We've all had times in our lives when we haven't liked what's staring back at us in the mirror. It's all too easy to feel guilty, worthless, or shamed because of a number on the scale, and even easier to watch any speck of motivation to exercise and eat healthy completely vanish. It turns out those feelings can play an even more significant role in our health than we thought.
Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine found internalizing negative body weight stereotypes can increase the risk of cardiovascular and metabolic diseases. The January 2017 study examined 159 adults with obesity, looking at the relationship between the participants' weight bias internalization—which occurs when people apply negative body weight stereotypes to themselves, in turn devaluing themselves because of their weight—and their metabolic risk.
After participants completed blind questionnaires and underwent medical examinations to check for metabolic syndrome—an array of risk factors associated with heart disease and type 2 diabetes, like high blood pressure, triglycerides, and waist circumference—the researchers discovered something interesting: The participants with high levels of weight bias internalization were three times more likely to have metabolic syndrome and six times more likely to have high triglycerides than those with low internalization.
"The way someone feels about their body—and the way they feel about themselves because of their body—can factor into how healthy they are," says lead study author Rebecca Pearl, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology in psychiatry. "For instance, if someone feels badly about themselves and thinks they're lazy, it's less likely they'll go on the walk they were planning. That's one possible pathway in which this internalized stigma is negatively affecting health."
Unfortunately, healthcare providers, the media, and even friends and family members play a big role in the stereotypes and stigmas surrounding weight. But our fat-shaming culture isn't just harming people mentally—it's very clear that it's putting people at a greater risk physically, too, if they internalize the negativity.
"There are a lot of different sources in which people are exposed to weight stigma, and weight stigma affects people of all weight statuses," Pearl says. "We see people in the media being shamed because of their weight, or people who are overweight being depicted in a negative, stereotypical way. That can make people feel bad about their bodies regardless of what their weight status is."
Our world is slowly making progress in battling weight stigmas and stereotypes — we're just not there yet. In the meantime, it's up to us to continue waving goodbye to the negativity so we can create an environment everyone feels good in, no matter what their size is.
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