An Obstacle in Treatment
As an eating disorders therapist, one very challenging part of my work with clients is addressing the impact of societal values and messages on their recovery. Clients who have larger bodies or don’t meet society’s “thin ideal” can work incredibly hard to challenge their eating disorder thoughts, combat their disordered urges and behaviors surrounding food and weight, and maintain a healthier and more loving relationship with their body. However, societal expectations of what their body should look like – whether voiced by their peers, stated explicitly by healthcare professionals, or implied through visuals and messages in the media – can very much influence the individual’s perceptions and feelings of their own body, as well as their use of certain disordered eating patterns to maintain a particular body type.
The Perils of Stigma
A few months ago, I was fortunate enough to learn more about the hazards of weight stigma when I attended a presentation given by Jeffrey Hunger, PhD. Dr. Hunger is a social and health psychologist at UCLA who uses psychological theory and research to understand and improve the health of stigmatized populations. In particular, Dr. Hunger and his colleagues have studied the influence of weight stigma on an individual’s thoughts and behaviors surrounding weight and body image. During his presentation, he validated that in our society, a higher weight or heavier body type is stigmatized, or considered a devalued attribute. He also referenced research studies that demonstrated that experiencing stigmatization in general, leads to poorer mental and physical health for that individual.
Moreover, Dr. Hunger pointed out the misconceptions and hazards of weight stigmatization. He described that many individuals stigmatize certain body weights/sizes, whether consciously or unconsciously, and that those who endorse weight-stigmatizing beliefs (i.e. “people in larger bodies are unhealthy”) often think they are doing something “for the good” of the person who is overweight (i.e. to motivate them to make more health-conscious choices). However, Dr. Hunger illustrated the harm in such weight-related criticism and biases. He reported that weight stigma leads to poorer psychological health, such as social anxiety, general anxiety, and depression in those that experience this stigma. Moreover, he described that the use of weight stigma in health campaigns essentially lowers the focus on health, does not motivate the intended audience, and overall lowers the effectiveness of these campaigns. Meanwhile, the target audience can feel shamed and humiliated.
The Power of Anticipation
One very illuminating part of Dr. Hunger’s presentation was when he distinguished between two different types of stigma: experienced and anticipated. In the research studies he conducted with his colleagues, they found that individuals don’t necessarily need to experience weight-related stigma in order for such stigma to influence their poor body image or disordered eating behaviors. However, they discovered that if an individual just imagined potential stigmatization related to weight – what they called “anticipated stigma” – that this was enough to lead them towards body dissatisfaction and unhealthy weight-control behaviors, such as dietary restriction. That is, just imagining that one might endure weight-based mistreatment creates a rise in their anticipated weight stigma, which can predict their disordered eating thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Thus, Dr. Hunger and his colleagues validate that the impact of weight-related stigma is so intense, that just the fear or anticipation of stigmatization can lead one towards disordered eating habits. Their findings underscore the importance of the body positivity and Health at Every Size movements that have been surfacing during the past few years, and how such societal campaigns are essential for the treatment and prevention of disordered eating.
To learn more about Dr. Hunger and his work, please visit the following link: JeffreyHunger.com.
Bahar Moheban, M.A. is a clinical psychology doctoral candidate and registered psychological assistant in Torrance under the supervision of Dr. Nazanin Moali. She provides individual therapy and facilitates a Body Image Group for adults and adolescents with eating disorders, body dissatisfaction, and comorbid disorders. If you or a loved one is struggling with weight stigma, eating disorders, or body image concerns, contact Bahar for a counseling appointment.