Health at Every Size – Challenging Cultural Assumptions

China woman thinking about her inner child and eating disorder treatment

There are many beautiful aspects of diverse cultural beliefs, customs, and assumptions that make each of them unique and special to those that hold them dearly. Even so, the same cultural beliefs that can comfort some may be discriminatory to others. Throughout history, this has been seen with centuries-long fights to eradicate racism, sexism, homophobia, and many other injustices continuing to this day.

One of these battles is the fight against cultural beliefs related to body weight, size, shape, and appearance as it relates to the concept of “health” and “worth.” You likely know exactly what cultural assumptions I am referring to, as it is unlikely these have not shaped your own beliefs.

Weight Stigma

Cultural norms related to weight, appearance, health, and worth vary. However, some of these beliefs are more universal than others. For most Westernized societies, there is an emphasis on thin bodies, and those that live in them are given immense benefits in how they are perceived and treated by friends, family, medical professionals, mental health professionals, employers, and more.

Those living in these cultures but not within these norms are not only discriminated against by the people listed above, it is acceptable to do so. The cultural assumption is that weight is a choice and that it is controllable “despite the fact that for most, efforts to lose weight are unsuccessful in the long term [1].”

The perception of those living in larger bodies is that they are somehow choosing to live within these bodies. However, even if one acknowledged body weight, shape, and size are not a choice, this line of thinking still assumes that there is something wrong with living in a larger body.

Additionally, “whereas social norms prohibit expressing overt prejudice and discrimination against people of different races, ethnicities, religions, or genders, no such norms exist with regard to the overweight. Thus, prejudice against the overweight is often blatant, and demeaning remarks are often justified as being “for their own good [1].”

Weight & Health

College student thinking about cultural normsNumerous studies have indicated that body weight and size are not indicators of overall health, yet, the belief that the two are linked persists.

One study determined that “almost one-quarter of adults who were classified as “normal” weight, or approximately 16.3 million people nationwide, have indicators for one or more of the risks usually associated with being overweight — such as elevated blood pressure or higher levels of triglycerides, blood sugar and cholesterol [2].”

The study also learned that “slightly more than half of overweight adults, or about 36 million people, and almost one-third of obese adults, 19.5 million people, were deemed metabolically healthy [2].”

Consequences of Cultural Assumptions

As mentioned above, there are many areas where societal norms are negatively impacting those that fall “on the outside.” The consequences of this are huge.

Individuals that are discriminated against experience a phenomenon known as “social identity threat,” which “describes the psychological state that occurs in situations where people feel at risk of being devalued because of their social identity or judged through the lens of negative stereotypes [1].”

When threatened in this manner, individuals will engage in behaviors in an attempt to overcome these stereotypes even when they are dangerous or unrealistic. The toxicity of these beliefs run so deep that “overweight individuals often endorse negative stereotypes associated with overweight as legitimate and true of themselves as well as others [1].”

These beliefs harm the mental and physical well-being of all individuals in our society and serve no effective or positive purpose. It has long been time for cultural assumptions about weight, health, and worth to be extinguished.


Resources:

[1] Major, B., Eliezer, D., Rick, H. (2012). The psychological weight of weight stigma. Social Psychological and Personal Science, 3:6.

[2] Cupaiuolo, C. (2008). Study: weight not necessarily an indicator of health. Our Bodies, Ourselves. Retrieved from https://www.ourbodiesourselves.org/2008/08/study-weight-not-necessarily-an-indicator-of-health/.


About the Author:

Image of Margot Rittenhouse.Margot Rittenhouse, MS, PLPC, NCC is a therapist who is passionate about providing mental health support to all in need and has worked with clients with substance abuse issues, eating disorders, domestic violence victims, and offenders, and severely mentally ill youth.

As a freelance writer for Eating Disorder Hope and Addiction Hope and a mentor with MentorConnect, Margot is a passionate eating disorder advocate, committed to de-stigmatizing these illnesses while showing support for those struggling through mentoring, writing, and volunteering. Margot has a Master’s of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Johns Hopkins University.


The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective on eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published January 22, 2021, on EatingDisorderHope.com
Reviewed & Approved on January 22, 2021, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC

About Baxter Ekern

Baxter is the Vice President of Ekern Enterprises, Inc. He is responsible for the operations of Eating Disorder Hope and ensuring that the website is functioning smoothly.