Internalized weight stigma is when a person applies negative societal or cultural beliefs about body weight to themselves. These beliefs come from social norms, which are unwritten rules that govern behavior.

Internalized weight stigma is a type of weight bias, which some refer to as “fatphobia.” People of any shape or size can have it. A 2020 report notes that people with this bias often perceive themselves as too heavy, regardless of their actual body size.

Internalized weight stigma affects body image and self-esteem and is a major public health issue. Evidence suggests that it contributes to disordered eating, overeating, difficulty maintaining a moderate weight, depression and anxiety, and mortality.

In this article, we will look more closely at what internalized weight stigma is, some examples, who it affects, where it comes from, and its impact. We will also explore ways people can challenge weight bias.

A note about sex and gender

Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article will use the terms “male,” “female,” or both to refer to sex assigned at birth. Click here to learn more.

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Weight bias is the belief that certain weights or body sizes are more desirable or valuable than others. This bias exists throughout many cultures, though not all.

People with weight bias may believe that those with larger bodies are:

  • unattractive
  • lazy or undisciplined
  • greedy
  • less intelligent
  • personally to blame for any health issues they experience
  • less deserving of success or love

When this bias turns into action, it is known as stigma. Weight stigma includes any actions, comments, or policies that discriminate against people, based on their actual or perceived body weight. It can be intentional or unintentional.

Some examples of weight stigma in society include:

  • bullying based on weight
  • hurtful comments from family or friends
  • negative stereotypes portrayed by the media
  • employment discrimination

Internalized weight stigma occurs when a person begins applying weight stigma to themselves. They take on the beliefs they hear from others and use them to inform their behavior and decisions.

Internalized weight stigma can manifest in different ways. A person who has learned this behavior might:

  • have difficulty accepting compliments about their appearance
  • frequently criticize their body weight or size
  • avoid having their picture taken or looking in mirrors
  • avoid being naked or having sex
  • cover their body when swimming, at the beach, or in changing rooms
  • turn down opportunities, such as dates or job interviews, due to beliefs about their weight
  • feel unmotivated to exercise if they feel they cannot reach a lower weight
  • engage in yo-yo dieting, extreme dieting, or fad diets to try and rapidly change their body size
  • punish themselves for not reaching their goal weight or for eating certain foods, e.g., by fasting

Internalized weight stigma can affect anyone, regardless of their body weight, age, sex, gender, race, or ethnicity. However, research suggests that some groups have more internalized bias than others, including:

  • People with a higher body weight: A 2020 study of 225 ethnically diverse women found a correlation between a higher body mass index (BMI) and higher levels of internalized weight bias. This suggests that those with a higher body weight internalize bias to a greater degree.
  • Women: A 2017 study of 2,378 diverse men and women found that, while rates of internalized weight bias were similar across racial groups, they were not the same across genders. Women were more likely to report higher levels of weight bias internalization than men.
  • Young people: The 2017 study also found that younger participants had more internalized weight bias than older participants.

The researchers did not study why these differences exist, but it is likely that experiencing more weight discrimination from others leads to more internalization.

Other sources of prejudice, such as sexism and racism, may also play into this. For example, the authors of the 2017 study note that stereotypes about immigrants are similar, in some ways, to stereotypes about obesity.

This may explain why, in the 2017 study, Hispanic women were more likely to cope with weight stigma through disordered eating in comparison with white and Black women, because of what the researchers call “double jeopardy.” However, more research is necessary to understand this.

The fear of gaining weight also affects those with a lower body weight, who may see any amount of body fat as problematic. Weight bias is also common in the health and fitness industry.

A 2018 review looked at 31 previous studies on weight bias among exercise and nutrition professionals, such as personal trainers, physical therapists, and nutritionists. The review included studies from multiple countries, including the U.S.

Of the studies on exercise professionals, 85% found evidence of weight bias, while for studies on nutritional professionals, the figure was 73%.

Weight stigma comes from the belief that one body shape or size is inherently better than another — in terms of attractiveness, health, cleanliness, morality, or a mixture.

Chronic exposure to these beliefs, as well as pressure from close family or peers, can cause someone to subconsciously accept these opinions as true.

However, the source of the prejudice itself is complex. In the West, it has developed as a result of many cultural factors, such as:

  • Health misinformation: A common reason people have for believing a lower body weight is better is that it is a sign of good health. However, this is not true. A person can maintain a low body weight in very damaging ways that have a long-term impact on their health. Similarly, people with a high muscle mass can have a high BMI. Only medical tests can reveal a person’s health status.
  • Colonialism and racism: In Fearing the Black body, sociologist Sabrina Strings argues that weight-related stigma began to grow as a result of colonialism. Prior to the 17th century, European artists depicted women with rounded figures as beautiful. Later, though, a curvaceous figure became part of the stereotypical portrayal of enslaved Black women. In reaction, some people began arguing that a lower body weight was superior, creating a standard of beauty that is still influential worldwide.
  • Sexism: Pressure to look a certain way can affect anyone, but it affects women in particular. A 2020 study of 676 women in Italy found that participants with higher rates of internalized sexism or weight bias were more likely to report self-objectification. This means they were more likely to treat their own bodies as objects for others to look at.

Weight stigma has a significant negative effect on quality of life. On an individual level, it is associated with:

An article in The Lancet highlights that people who experience weight stigma may also delay seeking medical treatment and distrust doctors.

Internalized weight stigma makes it more difficult to engage in healthy behaviors, not easier. A 2018 study argues that — far from being a source of motivation — weight bias is driving global obesity levels.

The researchers also suggest that efforts to address obesity could be reinforcing weight stigma by focusing on weight loss instead of well-being. The National Eating Disorders Association agrees, stating that since the beginning of national obesity campaigns, weight stigma has increased by 66%.

People of any size can have weight bias, affecting how they see themselves and treat others. As a result, everyone has a part to play in ending it.

A number of strategies can help people unlearn the harmful biases about weight they may have internalized, such as:

  • Understanding weight stigma is discrimination: There is no medical need for weight stigma. It is a form of discrimination rooted in prejudice, not science. People may find it helpful to learn more about this, and the ways weight stigma intersects with other forms of oppression, such as racism and sexism, in order to understand where these beliefs come from.
  • Learning more about health: Weight is not the only marker of health. Many factors, including genetics, hormones, and neurotransmitters, can impact it. Learning about this may help people release some of the guilt or shame they feel about eating or exercising, and begin to refocus on taking care of their body holistically.
  • Practicing self-compassion: A 2020 study notes that self-compassion is associated with better mental and physical health, improved body image, and lower rates of disordered eating. However, among participants who experience weight-based bullying, self-compassion scores were lower. A person can learn how to practice self-compassion on their own, with a support group, or with a therapist.
  • Gaining support: A supportive community of peers who oppose weight bias may bolster a person’s confidence and help them feel understood.

It is also important for those who do not experience weight discrimination to stop the perpetuation of weight stigma. Some ways to do this include:

  • Educating themselves: Many people assume that weight stigma incentivizes people to reach a moderate weight, but evidence shows it does not. It is important that people learn this, particularly those who work in the medical, health, or fitness industries. The United Kingdom charity Food Active has a resource hub people can use.
  • Listening to activists and organizations: A number of organizations and individuals are pushing back against weight stigma and can provide information and insight into the damage weight stigma does.
  • Rejecting harmful marketing: Boycott companies that use weight stigma to market their products. Instead, prioritize buying from brands that include diverse models and support body positivity. Similarly, people can unfollow or unsubscribe from companies or individuals who promote one body type as an ideal over others.
  • Being an ally: Jokes, judgmental questions, suggestions to exercise, and other everyday interactions can reinforce weight stigma. If possible and it is safe to do so, explain to the person why these are harmful. It can be especially helpful for people with lower BMIs to push back, since they are less likely to be perceived as biased or self-interested when they demand an end to weight discrimination.
  • Changing policies: Employers, healthcare facilities, and policymakers should consider how they can challenge weight stigma and create an environment where everyone has respect. The Strategic Training Initiative for the Prevention of Eating Disorders (STRIPED) provides a guide on doing this in public health research and policy.

Internalized weight stigma occurs when someone learns biases about certain body types or sizes and then applies these beliefs to themselves. They may avoid certain activities, turn down opportunities, or alter their eating patterns based on their actual or perceived body weight.

This has a negative and substantial impact on a person’s mental and physical health and can affect people of any size. Internalized weight stigma is associated with low self-esteem, disordered eating, reduced exercise, and more.

Pushing back on weight stigma, internally and externally, is essential for improving public health.