How to Ditch Weight Stigma and Reach Your Goals

Lauren Krouse
by Lauren Krouse
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How to Ditch Weight Stigma and Reach Your Goals

It’s not surprising research shows goals like eating healthierworking out more and losing weight are the top New Year’s resolutions. Judging by how notoriously difficult it is to stick with resolutions, these might also be the same goals you set last year — and many years before.

If you didn’t accomplish what you set out to in the previous year, you’re not alone. The prevailing message this time of year is you need more willpower and self-control to be successful, but that’s the wrong message. The reality: A monthly resolution strategy can get you much farther than doubling down on the same plan that didn’t work last time.

If you’ve resolved to slim down, you likely already know the basic tools you need to get started — a helpful app like MyFitnessPal, goal-tracking methodsnutritious foods and maybe some new workout gear. But another important thing that’s likely missing from your must-haves list: A plan for dealing with weight stigma.

WHAT IS WEIGHT STIGMA?

“Weight stigma is a form of discrimination based on a person’s bodyweight,” says Emma M. Laing, PhD, RDN, clinical associate professor and director of dietetics at the University of Georgia in Athens. “It perpetuates the idea that thinner bodies are more valuable, more disciplined, healthier and more worthy of attention — and we know this is simply untrue.”

Still, stereotypical depictions of larger people are common in movies and TV shows, and many people face weight-based jabs and discrimination at school, work and even in doctor’s offices. The underlying, misguided beliefs suggest people have absolute control over their weight, heavier people are to blame for theirs, and pointing this out will surely motivate them to slim down.

However, “decades of research have shown these perceptions to be false,” says Dr. Aderonke Omotade, a board-certified internal medicine physician and psychiatrist specializing in weight management and stigma. The truth is, weight is determined by a slew of factors, some of which are out of your control like genetics and underlying health conditions like hypothyroidism. Contrary to what some may think, comments like “Why don’t you order a salad?” or “You should work out more” don’t just hurt feelings — they also make it more challenging for a person to get healthier.

WHY WEIGHT STIGMA MAKES IT HARDER TO REACH HEALTH GOALS

The way you feel about your weight can have a major impact on your ability to adopt healthy habits for the long haul. When you constantly hear you’re unhealthy or lazy, you tend to internalize feelings of stigma and shame. If you don’t believe you’re worth the time or effort, it’s tough to practice the self-care it takes to get healthier like preparing wholesome meals or fighting gym anxiety, says Katie Rickel, PhD, a clinical psychologist and CEO of Structure House, a residential weight-management facility in Durham, North Carolina.

Worse yet, weight discrimination has been linked to struggles with anxiety, depression, low self-esteem and poor body image. “People who feel stigmatized are more likely to engage in unhealthy weight-control behaviors like food restriction and binge eating,” says Omotade. That’s a recipe for an increased risk of eating disorders, making it even harder to achieve health goals.

Perceived weight stigma could also cause downticks in physical health and a shorter life span — even after controlling for the effects of body mass index (BMI). This could be due to chronic stress, which triggers excess levels of the stress hormone cortisol and inflammation in your body. When you’re stressed out, cravings for calorie-dense comfort foods go up, and feelings of fullness go down. In this sense, weight stigma in itself may actually cause weight gain. That’s why a smart starting place this year is to make a resolution to fight weight stigma — for your health and the health of loved ones.

HOW TO DEAL WITH WEIGHT STIGMA

1. TAKE AN INVENTORY OF YOUR BIASES

Step one: Recognize how you may stigmatize yourself or others based on weight, suggests Omotade. Ask yourself: Do I base my value and self-worth on my weight? How have I judged others and myself based on weight? Why are these judgments wrong, and what’s the truth? When you identify harmful assumptions or beliefs connected to weight bias, you can begin to let go of them.

2. SEPARATE YOURSELF FROM YOUR WEIGHT 

Before you even embark on a health journey, it’s essential to view yourself as someone who is worthy of love, care and attention, says Rickel. This doesn’t mean you have to be happy with your weight or body size, but you do have to decide to value yourself regardless of the number on the scale. One helpful mantra you can say to yourself: I am not my weight.

3. REFRAME YOUR WEIGHT-LOSS GOAL 

Health and weight are not one in the same, says Laing. Improving your mental and physical health requires building new lifestyle habits and keeping yourself accountable, not hitting a certain number on the scale. As such, consider swapping the goal of “losing weight” for “getting healthier.” Then, break that up into mini-goals you can record and track to keep your motivation up. Think: Increasing your fruit and veggie intakeadding enjoyable physical activity to each day, incorporating self-care into your routine to lower stress and creating a bedtime routine to get quality sleep.

4. FIND YOUR CHEERLEADERS 

The more you surround yourself with people who inspire and encourage you to make health-promoting decisions, the easier it is to reach your goals. “Find like-minded people who can support the new habits you’re creating without shaming you for the past lifestyle you may have led,” suggests Rickel. Follow body-positive influencers, join online health and fitness communities like MyFitnessPalrecruit family members, and consider reaching out to a registered dietitian to work on your relationship with food. If you suspect you may be struggling with problematic eating habits, it’s always a good idea to talk to your healthcare provider.

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About the Author

Lauren Krouse
Lauren Krouse

Lauren Krouse is a freelance writer and researcher based in North Carolina. A graduate of the MFA in Creative Nonfiction program at UNC-Wilmington, she loves writing about all things health, fitness, politics, and activism. When she’s not typing away, you can find her meditating, weightlifting, playing soccer, or walking in the woods with her partner and two rescue dogs.

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