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April 29, 2015

Let’s Talk Weight Biases

By Tiffany Hammer, The Emily Program Outreach Specialist

Did you know one of the most defining moments of Mr. Rogers’ life was being teased for being fat at the age of 8? The schoolyard bullies called him “Fat Freddy” and teased him mercilessly. “I used to cry to myself when I was alone,” he said. “And I would cry through my fingers and make up songs on the piano.” The adults around him would tell him to stay silent and not react, which was an emotional injustice to him. As a defining moment in his life feeling helpless through ignoring the cruel words, he decided that he would always look past the surface and see what was invisible as the essence of a person.

What breaks my heart most about this, and makes me rather defensive, is that this is Mr. Rogers–one who is recognized as one of the kindest people who has ever lived–being tormented and teased about his weight. To pour salt in the wound, that was in 1936 and even now we still have people of all ages mocked and teased for their appearance. We know, socially and culturally, that basing judgment on someone’s appearance is wrong. There are plenty of adages like “don’t judge a book by its cover” or “it’s what’s inside that counts,” we know better! Yet, there are some culturally held biases that, while unspoken, are accepted on a society scale. One of these biases that are incredibly pervasive is the shaming of people who are “overweight.”

No one ever wants to admit they have bias, particularly about those regarding body size. However, in my own experience at conferences and in casual conversation, I can’t even recall the frequency of which I hear “I wish I had an eating disorder” as someone jokes about their own body. Or, “Why can’t they just stop eating?” Or, “But they’re big, they don’t have an eating disorder.” What is devastating is that every 62 minutes one person dies in the US from an eating disorder. While innocently jovial, these statements trivialize a disorder with an alarming mortality rate. It also is a reflection of the perceptions and biases we have regarding “fat” and “thin”, and what eating disorders look like.

In these examples, Mr. Rogers teased as a child for being “fat” and others jokingly wishing they had an eating disorder in order to be in smaller bodies, we see a pervasive problem in body image negativity. I admire the efforts of some media campaigns like Aerie and Dove showcasing all women. Eating disorders are mental illnesses that result from a perfect storm of biology, psychology, and society/culture. Yet research has shown there are two influences that are considered preventative: body image concerns and dieting. Both of which are sustained and created by media and our culture, pushing and pulling our thoughts about ourselves and others with polarizing sentiments. So what comes first, the self-degradation or the social and cultural reinforcement of something unobtainable?

One of the things I enjoy most about my job is talking about why it’s important to ask questions related to one’s relationship with food and body. Since it’s so deeply personal, questions inquiring on whether food or body image concerns are inhibiting one’s participation in life are often neglected. Outside of a therapeutic, nutritional, or medical setting, these questions are ones we can ask ourselves and, empathetically, ask those we care about (below are some questions to consider). The reason I enjoy talking about it so much is because while considering these questions they inevitably awaken our own personal awareness. If we are lovingly asking the questions, then we are interrupting body image concerns and starting to dig out the weight biases we self-employ. I can only believe that in doing that we will use our newfound self-care to challenge the bias more socially by talking about what it means to us.

Like the outlook that Mr. Rogers lived by because of how he was teased, what we can’t see or that with which is invisible, is the essence of a person. This means the way we treat and talk to ourselves is often invisible to others, but these influences are largely unobserved, yet sustain and endure us. We believe at The Emily Program that self-care is a necessary and important skill set in thriving. What is special about this principle is that it self-perpetuates care and compassion for yourself, which helps to alleviate the pressure of a public tug-of-war we live in.

Worried About Someone Who Might Be Struggling?

Start the conversation. If someone you suspect is struggling with eating disorder behaviors, ask if it is ok to discuss their eating habits. For example, “I’m concerned about your eating. May we discuss how you typically eat and your relationship with food?”

Ask more questions. These assessment questions can help assess the situation.

  • Do you worry about your weight and body shape more than other people? 
  • Do you avoid certain foods for reasons other than allergies or religious reasons? 
  • Are you often on a diet? 
  • Do you feel your weight is an important aspect of your identity? 
  • Are you fearful of gaining weight? 
  • Do you often feel out of control when you eat? 
  • Do you regularly eat what others may consider to be a large quantity of food at one time? 
  • Do you regularly eat until feeling uncomfortably full? 
  • Do you hide what you eat from others, or eat in secret? 
  • Do you often feel fat? 
  • Do you feel guilty or depressed after eating? 
  • Do you ever make yourself vomit (throw up) after eating? 
  • Do you use your insulin in ways not prescribed to manage your weight? 
  • Do you take any medication or supplement to compensate for eating or to give yourself permission to eat? 
  • Do you exercise for the sole purpose of weight control? 
  • Have people expressed concern about your relationship with food or your body? 

Give feedback. In this informal survey, 2 or more “yes” answers strongly indicate the presence of disordered eating. Click here to get more information about supporting a loved one.

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