Research finds that overweight individuals internalize others’ negative views.
The prejudice against overweight people pervades many domains of life, including at school, work, in health care, in popular media, and especially in social relationships. It can also lead to “internalized weight stigma," in which overweight individuals essentially agree with negative stereotypes about having excess weight, and in turn devalue themselves. Put another way, it's when overweight individuals are biased against themselves for how they look.
What are the consequences of internalized weight stigma? This question was the focus of a new study led by Emma Davidsen and her colleagues at the Steno Diabetes Center and the University of Copenhagen, both in Denmark. To pursue this inquiry, Davidsen began by recruiting 10 participants who were overweight (as defined by BMI) through social media channels, including a “fat activist” group on social media and a Department of Bariatric Surgery. From there, the investigators conducted in-depth interviews about the participants’ lived experiences and administered questionnaires about weight-related self-devaluation and distress. The participants’ responses were then analyzed for themes.
What did Davidson and her colleagues find? The results yielded seven themes that reflected self-devaluation and struggle:
1. Devaluation of competencies. Two participants shared that they had doubted their competence and credibility because of stereotypes associated with overweight people. Jane, whose job involved physical activity, said she felt out of place or incompetent because of her weight: “It has definitely been my idea of not fitting in [at work] and my concerns about being skilled enough [at my job] that I could channel into some kind of insecurity about – well if I look like this, how can I stand here and present [my work]?”
2. Self-blame. Six participants blamed themselves for being overweight. They saw themselves as weak-willed for not sticking with diets and felt genetics was just an excuse for their excessive weight, and that overweight individuals should bear personal responsibility. Mary, a healthcare worker, remarked: “I definitely feel that saying overweight is in your genes is a poor excuse. I mean, you don’t get fat by not eating enough, or eating sensibly. I don’t believe in that, and I honestly have the philosophy that people who are using that excuse should be sent to a deserted island and then they wouldn’t stay fat very long.”
The participants also expressed judgment of other overweight people, and felt put off by overweight people who ate dessert or used public transportation rather than riding a bike.
3. Bodily devaluation. Nine of the ten participants devalued their bodies because of their weight; this was especially the case in the context of romantic relationships. One participant said she was trying to lose weight, and didn’t want to get involved romantically until she lost weight because she didn’t feel “at home” in her body. Another participant stayed with a verbally abusive boyfriend because she believed that she wouldn’t be able to attract someone else because of her weight. Yet another respondent said she didn’t feel sexually attractive to her husband.
4. Ambivalence. Six participants expressed concern with the way they perceived themselves, their bodies, and other overweight people. Mary, for example, expressed that despite feeling highly worthy and satisfied with life, she still found difficulty connecting to her body: “I also have some prejudices about being fat myself – that is, the fact that it is rarely upper-class people that are fat. After all, it is often social class 5 where they are. So sometimes I think about it myself. I'm a well-educated woman, and I have some healthy values and stuff like that, and I know what it takes to lose weight, but I still fall into that category, with the fat ones. And I can’t help but question myself. If I can’t even control my own weight, then what kind of human am I?”
5. Anticipated stigma. All participants experienced anticipated discrimination, which refers to the assumptions they made about how other people will think of and react to them because of their weight. Anticipated stigma emerged as an ongoing and deep concern. Simon equated this form of discrimination to his experience of being bullied as a youth: “If something goes wrong when I walk by, or something happens, then I can see them standing and pointing and telling each other about him over there, it's him who takes up two seats in the bus, or it's him who eats more, and it’s him that destroys the world. I can see that, and then I stuff music in my ears, so I do not have to listen to them.”
6. Coping strategies. All participants used avoidance to fend off feeling humiliated or degraded because of how others reacted to their weight. Take Kirsten, who didn’t want to wear short or revealing clothes during the summer: “I don’t find it super fun to change with other people by the public pools, or wear bathing suits, so in that way, I feel limited. [...] I don’t want to show my body, so it has been an extremely long and hot summer when one prefers wearing a lot of layers”
7. Mental well-being. Nine participants shared that “living with a stigmatized body” had a negative impact on their mental health, including anxiety, uneasiness, or anxiety in social situations, loneliness, disordered eating, violence, and reduced self-esteem. Consider Cecilia, who struggled with an intense fear of dying, or thanatophobia. She feared her death would create a scene and call attention to her excessive weight: “I have had quite a lot of anxiety about dying. For example, if I am in the cinema, I can get scared that I am dying [...] but I am not actually afraid of death, I am afraid of causing a scene. Then I think to myself – okay, if I am dying, I just have to die quietly, so no one will notice. Then they can carry me out after the movie.”
The authors conclude their study by noting its limitations, including its small sample size. Still, they maintain, this exploratory work demonstrates the harmful and damaging effects of internalized weight stigma.