Let’s Talk Weight Biases

**Content warning: This is one person’s story; everyone will have unique experiences in recovery and beyond. Some stories may mention eating disorder thoughts, behaviors, and symptoms. Please use your discretion when reading and speak with your support system as needed.

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?

(Adapted from the SCOFF Questionniare by Morgan, Reid & Lacey)

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 6 assessment questions can help assess the situation.

1. Do you feel like you sometimes lose or have lost control over how you eat?

2. Do you ever make yourself sick because you feel uncomfortably full?

3. Do you believe yourself to be fat, even when others say you are too thin?

4. Does food or thoughts about food dominate your life?

5. Do thoughts about changing your body or weight dominate your life?

6. Have others become worried about your weight and/or eating?

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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