Weight Stigma: Discussing and Destigmatizing Weight Stigma, Shame, and Eating Disorders

Based on the talk, “The Evolution of Shame” given by Dr. Wendy Oliver-Pyatt, Board Certified Psychiatrist, Founder and CEO of Galen Hope, at the Emergence Conference 2023.

“Weight Stigma is all about the internalization of shame based on social expectations that generally deny biological pre-ordained biology.”

~ Dr, Wendy Oliver-Pyatt

Weight Stigma stems from the negative weight bias our society adopts and the fear of being in a higher weight body. Cultural and societal beliefs, exacerbated by media, create strong negative associations with certain body sizes, body types, and other physical attributes.  Through these associations, we are taught the standards of beauty and what is desirable, resulting in stigma and discrimination against individuals who have a larger weight or body size, and impacting their physical and mental health.  Expectations and idealizations of health and smaller bodies can contribute to chronic dieting, weight cycling, and in some cases, the development of eating disorders. Clearly, weight stigma causes conflicted relationships with individuals and their bodies that influence their relationship with food and eating habits.

Let’s look at the impact and shame inducing nature of weight stigma and offer suggestions on how to create change. By adopting more inclusive mindsets and advocating for nondiscriminatory policies related to body size, we can move to combat the negative effects of weight bias.

The Impact of Weight Stigma

For those of us who have not experienced the effects of weight stigma, it can be hard to understand how serious of an issue it is. Weight stigma can influence severe physical and mental health complications including disordered eating, nutrient deficits, and generally reduced quality of life.

Negative beliefs about body shape and size can contribute to an individual’s:

  • depression
  • anxiety
  • body image issues
  • low self-esteem

In turn, this can exacerbate unhealthy eating behaviors, or disorders such as avoidant restrictive food intake, anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, or binge-eating disorder.

Individuals who experience weight bias may avoid seeking medical care or engaging in physical activity due to fear of judgment. While individuals experience weight stigma from the public, often, individuals experience the most discrimination from their friends, families, and health care providers.

Early memories of comments from family members and friends and inaccurate or insensitive diagnoses from doctors are frequently at the root of the development of an eating disorder for many. Individuals in larger bodies are often victims of missed or misdiagnoses for many health concerns, including the lack of recognition of dangerous disordered eating behaviors or full-blown ED diagnoses.

Not only might individuals avoid the proper health care they need due to weight stigma, but it affects other important aspects of life as well. Weight Stigma and size discrimination may contribute to determining employment opportunities, health care treatments, social interactions, social status, and much more.

Overcoming the Effects of Shame

Our culture thrives on comparison and often uses physical appearance as a yardstick for worth. This creates a breeding ground for shame, particularly for individuals struggling with weight or related health concerns. As care providers, acknowledging this pervasive shame and its impact on patients is crucial to building trust and encouraging continued healthcare engagement.

Beyond sensitive language: Creating a safe space for vulnerability

While using kind and respectful language is essential, the journey goes beyond mere words. Cultivating a genuinely empathetic and non-judgmental environment is key. This means actively listening to patients’ concerns, validating their feelings, and avoiding language that reinforces societal beauty standards. Remember, weight is just one aspect of a person’s identity, and focusing solely on it can exacerbate shame.

Breaking the isolation: The power of shared experiences

Shame thrives in secrecy, leading individuals to believe they are alone in their struggles. Group therapy can be a powerful tool in dismantling this isolation. Sharing experiences with others who understand can foster connection, reduce self-blame, and normalize the challenges faced.

Universal vulnerability: Recognizing the shared human experience

While the frequency and intensity of shame may vary, it’s a universal emotion. Recognizing this shared experience can be incredibly comforting. This doesn’t diminish the specific struggles individuals face, but it helps lessen the feeling of being ostracized.

Beyond weight: Expanding the conversation

It’s important to acknowledge that shame can extend beyond weight and encompass aspects like eating habits, body image, and overall health. By creating a space for open and honest discussions about these broader concerns, we can provide more comprehensive support.

Combatting Weight Stigma-What You Can Do:

While weight stigma and shame may be a cultural and societal issue, we can all do our part in reversing the social standards around desirable weight and size to aid in reducing shame. Here are some practical things you can do to help combat weight stigma and prevent its harmful effects.

  • Seek to change your own personal biases about weight, body type, and body size.
  • Interrupt microaggressions online and in person about others’ weight, body size, body shape, or other elements of appearance. Explain how detrimental these microaggressions can be to that individual.
  • Utilize your personal social media platforms to raise awareness of these issues and promote positivity.
  • Encourage yourself and others to release shame in the way of artistic/creative expression or another form of loving behavior for yourself, like self-care.
  • Create a safe place for friends, family, and even strangers to share their experiences with you.
  • Remain mindful and respectful of peoples’ experiences.

Together we can stop the shame around body size and aid in the healing of those who are affected by weight stigma. Remember, that profound healing comes in the setting of an intimate group experience, where people can be authentic with each other.

If you are searching for a community that understands these struggles or for the professional guidance you may need to overcome them, Galen Hope can help.

the road to wellness starts by seeking help. today.

Built on the principles of assertive community treatment, Galen Hope is an eating disorder and mental health treatment center offering individualized treatment options that include Intensive Outpatient (IOP), supported housing, and Partial Hospitalization Programs (PHP). As a “Community of Integrated Wellness,” we pride ourselves in fostering a thoughtful and meaningful care experience that can guide our clients on their road to recovery and increased quality of life, regardless of diagnosis. Galen Hope currently offers separate, age-specific programming for adolescents ages 12-17 and adults 18 and up, of all genders.

To learn more, or to join our community for integrated wellness, please contact us today.


Belong. Heal. Grow.



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