How fat-shaming can lead to serious mental health problems: Study

Around 11.2 million Aussie adults are overweight and while plenty of research explains the impacts obesity can have on health, a new study investigates the huge problem fat-shaming and stigma has on mental health. Source: Pixabay

Whether it’s through health campaigns warning of the dangers of junk food or advertisements about the benefits of losing weight, there’s no denying obesity is a big problem in Australia. Most people are aware of the mental and physical impacts being overweight can have on health, but studies rarely assess the impacts fat-shaming or weight stigma have on the 63.4 per cent of Aussie adults who are overweight themselves.

New research published in the Australian Psychologist Journal investigated the impact of weight-based stigma — which involves the devaluation of overweight people based on negative stereotypes — on obese people. This could include anything from overt criticism to subtle or indirect stigma such as ridiculing, as well as threatening environmental cues such as a lack of adequate-sized seating or clothing available.

Previous studies show as many as 91 per cent of overweight people experience weight-related stigma and it’s more common in younger adults and women. Stigma can be experienced from loved ones, in professional settings, through the media and even by healthcare professionals.

This can result in a series of serious health problems including eating disorders, decreased motivation to exercise, mood and anxiety issues, reduced quality of life, loneliness and social isolation. People are also known to limit participation in social and leisure activities to cope with it.

Researchers set out to prove that individuals who experience greater stigma related to their weight are more likely to then be less self-compassionate and potentially experience psychological distress, as well as body shame, loneliness and life satisfaction.

They did so by surveying 147 overweight Australian adult females, who were asked to complete a series of questionnaires measuring their own experiences, with 97.96 per cent found to have experienced weight stigma at least once in their life.

Read more: ‘What a life of yo-yo dieting has taught me about my weight’

“Indeed, it stands to reason that individuals who believe negative stereotypical views of overweight being unattractive and undesirable would feel a sense of shame in relation to their own body, just as it makes sense that individuals who find it difficult to respond to challenging situations with self-compassion may experience reduced well-being,” researchers wrote.

To overcome these problems, researchers believe clinicians should assess the extent clients have internalised weight stigma and their capacity to be self-compassionate when treating body-related problems. Targeting internalised weight stigma could be useful in treating body shame, while targeting self-compassion could benefit those with psychological difficulties relating to weight.

Read more: New study reveals best diet for over-60s trying to lose weight

The study also recommended strategies be put in place to quash weight-related stereotypical attitudes towards overweight people, while encouraging those affected to be more supportive towards themselves.

Researchers acknowledge there are limitations to the research because it’s based on self-reports and that future studies should investigate through different types of data collection.

Have you experienced stigma because of your weight? How did this impact your mental wellbeing?

IMPORTANT LEGAL INFO This article is of a general nature and FYI only, because it doesn’t take into account your personal health requirements or existing medical conditions. That means it’s not personalised health advice and shouldn’t be relied upon as if it is. Before making a health-related decision, you should work out if the info is appropriate for your situation and get professional medical advice.

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