice? “Less breastfeeding, please”.
The WHO recommends mothers to breastfeed up to two years of age and beyond. Milk remains the main food until about 1 year of age. If the mother follows the consultation office’s advice, her 8-month-old daughter will be breastfed less than if she were of a different weight. This is outright discrimination. Access to food is a basic right for everyone.
Finding out why there are sudden changes in your child’s weight curve (or in your own weight) can be useful. Something might be going on, our bodies can tell us something. It is certainly useful to follow up on a weight curve, but for a correct interpretation and adapted advice you need an experienced healthcare provider. Babies often hold on to some extra weight so they have some reserve once they start crawling, standing and walking. I speak from experience.
Weight stigma in children
Often children in the higher spots of the weight curves are exposed to harmful diet talk. I know several parents who are worried because their daughter or son flirts with the upper limits of the weight curves. “Not so many cookies, that will make you fat” or “stop eating now and learn to control your quantities.” These kinds of eating rules can haunt you into adulthood. And thanks to the generally accepted diet culture, we label these traumatic statements as ‘good for your health’. However, calorie restriction – and/or a strict elimination of food groups – can be harmful to your health: kilos usually come back quickly, emotional or social damage appears and your diet loses balance.
I understand you if you also sometimes make statements nourished by diet culture: this is not your fault. Every day we are exposed to diet culture, to body norms, to praise for weight loss, and to concerned looks at weight gain. The scale is a generally accepted means for health assessment. Underweight women get applause. We package a collective body image trauma as culture.
Do you join me in my battle against weight stigma?
The good news: we can change culture. If we fight together, collectively, for a world in which everyone can live happily in his or her body shape, then harmful weight stigma may one day disappear.
I sincerely believe in change. By that I mean a change of mindset, not a change in the variety of bodies. Our society is made up of individuals. If we all start thinking and acting differently, we have the power to change a culture too. And yes, we can also change a very well established culture as diet culture. Do you join me in my battle?
A few tips:
- Speak lovingly and forcefully about your own body and that of your child/partner.
- Do not comment on your child, yourself or others based on body or weight.
- Treat your own body and that of your child with love and care.
- Teach your child that bodies come in all shapes and sizes.
- Go swimming together and change in public changing rooms. This way your child sees the variety in body shapes.
- Never link food choices to weight.
- Address body shape bullying immediately.
- Never weigh your baby more than is (medically) necessary.
- Avoid compliments based on body shape (also among adults: children hear this).
Do you have questions about your weight or that of your child? Do you want to know more about diet culture? Book your free online introductory session (30 minutes) and discover how I can help you and your family.
The information in this article does not constitute personal medical advice. If you have any questions or concerns, please contact a healthcare professional.