This piece was written by one of our contributors; personal trainer and doctoral researcher – Jake Gifford
When an image of a plus-sized mannequin circulated in 2019, the Internet dissolved into a divisive frenzy. In one corner, there were many in support of the visibility of such a mannequin in Nike’s flagship store in London describing it as ‘inclusive’ and ‘relatable’, whilst in the other corner, there were significant criticisms of the placement, describing it as ‘dangerous’, ‘disgusting’ and ‘glorifying obesity’.
This incident with the mannequin certainly isn’t the first time where fatness has been the subject of controversy. For decades weight and fatness in particular, have been both politically and emotionally charged subjects, fiercely contested by conflicting ideologies and framings. However, despite the confliction of framings as to what fatness is, the majority of attention directed to the subject has not been particularly positive, with many examples of academic literature and media outlets branding fat as a bodily and moral defect perpetuating stereotypes such as laziness, gluttonous, lacking in willpower and a product of bad lifestyle choices (1).
Explanations that perpetuate weight as a product of our lifestyle choices and something we are personally responsible for are particularly ubiquitous and reflective of both UK and US’ values of individualism and upward mobility. However this notion that our weight is purely down to our lifestyle choices is an oversimplification of this phenomenon and ignores the complexity and multiplicity of factors which can influence our weight such as local infrastructure, economics of food production, genetics and weight stigma to name but a few (2). Despite over one hundred variables, which influence our weight, the dominant rhetoric that weight is an individual’s responsibility continues to be reflected on social media, mainstream media, academic literature and throughout society, often used as an argumentative point to legitimise something called ‘weight stigma’.
Weight stigma also known as weight-based discrimination, weight bias or often loosely interchanged in the media as ‘fat shaming’ is the discrimination and prejudicial assumptions of someone based on their size. Weight stigma can present itself in various whether that’s verbal commentary, social exclusion or physical aggression and in many cases prejudice and anti-fat attitudes can be internalised.
The argument that weight stigma is an effective method of motivation to either lose weight or engage in health behaviours is a prominent one, often articulated under the guise of ‘tough love’ or concerns for health. However despite its frequent usage, weight stigma isn’t an innocuous concept and there’s insufficient evidence that it actually promotes weight loss or improves health. Instead, weight-based discrimination can have the opposite effect to what some might proclaim, with greater reports of
maladaptive eating behaviours as well as increased risk of negative health effects and disease which include but are not limited to depression, anxiety, cardiovascular disease and all cause mortality (3–7).
Despite the notable risks of poor health outcomes and ineffectiveness as a weight loss strategy, the prevalence of weight stigma continues, which is in part due to for a number reasons, including society’s view that it is more socially acceptable than other forms of discrimination such as racism and sexism, the deeply engrained stereotypes we can often hold and the corporeal value of the physical form. This relatively universal attitude has somewhat of a trickle down effect where we see examples of stigma not only in the media, but within education, employment and our healthcare system too. Harvey and Hill examined the attitudes that healthcare professionals had towards people with a BMI >30 and reported that they reinforced stereotypes of non-compliance, lazy, lacking in willpower, uneducated and at personal fault for their size (8). Conversely, attitudes that propagate weight stigma aren’t just prominent amongst the medical community or other healthcare professionals such as nutritionists, dietitians, or psychologists, but extend to fitness professionals and the subcultures they reside in, which holds its own ideologies and assumptions based on weight, health and body ideals.
Fitness gyms and classes in particular are cultural spaces in which many people might be heavily invested in appearance, body ideals and moral virtues that come with the pursuit of optimising health and fitness. Fit and health bodies are often positioned as desirable, morally superior and socially esteemed which can be considered the direct antithesis of current perceptions of fatness. Consequently in the current fitness climate, fat bodies in gyms have been connected to shame and embarrassment, where fears of being or becoming fat are mobilised and the sense of being misplaced if your body deviates from the corporeal ideal of fit.
I asked Artika (@arti.speaks), an experienced gym user, about their experiences of weight stigma in gyms despite using them for years and exceeding the physical activity guidelines. They shared their experiences below:
“When I first started going to the gym, I wanted to hide in a corner and be invisible; I distinctly remember two young women who came together, sitting on their mats staring at me and giggling while I attempted movements that were new to me. Nowadays, I am more annoyed by people who approach me: either to give me a very patronising “well done” or t offer me tips on how I can adapt my workouts to burn more calories. In both instances, the person talking to me is conveying how they assume I am in the gym primarily to lose weight, that they think my fatness is something to be cured, that I have less athletic ability than them and that I am inherently less knowledgeable too. They could not be more wrong, on all counts.”
These are evidently not just internalised thoughts, or emotional experiences of the individual but part of a broader social and cultural problem. In many instances, examples of weight stigma as aforementioned are cultivated by both gym members and fitness professionals who often subscribe to and amplify the pejorative characterisation of fat people as lazy, weak, lacking in willpower or unfit (9). Stigma within the context of a fitness setting is more likely to lead to exercise avoidance, individuals wearing baggy clothes and increased negative attitudes towards the gym (10). Stigma at the gym also extends to other behaviours and practices whereby those who experience weight stigma are more likely to engage in juice cleanses, diet pills and purging (11). Fitness professionals are also likely to hold stigmatising attitudes towards fat people and consequently are less likely to provide appropriate support, assuming fat people are less likely to as hard-working, competent or compliant (12).
The evidence along with experiences such as Artika’s previously highlighted, are certainly not isolated incidents and whilst some may argue it not be reflective of every fat person who enters fitness spaces, we shouldn’t negate the fact that spaces which should be positive environments can result in negative experiences. Individuals, like Artika, who are subjected to weight stigma whilst navigating spaces we might often take for granted, should not be silenced or dismissed. Rather, if we are adamant that we want to offer support and encourage people to be active, we should listen attentively, without judgement or prejudice to the lived experience of people who are marginalised. Because without these accounts of individual experiences, we will struggle to advance knowledge, enhance public health and protect people from harm.
When I reflect on the backlash against the mannequin and I see discriminatory comments about fat people occupying fitness spaces, it all rather seems paradoxical and somewhat of a bitter irony that this marginalised group are vilified if they do partake in exercise and vilified if they don’t. This division and dichotomous thinking of fitness versus fatness is rather unwarranted, although it does not particularly come as a surprise when the fitness industry is seemingly one of the least diverse industries out there, reinforcing a narrow depiction of what a fit body is. Nevertheless, I’ll leave that for a discussion for another time.
To be clear, addressing weight-stigma and highlighting the associated implications isn’t about ignoring health. Neither is it about adopting a victim mentality or simply ‘preserving one’s feelings’; it’s about ensuring better health & wellbeing, reducing harm and ensuring a more equal world for people of all sizes. I’d argue it’s something we need to invest more time into both understanding and dismantling.
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(2) Vandenbroeck P, Goossens J, Clemens M. Obesity System Influence Diagram. ShiftN, viewed November; 2013.
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(8) Harvey EL, Hill AJ. Health professionals’ views of overweight people and smokers. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. England; 2001 Aug;25(8):1253–61.
(9) Fernández-Balboa JM, González-Calvo G. A critical narrative analysis of the perspectives of physical trainers and fitness instructors in relation to their body image, professional practice and the consumer culture. Sport Educ Soc [Internet]. Taylor & Francis; 2018;23(9):866–78. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13573322.2017.1289910
(10) Vartanian LR, Shaprow JG. Effects of Weight Stigma on Exercise Motivation and Behavior: A Preliminary Investigation among College-aged Females. J Health Psychol [Internet]. SAGE Publications Ltd; 2008 Jan 1;13(1):131–8. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1177/1359105307084318
(11) Schvey NA, Sbrocco T, Bakalar JL, Ress R, Barmine M, Gorlick J, et al. The experience of weight stigma among gym members with overweight and obesity. Stigma Heal. 2017;2(4):292–306.
(12) Robertson N, Vohora R. Fitness vs. fatness: Implicit bias towards obesity among fitness professionals and regular exercisers. Psychol Sport Exerc. 2008;9(4):547–57.