A woman walks into a donut shop. No, this isn’t the beginning of a joke. This is for real. A woman walks into a donut shop. She’s a larger woman, and she’s there to purchase a baker’s dozen, which she plans to surprise her family with after getting off a 12-hour night shift as a nurse.
Her feelings of joy that surround anyone in the midst of a good deed moment are quickly extinguished when another patron looks her up and down and says, “You know you really shouldn’t be eating those.”
Heart. Sink. Smile. Erased.
This is weight stigma. This is stereotyping based on one’s outward appearance.
It happens every day to the men, women and children we love. It happens every day to the men, women, and children Jesus adores.
And it must stop.
The truth is that you can’t tell a single thing about a person’s health based on appearance. Loads of thin people lead sedentary lives, eat fast foods, and are in the midst of addictions. Many in larger bodies exercise regularly and eat balanced diets. Regardless, an individual’s body size and health-supporting habits is no one’s business.
The ironic effect of weight stigma is that as a result, people eat more, not less. Seriously! Researchers have actually found that exposure to weight stigmatizing messages results in increased calorie intake. You may think you’re helping when you encourage your niece to drink less soda. But chances are good that your niece receives the message that she needs to drink less soda because you believe there’s something wrong with her body.
Making matters worse, weight stigma, leads to discrimination. And study after study has shown the negative health effects of discrimination. Do you see what’s happening? Health care professionals and loving friends and family members think they are promoting health when they are providing weight loss advice. But the truth is that in promoting weight loss, they are promoting stigma against those in larger bodies, and the stigma and discrimination is actually harming health! Mind. Blown. Am I right?
While the donut shop example is a blatant, hurtful example, that may sound a little extreme, it happened. It’s part of someone’s story. And consider the subtler examples of weight stigma that occur day in and day out:
- ·An unkind glance of judgment towards someone’s grocery cart while checking out. Again, it’s really no one’s business, and you just don’t know their story. Replace that frown with a warm smile to the strangers you meet at the store.
- Making fun of a friend or family member for going back for a second serving. “Gosh, are you having another? If I had a second serving I’d blow up like a blimp!” Issue #1 is the food choice judgment voiced in a statement like this. Again, don’t steal food joy from others. It’s not nice. Issue #2 – imagine how Aunt Sue who is sitting three seats down from you might feel as she stares down at her thick thighs?
- Telling someone they look “good” because they lost weight. It might sounds like a compliment, but it’s not. Instead, the message is that thin = beautiful and any other body size or shape is not beautiful. Plus, the person on the receiving end is usually left wondering if they were unacceptable the last time you saw them, when they were a bit bigger.
- Telling someone they need to lose weight. Science tells us that an individual can pursue health patterns at any size and these patterns can improve health regardless of changes in weight…so why promote dieting and restriction when we know that most folks regain the weight along with a slew of disordered eating habits to boot? Telling someone they need to lose weight is like telling someone they need to have different color hair or skin, or be taller or shorter. Body size is largely genetically driven. Even if weight loss was a 100% reliant on behavior (which it isn’t), providing unsolicited advice never goes over well.
- Public health campaigns aimed at reducing obesity. Hear me out on this one. I’m not saying that it’s a bad idea to promote health-supporting patterns. I’m saying that this doesn’t need to be done in the name of manipulating body size. Imagine being labeled as “obese” by your medical doctor, and then seeing a “prevent obesity” billboard while driving home from the doctor’s office. How might that make you feel? And this shame-based approach is not effective for supporting health behaviors.
- Not having sufficient seating that fits larger bodies. Some bodies need larger chairs to be comfortable. Again, if you think only having small chairs around is going to motivate someone to participate in health-enhancing behaviors, think again. Not providing comfortable seating doesn’t make anyone want to put sneakers on and go for a run. This is a call to take a good hard look at your church spaces, office seating, and living room and dining room options for guests.
Weight stigma is one of the many forms of injustices, and it often gets overlooked. God hates injustice in all its forms and wants it to stop. Pursuing justice for the oppressed (anyone subjected to harsh treatment) is central to kingdom living.
As my pastor said a few months ago in a sermon, “God has a plan for fixing justice in the world, and we’re it.”
We all care about the health and well-being of our friends and family members. Many of us have that “helper” personality. (Me, me, me!) We mean well. But our well-intended advice may actually be harming those we love.
So, to the “helpers” out there – if you want to help, promote public health initiatives that support EVERYONE (of all sizes) in eating balanced meals, fruits and vegetables, and being more physically active. No need to aim these messages at any one group of people. These behaviors can help everyone.
In the famous words of Maya Angelou, “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”
This blog is a call to do better. Faith communities especially struggle in the judgment category. Do better by loving and accepting others. Ditch the judgment, and embrace and serve all people, especially those who experience stigma and discrimination.
And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8).
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Dawn is an Associate Professor of Nutrition and a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist. She is a wife and a mother to an amazing 11-year old boy. Dawn enjoys finding creative ways to spread the word that God’s unconditional love can bring healing to every broken relationship, including one with food.