Content warning: This article contains discussions of eating disorders.
The National Eating Disorders Association hosted its first-ever annual Weight Stigma Awareness Week during the week of Sept. 23-27 under the slogan #ComeAsYouAre.
So what exactly is weight stigma? Weight stigma is discrimination or stereotyping based on a person’s size. It can manifest in fatphobia, which is the dislike or fear of being or becoming fat, according to the NEDA. It is the judgment and assumption that a person’s weight reflects their personality, character or lifestyle.
“We, as a community, need to understand how weight stigma and weight discrimination affect people of all sizes, how it contributes to or exacerbates eating disorders in people of all sizes,” a WSAW announcement said.
In 2018, the NEDA and the Binge Eating Disorder Association, “the nation’s two leading eating support organizations,” according to an article by the NEDA, merged to unify the community and improve access to resources.
Dr. Wendy Oliver-Pyatt, founder of the WSAW and former officer of BEDA, “strongly urged her board of colleagues to consider making weight stigma an important part of BEDA’s work by instituting a week to bring attention to the harms of and contribution to the development and maintenance of eating disorders,” according to the NEDA.
Weight stigma can occur in healthcare, between friends and family, in education, social media, within the wellness and fitness industry and in public settings.
I talked to a Mercer junior, who wished to remain anonymous due to the sensitive nature of this topic, about her experience with eating disorders and weight stigma. From around the ages of 14 to 18, she struggled with anorexia, an eating disorder characterized by restrictive eating behaviors and a fear of food or overconsumption.
Other behaviors commonly associated with anorexia include chewing and spitting, counting calories and macronutrients, hiding food intake and developing a constant obsession with weight.
Anorexia is linked to both genetics and environmental causes. For this junior, it was both.
“The genetic component is a predisposition, not a curse, and mine was definitely influenced by my environment,” she said. “I grew up in a home with overweight parents who were constantly dieting, restricting and talking about how ‘disgusting’ they were as a result of their weight.”
She recalls times where her mother’s unhealthy and sometimes toxic eating habits influenced her perception of food consumption and affected her consciousness of her body image.
“She would be vocal about why and when. She would always justify eating and the food choices she made, so I grew up thinking I had to justify myself too,” the junior said. “She taught me that foods are either good or bad and nothing else, nothing about the nuances of health and micro or macronutrients.”
Her mom would often make subtle remarks to her about people’s attire while out and about, making comments about their body and what they should and shouldn’t wear based on their appearance.
“That was my first experience seeing weight stigma in action and I totally internalized it. It’s what made me want to take so many dramatic steps to avoid gaining weight,” she said.
During this time, she realized she had a disordered relationship when it came to food and eating and continued to maintain this disordered pattern until her freshman year at Mercer, away from her mom.
“My mother taught me that being fat was being worthless and undeserving of eating, dressing and doing what you want,” she said. “She showed me indirectly that the less you eat, the better, and she never taught me about balance or wellness or nutrition. To this day, she judges what and when and how much I eat so I try to avoid having conversations with her, and absolutely I avoid eating with her.”
Witnessing her mother’s relationship and perception of her weight shaped her personal approach to how she sees people and their bodies. This learned behavior constructed her outlook on how her self worth compared to others based on appearance.
“The part of my eating disorder that I hated the most was how it made me project the weight stigma that my mom always projected onto me: I felt that I was superior to others when I was thinner than them,” the junior said. “That mindset faded when I recovered, but I was angry that I had ever thought that way.”
Since attending Mercer, she has developed a healthier mentality when it comes to her body and eating habits and has since recovered from her eating disorder.
“Now I’m big on body neutrality: not loving or hating your body because the way it looks actually has nothing to do with who you are as a person,” she said.
This Mercer student isn’t the only one who has been impacted by weight stigmatization. Research from South Carolina’s Department of Mental Health indicates that eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), potentially 4.4-5.9% of teens enter college with a preexisting, untreated eating disorder. The average age of onset for anorexia is 19, bulimia is 20 and binge eating disorder is 25.
The Eating Disorders Information Network is a non-profit organization whose mission statement says they’re “committed to the prevention of all types of disordered eating, and to the promotion of positive self-esteem through awareness, education and outreach.” Their current advocacy efforts include their #MyBodyDeclaration campaign.
NEDA’s #ComeAsYouAre campaign and EDIN’s #MyBodyDeclaration campaigns advocate for the same thing: encouraging the acceptance of bodies in all shapes and forms, supporting recovery, promoting body positivity and ending the stigmatization of body image and weight.
When people compare themselves to one another, they are subconsciously placing themselves on a scale, measuring their self worth to fit society’s standards and norms.
Deb Burgard, PhD Fellow for the Academy for Eating Disorders, is one of the founders of the Health at Every Size model, which is a movement to promote size-acceptance in hopes to end weight discrimination and to lessen the cultural obsession with weight loss and thinness.
She said in an article this past week that weight stigma assigns value to the body. Dr. Burgard says we are all fighting the same enemy.
“That enemy is the ranking of bodies — and with that, a ranking of worth,” she said.