It’s a sad but true fact: Fat shaming is everywhere. Now, there’s evidence it can do more than damage self-confidence — it may also have serious health consequences.
A new study found that overweight women who believe negative messages about their bodies are at greater risk for heart disease and diabetes than those who maintain a more positive body image.
The research, published in the journal Obesity, showed that higher levels of “weight-bias internalization” — the term for what happens when people are aware of negative stereotypes about obesity and apply those stereotypes to themselves — were associated with more cases of metabolic syndrome, a combination of health issues that raise the risk for heart disease and diabetes.
This was true above and beyond the effects of body mass index (BMI), indicating that internalization isn’t just a result of weight or other issues, but a risk factor on its own.
The study was not able to show a cause-and-effect relationship, and Pearl says it’s also possible that people with more health problems feel worse about themselves as a result. But previous research helps support the researchers’ theory that bias can have a direct impact on health.
It’s been shown, for example, that fat-shaming experiences can lead to increased inflammation and stress-hormone levels in the body. People who feel bad about their bodies are also less likely to exercise, Pearl adds, and can have a harder time eating healthy.
It isn’t clear why some women internalize weight bias and others don’t, Pearl says — whether they’re in a supportive environment and exposed less to fat shaming, or are simply less vulnerable to its effects. But for many women, she says, these messages are hard to avoid.
“People with obesity are portrayed in negative ways in the media; there’s bullying at school and on social networks; people even feel judged by family members or in health-care settings,” she says.
It’s important for loved ones, and the general public, to be sensitive to this issue, Pearl says. “Rather than blaming and shaming people and being dismissive of their struggle, we need to work collaboratively to set goals to improve health behaviors.”
As for women and men who are struggling with their own body image, Pearl recommends taking a good look at the stereotypes they’ve internalized — and then challenging them.
“If you know that you’re not actually lazy and unmotivated, don’t let yourself get sucked into to those negative thoughts,” she says. Setting specific, achievable goals for improving health behaviors can also help, she adds. “It can help give people the confidence they need to really make a change.”