Weight Stigma – The Root of Eating Disorders

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Ragen Chastain, NEDA Ambassador

In the eating disorders community, we often hear the phrase “Not every diet leads to an eating disorder, but every eating disorder starts with a diet.” That’s true, but if we really want to prevent eating disorders and allow for full recovery, we can’t stop there. We have to ask ourselves the next logical question: Where do the diets come from?

And the answer to that question is clear—it’s weight stigma. Diets happen because people believe that a thinner body will be, in some way, a better body—more attractive, more desirable, healthier… better. Those beliefs aren’t just in people’s heads. They are created by a society that is rife with weight stigma.

Weight stigma is what leads to “heavy” women earning $9,000 less, and “very heavy” women earning $19,000 less than their “average weight” counterparts, while “very thin” women earn $22,000 more than “average weight” women.

Weight stigma is why, as a fat woman, it can be impossible for me to get the same competent, evidence-based healthcare that a thin woman would receive.

Weight stigma is also why many who are reading this were made uncomfortable by the adjective fat in the last sentence, but not by the adjective thin, even though they are both just ways of describing body size.

Weight stigma does the most harm to those living in larger bodies (and even more so to fat people with multiple marginalized identities), and that would be reason enough to make fighting it a central goal. But the truth is that weight stigma affects people of all sizes in eating disorder community.

As I said in my post in this blog about moving from being weight-neutral to being body affirming, it’s difficult to believe your recovery is the most important thing when diet culture and a fatphobic world (which are the direct result of weight stigma) are telling you that the most important thing, by far, is being thin by any means necessary. And it’s difficult—if not impossible—to let go of your fear of being fat/gaining weight/having an “imperfect” body if you can plainly see you live in a culture where your fear is absolutely justified.

This can also be driven by the people around us who have been duped into believing that thinner is better. It shows up in things like encouragement and positive feedback for eating disorder behaviors and weight loss (especially for those with larger bodies) by everyone from family and friends to doctors. And it’s not just fat people. In my years of speaking about the intersections of weight stigma and eating disorders at conferences, I’ve heard hundreds of stories from people of all sizes who had family, friends, and doctors react negatively to the weight gain that accompanied their recovery.

Trying to prevent and treat eating disorders without directly addressing weight stigma will always be like trying to get rid of weeds by cutting off the tops. In order to truly prevent and allow full recovery from eating disorders, we must attack the problem at its root. And that root is weight stigma.

If we didn’t live in a world where weight stigma has convinced us that a thinner body is a better body—complete with a higher salary, better medical care, and the belief that thinner is healthier and more attractive—then we would not have these reasons to try to manipulate our body size. People would be free to prioritize and pursue their actual health as they choose, allowing their bodies to settle into their naturally diverse sizes, rather than turning to diets to pursue thinness (which we know often result in disordered eating and eating disorders, but almost never result in long-term weight loss). And we could use the $60+ billion a year that gets stolen from us by the predatory diet industry to solve actual health issues like racism and other oppression, access to food, affordable physical and mental healthcare, safe movement options, and self-care.

So use this week to build your awareness of weight stigma, then use all the weeks that follow to fight against it.

Weight Stigma Awareness Week kicks off next Monday, September 23rd! Get more information here.

Ragen Chastain is a speaker, writer, activist, Certified Health Coach, and thought leader in the fields of Health at Every Size, Size Acceptance, and Corporate Wellness. Ragen has brought her captivating and motivating mix of humor and hard facts to stages including Google Headquarters, CalTech, and IvyQ. Author of the blog danceswithfat, the book Fat: The Owner’s Manual, and editor of the anthology The Politics of Size, Ragen is frequently featured as an expert in print, radio, television, and documentary film. Ragen is a three-time National dance champion, and two-time marathoner who holds the Guinness World Record for Heaviest Person to Complete a Marathon (Female,) and co-founded the Fit Fatties and the Fat Activism Conference. Ragen lives in LA, and is currently training for her first (and only!) IRONMAN Triathlon.

Author image by Lindley Ashline