Emerging research from the University of Alberta School of Public Health may be the key to understanding the stigma against certain body sizes in our society.
Alexa Ferdinands, a recipient of the prestigious Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship in 2018 and PhD candidate at the School of Public Health, has been conducting research on weight bias in children and youth under the supervision of Dr. Kim Raine.
Ferdinands defines weight bias as the negative beliefs and attitudes that others have towards people based on their body size; this can include stereotypes, prejudice, discrimination, and so on.
“I was looking at how weight bias is socially organized,” Ferdinands explained. “So, how people in society are kind of coordinated to perpetuate weight bias without really knowing it.”
Ferdinands’ interest in weight bias originated from her experience as a registered dietician. Hearing stories from her former clients about their experiences with weight bias made Ferdinand wonder about the broader, societal issues that are impacting them.
The reason why Ferdinands wanted to work with children and youth is that weight bias starts incredibly young — children, as young as three years old, are already judging others based on weight. For her, it made sense to look at young children for preventative reasons, considering how overlooked children in research currently are.
“Weight bias affects everybody,” Ferdinands said. “It’s not just something that’s affecting people in larger bodies.”
She added how there is a range of consequences that can happen to children and youth. Weight bias can lead to severe mental health problems, such as anxiety, depression and eating disorders, in youth. They can also experience social exclusion and bullying. Conversely, stress and social isolation can lead to long-term physiological problems, such as an increased risk of heart disease.
In Ferdinands’ view, there is a vicious cycle when it comes to obesity and stigma. Within her own experiences, she finds people think fat-shaming will lead people to lose weight, but that’s not the case. Using stigma as a tool to reduce obesity has the opposite effect, in which it reinforces weight gain. People tend to avoid exercising in public if they feel like they’re going to be shamed or mocked. For some, binge eating is a coping mechanism, which also reinforces weight gain.
“The main problem is that there’s a lot of public health messaging that tends to be stigmatizing towards reducing obesity,” Ferdinands explained. “Public health hasn’t done the greatest job.”
It’s not a question of whether adults or children are more likely to commit weight bias, but rather their actions. According to Ferdinands, weight bias is not always obvious, sometimes people’s behaviour can show implicit bias. As children become older, they tend to become more reflective. As a result, adults tend to recognize the explicit actions of their bias, but are unaware of their implicit actions.
“Some people do admit that they have a weight bias, but sometimes [people] are not even aware of it because it’s just so ingrained in our culture,” Ferdinands said. “It’s just a part of our implicit assumptions that we make about people based on their body size without even being conscious or aware of the fact that we’re doing it.”
Ferdinands illustrated this through an example: when given the choice of socializing between two people, both adults and children will choose the thinner person out of the two.
She believes our society obsesses about people’s body too much. Additionally, Ferdinands thinks social media plays a factor in the way youth perceive their bodies. From a young age, they are bombarded with advertisements and unrealistic body standards on social media.
“It’s all related to capitalism. There’s no money to be made if people are content in their bodies,” Ferdinands commented. “The diet and weight loss industry, fitness, pharmaceuticals, there are a whole bunch of industries that are… capitalizing off of our insecurities.”
There are a few ways to reduce weight bias. One way is to challenge fat talk, which refers to the phenomenon of self-degrading talk about the body and weight. For instance, when someone says “I look fat in these jeans,” the expected response is someone contradicting this statement and assuring them that they are not fat.
“Weight bias is a human rights issue,” Ferdinands contends. “Weight bias isn’t going to be eliminated through one-on-one education in itself, it’s got to be more of a systematic level.”
— With files from Vivian Poon