In a media-centric community that emphasizes weight and body type, the phenomena known as weight stigma and discrimination threaten social justice and public health while perpetuating a "fat phobic" society.
This year, the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) is embarking on the first of an annual campaign entitled "Weight Stigma Awareness Week," in which the organization will focus on unifying the eating disorder community and informing a nationwide audience about the impact of weight stigma.
The national, online campaign will occur from Sept. 23 to Sept. 27.
The campaign will include shareable graphics, answers to frequently asked questions, and blog posts from individuals who have experienced weight stigma. The information will be posted on the NEDA website.
“Our major intention is to spread the word that weight stigma is a real thing and is something that affects everyone, specifically in the eating disorder community, regardless of what type of eating disorder they have,” Chelsea Kronengold, communications manager of NEDA, said.
NEDA is the largest nonprofit organization in the United States that serves individuals and loved ones affected by eating disorders, Kronengold said.
The organization focuses on prevention, quality care and education outreach regarding eating disorders.
This past fall, NEDA absorbed the Binge Eating Disorders Association (BEDA) with the intention of representing the BEDA community under a unified NEDA. Kronengold said NEDA wants all individuals with an eating disorder to feel represented, welcome and safe to share their stories.
“We want to bridge the gap between the historical BEDA community and the historical NEDA community,” Kronengold said.
In past years, BEDA held an online weight stigma campaign — however, this year, Kronengold said NEDA is excited to host the event.
“The BEDA community has been on board with the notion of weight stigma for awhile and we’re excited to just provide some education to folks who might not be as aware of it or how it can impact them too even if they’re not in a higher weight body,” Kronengold said.
Penn State psychology professor Beth Gerace said she believes Weight Stigma Awareness Week is an excellent campaign.
Green and blue decorations covered Sidney Friedman Park entrance on a sunny Sunday morning, …
“The focus is to bring awareness to body and weight stigma as it relates to all body sizes,” Gerace said.
With weight stigma comes many misconceptions, particularly impacting those in the eating disorder community.
“The stereotypical image of someone with an eating disorder is typically a thinner white girl with anorexia," Kronengold said, "and that’s just not everybody.”
In reality, people of any identity, background or status can have an eating disorder — a mental health disorder currently ranked second to opiod addiction as the leading causes of death due to mental illness.
“It’s really important that we showcase and really speak to people with other lived experiences to show that their story is valid and that we are a resource for them and we’re here to support them and recognize their truths,” Kronengold said.
Kelsey Celaya, a Penn State alumna in recovery from an eating disorder, expressed the severity of weight stigma in the eating disorder community by describing a mold that individuals with an eating disorder must fit into.
“You can be so, so sick and your heart could be giving up but if your weight is considered normal then society will tell you that you don’t have [an eating disorder],” Celaya said. “People need to start realizing that weight is not the only thing that determines the health of a human being.”
Moving forward, NEDA plans to further spread weight stigma awareness. Kronengold said the NEDA website will continue to display information surrounding weight stigma year round in order to continue the conversation outside of Weight Stigma Awareness Week.
The severity of weight stigma becomes imminent when it is a barrier for people to receive treatment.
“Clinicians, doctors, family members and even the individual might not realize they have an eating disorder because they may not look like they have an eating disorder,” Kronengold said.
She explained that society today is "fat phobic," which perpetuates weight stigma through a fear of being fat and a desire to be thin.
“Even if someone’s eating disorder didn’t originate from a desire to be thin, there’s still a fear of being fat,” Kronengold said.
Gerace agreed with Kronengold, stating that the media usually portrays what society believes to be the “ideal” man or woman — a concept that is largely unattainable for most men and women.
The term “eating disorder” is defined by the American Psychiatric Association as an illness …
“All of this media focus places pressure on both men and women to look a certain way,” Gerace said.
Kronengold said the first step to reducing the stigma is talking about it.
“The community can take a look at their own, internalized weight bias, as well as the external associations or feelings that they have about people who are fat,” Kronengold said.
She said the activism community is reclaiming the word “fat” as a descriptor and not a hurtful name. Society has associated a negative connotation with the adjective, despite its original meaning as a descriptor, similar to words like thin, tall and short.
The eating disorder community is also taking initiative through legislative activism to remove the weight requirement from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM 5) which states that a person’s BMI must be considered underweight to be diagnosed with the eating disorder anorexia nervosa.
Individuals who meet everything but the weight requirement of anorexia nervosa are diagnosed with atypical anorexia, instead.
“The problem with the weight requirement is that it almost reinforces the notion that people think they’re not sick enough and that’s certainly not the case,” Kronengold said.
Kronengold emphasized the complexity of eating disorders and the challenges weight stigma presents when seeking treatment. However, she also stressed the importance of those individuals believing that recovery from an eating disorder is possible.
“Recovery is possible with the right help and support,” Kronengold said. “It is very possible to come out the other side of an eating disorder.”
If you are struggling with an eating disorder and are in need of support, please call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237. For a 24-hour crisis line, text “NEDA” to 741741. You can also use the online screening tool to determine if you may need to seek professional help.