Say “NO!” to Fat Stigma

Disabusing Stigmas Series (#1)

By Sharon Huang

Main Takeaways:

  • Being overweight is not a shame nor a disease
  • Diets do NOT work
  • BMI is flawed (body works biologically, not physically)
  • Finding your set-point weight is the key
  • The challengin g of social anti-fat trend is crucial
  • Steps to make peace with food and finding balance

How often do you hear that overweight is associated with the disease “obesity”, a rising epidemic in the US? How often do you see advertisements for weight-loss products, diets, or programs on the street or the Internet? How often do you hear remarks of people accusing over-weight individuals as lazy, unworthy, and unresponsible? How often do you hear a friend, family member, or colleague talking about a new diet or cardio he or she is trying out? I think the answer is “quite often”. Does it mean we are getting worse at controlling ourselves? Or are we having a higher and harsher standard for living a better life?

What this universal answer show is not the increasing pursuit of a healthier lifestyle, it is demonstrating the common social misconception and abuse of the word “fat”. We must disabuse the social stigma and myths on weight to restore individuals’ healthy relationships with food and eliminate the toxic social expectations of “ideal body”. 

Today, people diagnosed with obesity are prescribed to weight-loss diets, exercises, and even surgeries. Society meanwhile gives mounting pressure on heavier individuals by associating “fat” with lower-social status, failure, and weak willpower. Thus, a culture of dieting, pursuing “ideal” body image and weight has prevailed rampantly in the US. If obesity is the problem and so many actions have been taken, then why are we still obese? Why obesity is becoming a disease? Why is it so hard to resist the desire to eat? Why do diets rebound? The answer to those questions might be shocking to many of you due to the entrenched beliefs in the myths of obesity that you have heard and hold as ultimate truths. I genuinely hope that you can reach a simple conclusion after reading this article: Being heavier is not a shameful manifestation of weak will-power nor a detestable disease that should be addressed to obtain the well-being of an individual. The social stigma and myths that feed in a problematic mentality that makes us so engrossed in dieting, exercising, and other acts of seeking magic weight-loss. 

Please note that I am not justifying extreme weight gain nor discouraging people from improving their lifestyles when their weight is threatening their health. I am claiming that the erroneous interpretation of what weight is considered “healthy” and desirable misled the society to impose harsh and ungrounded criticisms to many individuals. Those stigmas are what must be disabused.  

The first contributor to today’s stigmatized social standards of obesity is BMI, which is the widely accepted standard of measuring obesity and healthiness since the 18th century. If your BMI is 18.5 to <25, it falls within the normal. If your BMI is 25.0 to <30, it falls within the overweight range. If your BMI is 30.0 or higher, it falls within the obese range. Many have been characterized as “obese” according to BMI, and thus became closely associated with many chronic diseases, such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and gallbladder disease. With that knowledge, But, it is invalid. It takes in no consideration of an individual’s biological differences that create various weights and physical states for individuals to be healthy. All people have different metabolic rates, which impact their basal metabolism that is responsible for 50-70% of energy expenditure. Another 30-40% contributes to physical activity. The others left are due to diet-induced thermogenesis (DIT). A person’s appetite, the amount of energy they need, the amount of energy their body burns, and their weight is pre-determined by their DNA. Lifestyle and activities have some influence on individuals. However, researches have found that more active individuals are about couple pounds lighter than those who are less active, supporting the fact that exercising does not determine someone’s weight; therefore, heavier people should not be accused of being lazy or inactive those factors are frivolous in impacting someone’s weight. Furthermore, it is misleading to say higher BMI makes one vulnerable to certain illnesses. “Researchers from the Medical Research Council (MRC) Epidemiology Unit, UK, reported in PLoS Medicine that waist circumference is strongly and independently associated with type two diabetes risk” (Nordqvist). Using BMI to determine someone’s susceptibility to certain diseases and conclude that someone is unhealthy is unreasonable and unjustified. Then why determine and judge someone’s health, social status, and even personality, based on it?

Besides BMI, health concern has been the primary driving force behind criticisms of obesity. It becomes so universally agreed that obesity increases the risk of many illnesses. Whenever we encounter someone with diabetes or heart disease, we blame their over-weightiness. However, those connections are baseless. According to recent studies, there is no positive correlation between greater weight and increased risk of those illnesses. Instead, the opposite might be true. Heavier individuals have found again and again to be having lower risks of death from all causes, as well as death due to stroke, heart failure, and diabetes. “Several studies have demonstrated that some obese individuals have lower cardiovascular risk and an improved metabolic profile, while a subset of “normal-BMI” people are metabolically unhealthy and have increased mortality risk” (Nordqvist). In fact, CDC researchers reached the same conclusion in a widely reported study published in 2005 (Boyles). Thus, there is no doubt that the biggest denouncement on overweight is tenous and should be debunked immediately.

Lastly, maybe the most unacceptable to many people is that diets do not work. Despite having numerous scientific findings that show the fight diet failure rates, countless diet recipes, theories, and practices are crowding the internet and occupying individuals’ everyday lives. “People on diets typically lose 5 to 10 percent of their starting weight in the first six months, the researchers found. However, at least one-third to two-thirds of people on diets regain more weight than they lost within four or five years, and the true number may well be significantly higher” (Wolpert). Furthermore, a study conducted by the Women’s Health Initiative, involving 48,835 postmenopausal women in the United States, found that after almost 8 years of low-fat diet (roughly 600 calorie deficit), not only did not the experimental subjects lose any weight but that their waist circumference, which is a measure of abdominal fat, has increased (Howard et al). Not just low-fat dieters, a study has shown that Atkin dieters, Zone dieters, and Ornish dieters all failed to accomplish weight loss over a 12-month trial. Despite losing some weight in the first 6 months, all of the participants regained the weight gradually (Bacon).

Besides being ineffective, diets severely harm our physical and mental well-being. So many people carry intensive hope when starting a diet, seeing a little progress in the beginning, but eventually disappointed by the rebound and sometimes the few pounds gained after dieting. Diets just do not work. We are not losing weight because we lack the willpower or that we are failures. The society makes us think that we are to be blamed for our appearance, weight, and body fat. We, growing up in such a unified voice, comply with the erroneous accusation when the problem, diets, is gaining more popularity and continues to devastate our society. Whenever we diet, we are depriving our body of the food it needs to feel energetic, to function the best, and to feel secured. When being at a caloric deficit, our body immediately enters self-defense mode in preparation for the “famine” that it detects. It starts to hold on to every energy it can get its hand on by slowing down metabolism, making we feel too lethargic to move around, and sense signals of ravenous to our brain for more food. For example, when we diet, our body enters starvation mode as a result of leptin deficiency caused by the lack of fat and caloric intake. Leptin is a hormone that tells the brain when it has enough energy and signals the body to stop eating (Kam). When leptin level drops, the body cries for food by stimulating the vagus nerve to extract every energy you consume and store as fat to bring the leptin level back up (Kam). To do so, the body makes you extremely hungry. Meanwhile, your metabolism is slowed down to holds onto as much energy as possible. Two factors combined, weight-gain is inevitable. Going on diets is equivalent to starting a fight with our body, whom we are supposed to listen to, trust, and honor.

Similarly, when we consume a huge amount of food, our body ramps up its metabolic rate to burn more calories and convert that food into energy to balance out the influence of the sudden influx of abnormal amounts of calories. Our body naturally and innately know what is best for us. The truth is this: the ideal weight for an individual human being is never what society defines; it is determined from their birth, called “set-point weight”. The range of an individual’s weight fluctuates for 10 pounds heavier or lighter in this set-point range (Bacon). At the set-point, our body feels the best naturally and hence prefer to be in that range persistently (Bacon). But because of the social stigma and myths, we no longer live freely and guiltlessly in the perfect state that our body was meant to be. Neglecting hunger clues, suppressing cravings, and going back and forth between binge and dieting mess up our weight-regulation system, waging a war against our body. This usually results in an increased risk of heart disease depression, malnutrition, long-lasting negative impacts on metabolism, and eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, and ruination disorder. According to WebMD, anorexia is the deadliest among all psychiatric disorders. We have been neglecting the appalling consequences of the toxic trend of dieting to achieve weight-lose. This downward spiral, if not stopped, will not only engender unimaginable destruction on our generation physically and mentally but harm the future generations who would be surrounded by those toxic ideas if no actions are taken right now. We cannot let it remains the same.

As a young woman myself, I struggled with my weight and appearance. I was so engrossed in believing that weight defines who I am and that unable to lose weight is a sign of lack of self-control and discipline, which is unacceptable and disdainful. I became so occupied with thoughts of what to eat, how much calories that brownie is, and how to fight my constant desire to eat “junk” food. I no longer trusted my body and my innate feelings. I was anxious and stressed without knowing that I needed to make a change because I was constantly reading stories of people successfully achieved weight-loss; all I knew was that I haven’t done enough. I couldn’t truly enjoy meals with my family. I didn’t want to stand and walk. I was so irritable and almost forgot how to smile and laugh freely on any small joyful matter. The stigmas and myths got me trapped in my narrow-mindedness to immerse myself in pity, guiltiness, and frustration. But I am not alone. Three out of four Americans have disordered eating behaviors. At least 30 million Americans suffer from eating disorders. At least one person dies as a direct result of an eating disorder every 62 minutes (“Eating Disorder Statistics”). I was fortunate enough to realize my problem to stop this self-destruction before it begets lasting harm to me mentally and physically. But more people are suffering at this exact moment with the social pressure that is unjustified and distorted. They don’t deserve that. No one does.

How we reached this dilemma is not difficult to comprehend at all. We, as a society, believe in false information, buy into popular theories, and blindly follow distorted social values that stigmatize “fat”. Regardless of scientific studies that demonstrate the ridiculousness of using BMI to determine health, associating diseases with heavyweight, and promoting diet for a better life, America refuses to change. Individuals are afraid of fighting against the whole system even when they do not agree with it. It is just easier to change myself than to change the system, isn’t it? Why cannot I just lose weight to be accepted and loved? We question ourselves, devalue our opinions, and usually choose to change ourselves to fit the society. But it is wrong, both biologically and morally. And it has been scientifically proven, so stop judging yourself. Let’s correct the societal misunderstandings.

We should never let social standards outweigh our innate functionality. We should never blame ourselves and others groundlessly. We should disabuse the social stigmas and myths of obesity!

Resources to make PEACE with Food and finding the BALANCE:

  • Books:
    • Health At Every Size by Lindo Bacon, PhD
      • “Any person contemplating going on a diet to lose weight should read this book first. Every health professional who counsels people about weight control should absolutely read this book, read it again, and make sure their clients read it” – Glenn Gaesser, Ph.D.
      • Ebook, paperback, and audio all available on Amazon


Check out the other Disabusing Stigmas series:
- The Problem with Ageism

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