Is Weight Bias Affecting Your Loved One’s Eating Disorder Recovery? — Dr. Ashley Solomon
If you are reading this post from somewhere on Planet Earth, but particularly if you are in the Western Hemisphere, you almost certainly possess a degree of weight bias.
The good news is that this means that you are absolutely normal and are likely an engaged member of society!
The bad news is that it also means that your weight bias might be impacting the people you love in ways you might not recognize or desire.
In fact, a Rudd Center study identified that much of the weight-based victimization that occurs toward kids actually happens in the home. Thankfully, I have more good news. The willingness to acknowledge and address your weight bias can be a powerful catalyst for your loved one’s recovery.
What is weight bias?
eight bias means holding on to ideas and stereotypes about people based on their weight, shape, and size. In Western culture, this generally means maintaining very positive perceptions of people at lower weights (often at the expense of other qualities) and having very negative perceptions of higher weights.
Weight bias is insidiously interwoven into the fabric of our culture. It shows up in nearly every sector of our society, from our schools to our workplaces to our courtrooms, and, as I’ve discussed before, it hurts us all.
We’re taught from a very early age to fear fatness and to pursue the thin ideal. A powerful study highlighted just how early these attitudes develop. In the study, toddlers demonstrated preference for more average weight dolls over obese-looking dolls. Lest you think these preferences were innate, infants actually preferred the obese dolls, meaning the shift occurred as the children became more aware of others’ attitudes. Further, the toddlers’ preference for the lower-weight versus higher-weight dolls correlated with their mothers’ anti-fat attitudes.
We see that parental attitudes toward weight and shape do have an early and powerful influence on the development of children’s beliefs and feelings about weight. But how do you know if your attitudes reflect weight bias?
Detecting our own weight bias
First, as a reminder, it is important to remember that we all possess bias. The differences among us relate more to how much we recognize and acknowledge that bias. We can start to recognize our bias through examining some of our subtle or not-so-subtle beliefs.
Take the following belief, for example. What do you think of these statements?
- People of higher weights are in poor health
- Parents have total control of their children’s weights
- People of higher weights need to just get moving and stop eating so much
- Thin people are more in control of their lives
These are all myths, but they are alluring ones that many of us strongly believe. Our weight bias influences the decisions we make, the way we interact with others, and how we treat ourselves. We can see our weight bias particularly at play when we:
- Choose a different seat on the train to avoid sitting next to the larger person
- Encourage our partner to take a walk after dinner to “make up” for eating dessert
- Call on our lower-weight colleagues more often to speak in meetings
- Select the doctor at the practice who is smaller because “they obviously know more about taking care of themselves”
- Assume that the parents of your child’s higher-weight friend are permissive or must not pay much attention to their children’s well-being
- Make jokes or negative comments about fat characters on television
- Tell ourselves we are lazy or unmotivated because we just can’t seem to lose weight
Most of the time, our weight bias resides beneath the surface of our conscious awareness. Most of us do not go around intending to shame others or trying to create a negative weight culture. But the reality is that unacknowledged weight bias impacts our loved ones, and it impacts ourselves.
Weight bias in the treatment and recovery process
If you have a loved one in treatment for an eating disorder, you may consider whether your own weight bias could be at play during the recovery process. Ask yourself if you are:
- Struggling to accept the weight goals set by your loved one’s treatment team because you worry that they will be unhappy at that weight
- Feeling concerned about your loved one being told not to engage in exercise because you believe that maintaining fitness is an important priority
- Feeling worried or angry that your child is being asked to eat foods that you feel are associated with higher weights
- Encouraging your loved one to lose weight, just in a “healthy way this time”
- Talking about your concerns about your own weight with your loved one
- Comparing your loved one’s shape or size to other patients or friends
There are many other ways weight bias can show up. The more we can become attuned to our bias, the more we can start to question and challenge it.
We must ask ourselves the hard questions
We cannot “turn off” ideas that have become internalized, but we can examine them and ask ourselves:
- “Are these thoughts coming from a place of fear about weight?”
- “Is saying or doing this going to communicate to my loved one that I am not comfortable with people of different sizes?”
- “Even if I believe that thinness is better, can I choose to suspend those beliefs for right now, knowing that they are not helping my loved one’s recovery?”
Examining our own weight bias is an act of bravery and commitment. It communicates to our loved ones that we are willing to do the hard things, too.
Ashley Solomon, PsyD, CEDS is Executive Director at Eating Recovery Center, Ohio.