What is weight stigma and how do we change the conversation?

People living in larger bodies are often faced with pervasive stigmatisation and discrimination because of their weight. They experience weight stigma from family, friends, co-workers and even health professionals.

Weight stigma is “the social rejection and devaluation that accrues to those who do not comply with prevailing social norms of adequate body weight and shape”.*

Weight stigma can impact how people are treated. Many people who have experienced weight stigma have reported:

  • feeling ashamed for failing to lose weight
  • that people assumed they were eating unhealthy foods
  • being criticised or threatened by family including partners for not losing weight
  • being accused of cheating by their health professional
  • receiving simplistic advice to eat less, and
  • feeling embarrassed to go to a gym or exercise in public.

The fear of experiencing weight stigma is not limited to people who live in larger bodies. Research has shown that women of a healthy weight have reported being concerned about becoming overweight because they feared being subjected to weight stigma.

You can find out more by downloading the Stigma Factsheet. This excerpt has been reproduced from the Shift media guide, with permission.

Download the Stigma Factsheet
Woman in dress standing smiling at camera

“…long after people have stopped calling me fat, fatty, fatty-boom sticks, smelly Kelly with the big belly, the big girl, the big chick, the larger woman, those words, those labels, are still part of my fabric”

Kelly, 2020

The impact is real

Experiencing stigma and discrimination has wide ranging and long lasting impacts on people, and can significantly decrease the success of a person’s attempt to improve their health and wellbeing. Weight stigma is associated with:

  • negative behaviour changes such as exercise avoidance and binge eating
  • increased risk of mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety
  • internalising stigma which contributes to long term mental and physical ill-health
  • increased risk of further weight gain, which increases a person’s risk of future chronic diseases
  • increase mortality risk

Weight stigma also has a significant impact on children and young people. Weight-based bullying is the most common form of harassment experienced and reported by children and adolescents. It can lead to long term issues such as mental ill-health, substance abuse, disordered eating, poor school performance, and social isolation.

Hear what consumers have to say
Young woman sitting with cup of tea looking out of window

“I have been overweight and struggling with weight problems since I was 12 years old, being a teenager and overweight has had a huge emotional impact on my life, especially when people’s perceptions of you is that you don’t exercise or you over eat.”

Anonymous, 2018

Changing the conversation

There are many ways we can work to stop weight stigma and change the way we talk about weight. We can use appropriate language and images, work with people with lived experience to design appropriate programs and services, and educate ourselves on having respectful and supportive conversations.
Shift the conversation
The Shift Guide provides clear and simple information about how to create non-stigmatising messages about overweight and obesity.
Woman in gym using exercise machine
Nutrition communication for health professionals
Find out how to identify diet-related health risk, barriers to change, and how to start healthy conversations to assist others in achieving nutrition related health goals.
Man and woman washing vegetables
Food as medicine: Talking about weight
It is more critical than ever that healthcare professionals have the skills to talk confidently to patients about weight.
Two women sat with feet in water course
SCOPE eLearning
SCOPE is the World Obesity Federation’s eLearning platform. Primary Care Weight Management: Shaping the Conversation is one of the many training opportunities they provide.
Young man at the doctors
Health Consumers’ Council
HCC is the peak body for consumers in WA and a critical partner of The WELL Collaborative.
Working with people with lived experience
The Weight Issues Network (WIN) is a national group of people whose lives are affected by overweight or obesity, who along with families, friends and those who care, are committed to breaking weight stigma.
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Make the pledge to end weight stigma

A team of international experts have come together to outline an International Consensus Statement and pledge to end weight stigma. You can make a difference too.

Make your pledge today

*Source for weight stigma definition: Tomiyama AJ, Carr D, Granberg EM, Major B, Robinson E, Sutin AR, et al. How and why weight stigma drives the obesity ‘epidemic’ and harms health. BMC Med. 2018;16(1):123.