Fat shaming is the act of making a person feel ashamed, inferior, anxious, or guilty about their body shape or size. It does not motivate people to lose weight. In fact, it causes significant harm.

There is no evidence that shaming people for their weight has any positive effects. It is a form of bullying and discrimination, and some experts argue that it can contribute to obesity by creating unhealthy relationships with food.

Weight shaming can also discourage people from taking actions that can benefit health, such as exercising or seeking medical care, due to fearing judgment from others.

Read on to learn more about weight shaming, including its impact on mental health, physical health, and how to stop it.

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Body shaming of any kind can undermine a person’s mental health. This is true regardless of their appearance, shape, or size.

Weight stigma raises the risk of:

  • Low self-esteem: A 2021 study notes that previous research indicated links between weight stigma and low self-esteem. Stereotypes, such as that larger people are lazy or incompetent, contribute to this, causing people to internalize those ideas about themselves.
  • Anxiety and depression: A 2023 study involving 2,707 college students showed that those who experienced or anticipated experiencing weight stigma were more likely to report moderate or severe symptoms of anxiety, depression, or both.
  • Eating disorders: The same study involving college students also indicated an association between experiencing or expecting to experience weight stigma and a high risk of eating disorders. Students were more likely to report bingeing or purging behavior.
  • Suicide: A 2020 study showed that in adolescents identifying as overweight, there was a link to an increased risk of suicidal thoughts and suicide risk. The authors analyzed data gathered and assessed from 1999–2017 and found the biggest increase in suicidality came after 2009. They suggest increasing weight stigma may be the root cause.

In addition to having negative effects on individuals, weight stigma also teaches others to judge and dislike those with larger bodies, even if they are not aware of it.

A large 2019 study examined the impact of body shaming in the media and found that when women viewed this media, their implicit bias against those with bigger bodies increased, causing a rise in weight bias over time.

Implicit bias is an unconscious bias a person does not know they have, but that can still affect their thoughts and behavior, reinforcing discrimination against certain groups.

Body shaming has a range of physical effects. It has links to:

  • Eating disorders: Eating disorders have a significant effect on physical health and can result in nutrient deficiencies, fatigue, hormone disruption, and other health concerns. In some cases, they are fatal.
  • Alcohol misuse: A 2018 paper highlighted prior research findings that indicated medical students who experience weight stigma report higher levels of alcohol and substance misuse.
  • Chronic conditions: A 2017 study involving adults with high body mass index scores found a higher risk of an array of health conditions in people who had internalized more weight stigma. Those conditions included high blood pressure, prediabetes, and high triglycerides.
  • Death: Older research gathered from a 2015 study indicated that weight discrimination raised the likelihood of death from any cause by 60% in mid-life and older adults, thus shortening life expectancy.

Effect on body weight

Some people believe that pointing out a person’s weight will motivate them to change it, but research shows that the opposite is true.

A 2023 review of prior research suggests that weight stigma leads to stress, resulting in high cortisol levels. This may:

  • cause weight gain
  • increase appetite
  • reduce insulin sensitivity

Studies have also indicated that those who experience discrimination find it harder to maintain a moderate weight, may be less likely to take weight loss medications, and may be more likely to avoid exercise due to fearing judgment.

Weight shaming can affect anyone. The biases people have about food and weight can have a negative impact on health regardless of their size.

However, some people are less likely to experience weight discrimination than others. In the 2023 study involving college students previously mentioned, those least likely to experience it were:

  • cisgender males
  • heterosexual students
  • students living in higher income households
  • students who did not perceive themselves as having overweight

In contrast, those who belong to more than one marginalized group are more likely to experience weight discrimination, and the effects are more severe. This is due to intersectionality, or the way different types of prejudice interact and compound one another.

A 2017 study involving data from 2005–2006 found that the impact of weight discrimination had strong links to person’s sex and the social determinants of health. The effects were generally more severe for women, with the effects most severe for Hispanic women and those living in low income households.

This highlights how weight shaming and discrimination tie into other types of inequity. It is not the result of concern for someone’s health — it is a social prejudice that disproportionately affects those with fewer resources to protect against it.

The first step in stopping weight shaming is educating oneself about what it is, where it comes from, and its consequences. Identifying personal biases can be a helpful first step prior to attempting to help identify and effect change elsewhere.

This may involve:

  • Education: Body weight is not always within the complete control of individuals. A wide range of factors influence it, from genetics to a person’s ability to access affordable fresh food like fruits and vegetables. Learning about the medical and societal causes linked to obesity can help challenge stereotypes and help a person understand what health is.
  • Self-awareness: People being mindful of their own thoughts around food and weight is key to self-awareness. If they view some foods as “bad,” thinness as something to aspire to, or have a fear of weight gain, they may have implicit biases linking weight management to superiority.
  • Discomfort: People may notice their biases also affect how they perceive or treat others, which may make them feel guilty or regretful. It is important to confront this and to acknowledge the harm.
  • Shifting focus: A 2022 review emphasizes that to reduce weight stigma, it is important that healthcare professionals move their focus from weight to health. Others can practice this, too. For example, it can be helpful for a person exercising to shift from thinking about burning calories to thinking about gaining strength or enjoying the process.

As a person begins challenging their own biases, they can also change their behavior. This may involve:

  • Being inclusive: Consider making spaces welcoming for people of all body sizes, shapes, and abilities. For example, clothing stores can stock a range of sizes and display clothes on size-inclusive mannequins.
  • Showing diversity: Those who work in visual media have a unique opportunity to challenge weight shaming. A 2021 study found that advert campaigns showing diverse body types increased self-esteem among women.
  • Supporting people and businesses: Consider avoiding spending money at companies that actively promote thinness and weight shame. Instead, consider supporting those who are anti-shame.
  • Educating others: If a person notices an individual or organization shaming or discriminating against people with larger bodies, consider being an ally and challenging this. This could involve taking them to one side and explaining the harm, writing an open letter, or joining a campaign.

Weight shaming drives stigma and discrimination, undermining physical and mental health in many ways. There is no evidence that it has any benefits. In fact, weight stigma may be a key factor in obesity globally.

To lead lives that promote health and overall well-being, people need compassion and support in getting their needs met. Due to systemic inequities, this is not always possible. Weight stigma adds to these existing problems, disproportionately affecting those with less power.

People can start to dismantle weight stigma by assessing their own biases and prejudices, taking steps to change them, and challenging weight shaming in their community or workplace.