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With honest self-assessment, how ...

Posted Mar 03 2009 4:24pm

With honest self-assessment, how often would you say that you:

  1. Encourage someone that you know to diet?
  2. Criticize someone else's eating habits?
  3. Admire weight loss or rigidly controlled eating?
  4. Make negative comments about your own, or someone else's, weight?
  5. Hold disapproving attitudes about over-eaters?
  6. Presume that a fat person should lose wight?
  7. Refer to foods as either "good" or "bad"?
  8. Compliment someone because they have lost weight?
  9. Admire thinness?
  10. Talk negatively about your own weight, body shape, or calorie consumption?

Daily? Frequently? Occasionally? Rarely?

Did you know that not only are the actions listed above unlikely to be helpful, they may actually affect the work that we do with our patients?

All of the above attitudes, actions, and ideas reflect popular cultural stereotypes about weight and body shape. Taken together, they highlight a form of discrimination that is more prevalent in our society than racism. I am referring to "weightism", or the practice of discrimination against individuals based on their weight, size, or body shape. Weightism encompasses ideas such as:

  • "fat people are unhealthy and lazy"
  • "losing weight is just a matter of willpower"
  • "thin people are more in control and disciplined"
  • thin = healthy
  • "fat is unattractive; thin is attractive"

...and other forms of weight-related prejudice. Weight related discrimination is perhaps the last form of culturally-approved bias (Kilbourne, 1999). This type of prejudice involves making judgments about personal characteristics such as personal responsibility, hard work, and self-discipline merely on the basis of an individual's weight, body shape, or appearance. It happens all of the time, someone makes a "fat joke", another makes a remark about feeling "fat and lazy", a friend says to another, "you look so slim and healthy!".

We should know better by now, shouldn't we, that size is not necessarily an indicator of health, that obesity occurs for all sorts of reasons (many of which have nothing to do with choice), and that our culture encourages disordered eating attitudes through its disproportionate emphasis on slenderness and its encouragement of a corporate "pursuit of thinness".

But how does this knowledge translate within our own framework of values and behavior? And how do these values and behaviors affect our work with eating disorders?

Depending on your work and theoretical influence, when it comes to the way in which personal bias affects clinical and professional work, you may think in terms of "counter-transference", "learned behavior", "distortions", "errors", "sexist ideology", or the like. Whatever your framework, we as helping professionals should do our best to become aware of and acknowledge the extent of weightism in our own thinking. Suppressing this kind of self-awareness may limit our ability to attend to it in our clients. Making a commitment to notice and augment any personally held biases about weight and appearance allows for an expanded understanding and a greater range of responding to our clients who may hold weight-ist beliefs themselves (even ABOUT themselves!).

Something to think about in a culture that inundates both our clients and ourselves with weight-related prejudice and size discrimination...

For more information, see the following links:

Sources: Kano, S. (1989 ). Making Peace With Food: Freeing yourself from the diet/weight obsession. New York: Harper & Row.

Kilbourne. J.   (1999). Can't Buy Me Love: How advertising changes the way we think and feel. New York: Touchstone Press.

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