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The global spread of weight stigma

When weight stigma has been so deeply embedded in society, what can people do to fight it?

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To live in the United States is to live under a constant rain of weight bias and anti-fat messaging – one that’s been pouring down for centuries. And if you’ve grown up with weight bias deeply embedded into cultural norms, it can be difficult to notice when you’ve been caught up in the storm. Even common remarks such as, “Does this make me look fat?” or “You look great! Have you lost weight?” are inherently biased against bigger bodies. Today, weight bias is a global phenomenon, but the extent of its reach is relatively new.

Until recently, anthropologists working around the world were reporting that fat-negative views weren’t common in places like Paraguay and Samoa. And in places where those views were common, they hadn’t been widely internalized in ways that led to discrimination or social rejection. So how does weight stigma spread across cultures and change cultural beliefs?

Weight bias is a complex topic, but anthropology can provide helpful frameworks for understanding how culture can cause people to internalize weight stigma, and why believing the moral messages attached to weight stigma can be so damaging. In this video, Dr. Alexandra Brewis, a biocultural anthropologist and co-author of Fat in Four Cultures: A Global Ethnography of Weight, helps explain how the cycle of weight stigma perpetuates.

“Stigma is probably the least visible, least understood driver of health disparities and health inequalities within societies,” says Dr. Brewis. When it comes to weight stigma, moral judgments around body weight are constantly circulated by media, institutions, and individuals. And over time, people on the receiving end of this kind of stigma can come to accept and endorse those derogatory depictions of themselves, buying into these beliefs. Weight stigma can then compound with other forms of bias and discrimination, multiplying psychological and physical harm.

Weight stigma has been so deeply embedded in society that it affects healthcare practices, educational institutions, the workplace, and more. But there are concrete steps you can take to fight it, such as intervening when you hear a joke about body size, helping a friend advocate for themself at the doctor, and questioning your own anti-fat biases when you catch yourself making judgments about your own or other people’s bodies.

Watch the video above to find out more.