Feb. 2, 2017

Weight bias: Another lens on obesity

Does it harm your health to be ashamed of your body? Researchers are finding links between body image and health outcomes, particularly when it comes to weight issues.

As researchers explore links between the microbiome and obesity at the Western Canadian Microbiome Centre (WCMC), scholars elsewhere on campus are examining other important aspects of the disease that influence health and wellness. 

“Obesity is a very complex issue,” says Shelly Russell-Mayhew, a professor in educational psychology in the Werklund School of Education. “In order to understand obesity we need to look at it from all sorts of perspectives.”

Russell-Mayhew is examining weight bias along with Lindsay McLaren, associate professor and Alberta Innovates – Health Solutions Population Health Investigator in UCalgary’s Cumming School of Medicine, and Kristin von Ranson, professor in clinical psychology in the Faculty of Arts.

“We should be paying attention to weight bias,” says von Ranson. “A lot of people think that if you shame people for their weight, if it’s embarrassing to be fat, then somehow that’s going to prevent people from becoming fat.”

But shaming people for their weight doesn’t encourage people to shed pounds. Rather, it’s damaging to their health. “The research shows that weight bias is prejudice like racism or homophobia and it has impacts on people,” says von Ranson.

Weight bias often results in increased depression and anxiety, suicidal thoughts, poor body image and negative health behaviours. Some of the negative health outcomes attributed to obesity are also associated with, or could be explained by, being discriminated against.

“If we are trying to improve the health behaviours of all people then we need to be reducing weight bias,” says Russell-Mayhew. “We know that making someone feel bad about themselves is not conducive to improving health behaviours.”

How a person feels about their body can be a better predictor of their health than how much they weigh. “People who feel good about themselves, or have positive body image, are more likely to practice healthy behavior that increases their wellness,” says Russell-Mayhew.

But it can be hard for someone to feel good about themselves when parents, teachers, coaches and others constantly “vilify fat” and tell them their body weight is a problem. How children absorb the discourses around the obesity epidemic can have a real influence on their health.

“Children that want their bodies to be different regardless of their weight status actually have higher incidence of negative psychological outcomes like depression and anxiety and poor body image,” says Russell-Mayhew. “Children who live in large bodies who feel like their bodies are just right have better psychological outcomes than children who have a ‘normal’ weight status but feel their bodies should be different.”

People who have large bodies, particularly women, are routinely discriminated against, from health care settings to the workplace to their relationships. “Most people don’t stand up in outrage when there’s a fat joke,” says Russell-Mayhew. “How we portray people in large bodies is a form of discrimination that is commonplace and somewhat acceptable.”

There are many dimensions to having and maintaining good health, from the physical and emotional to the spiritual and psychological. And weight bias is a factor that has been overlooked. “Weight is not as simple as our relationship with gravity, that’s a number on a scale,” says Russell-Mayhew. “Weight is actually much more complex than that.”

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Shelly Russell-Mayhew is a professor in educational psychology in UCalgary's Werklund School of Education. View her publications

Kristin von Ranson is a professor of clinical psychology in UCalgary's Faculty of Arts. Her research focuses on eating disorders, including questions related to etiology, classification, and assessment of eating problems, body image, and weight bias in individuals of all ages. View her publications


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