Family Weight Stigma and Its Damaging Effects
WHAT IS WEIGHT STIGMA?
Weight stigma refers to negative attitudes towards overweight people because of their body and size . As weight stigma is present within institutions such as the workplace, healthcare settings, schools and many more, it is possible that you or somebody you know has experienced weight stigma in some capacity . Weight stigma is not exclusive to just people who present as overweight, anyone can experience weight stigma as societal body expectations are impossible to meet. Experiencing weight stigma can significantly impact how you feel about yourself as it can cause people to develop a negative body image placing them at a higher risk of engaging in eating disorder behaviours .
WHY DOES IT EXIST?
The perception that being ‘overweight/fat’ is negative comes from the beauty standard that is dictated by society as thinness is the ideal . Even children as young as 5 are aware of this perception and grow up to believe that to be attractive, you have to be thin . Not only is the drive for thinness linked with societal beauty standards, but it is also motivated by the stigmatisation of obesity. Over the past 15 years, the narrative that obesity is a disease has increased in the medical field and within society as a whole. Medical research
suggests that obesity causes damaging health effects and can lead to earlier death [6,7]. However, there is much debate around whether this is the case.
WHY THE FAMILY ARE IMPORTANT IN TRANSMITTING WEIGHT STIGMA
As stated by the philosopher, John Locke, we are blank slates, the products of our upbringing. The family is an environment in which children’s behaviours and attitudes are shaped as the family is the child’s first form of socialisation. When it comes to weight stigma, the messages family members, in particular, parents transmit to their children, either consciously or unconsciously, shape how children see themselves and others.
HOW WEIGHT STIGMA IS REINFORCED WITHIN THE FAMILY
“Fat talk” or “negative body talk” refers to the negative comments one makes about their own body and the body of others . For example, comments such as “I’m so fat”, “look at their body” and “I can’t eat that, I will put on weight”. The active or direct fat talk involves directly commenting on someone’s weight or body, in the form of criticism, teasing, blame or even encouragement. Research investigating fat talk within the family found that different family members engage in different types of active fat talk . Siblings tended to comment on physical appearance, targeting the body, shape and size of the individual. Mothers believed that they were helping their children to become healthier by commenting on their food choices and encouraging weight loss. Fathers, on the other hand, commented on specific parts of their child’s body to also motivate the child. This type of commentary from a variety of different family members is damaging as it normalises weight stigma. Parents often feel the need to comment on their child’s weight to motivate their child to lose weight as obese children are viewed as parental failures . However, this has been found to be damaging as children who experience direct parental weight stigma are more likely to develop issues with food and their body image .
Fat talk does not have to be directed at the children to install weight stigma within children. Children imitate and construct their behaviours and attitudes based on their environment and what they have observed . As a result, dieting commentary and behaviours as well as negative comments about the self or others can be detrimental to the development of children’s body image and are examples of passive fat talk. For example, maternal dieting and diet commentary led children to follow a similar path as they began to engage in extreme methods of losing weight in both sons and daughters .
ITS DAMAGING EFFECTS
Both active and passive fat talk from family members does not positively influence children, it can create children who have dysfunctional relationships with their bodies and food. Despite their ‘good intentions’, parents actively commenting on their child’s weight leads children to experience body dissatisfaction, binging, weight concerns and depressive symptoms [14,15]. Similarly, experiencing weight teasing as a child has been linked to low body satisfaction and low self-esteem . This demonstrates that commenting on your child’s weight in any type of way is not proactive and causes psychological issues. Commenting on your own body and dieting can also contribute to negative body image within your child as listening to you or other family members express body image concerns shape your child’s perception of their own body. Body dissatisfaction can act as a risk factor in the development of eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorders . The less exposure a child has to negative body talk, the more they express appreciation for their bodies. With this in mind, parents should be proactive in eliminating weight stigma within the household and within themselves to prevent their children from developing a negative body image.
ADVICE AND TAKE AWAY MESSAGE
As demonstrated above, weight stigma has a negative impact on individuals lives and can influence a child’s body image. As weight stigma can be transmitted through the family, it is important families take into consideration how their stigmatising attitudes and behaviours associated with weight can impact how children view themselves and others.
Here is some advice to protect your child from weight stigma and its damaging effects:
1. Do not comment on your child’s body or shape
2. Discourage other family members from engaging in fat talk
3. If you perceive your child to be overweight, this does not mean that they are unhealthy so do not encourage them to lose weight or participate in dieting
4. Do not diet in the presence of your child
5. Never comment on your weight or others' weight in a negative light
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