Why do many women fear weight gain?
One of my first attempts at journalism was an investigative piece for my news writing class on the misuse of phentermine (sold as Ionamin) among college girls. The drug is an appetite suppressant usually prescribed to people who have been diagnosed with clinical obesity or a binge-eating disorder. The young women who were obtaining it without prescription from a particularly lax drugstore did not suffer from any of these medical conditions. Since the side effects include insomnia, they were using it to pull all-nighters to study, while ensuring they keep the weight off.
I hadn’t thought about that story in a long time until recently, when I came across an article in The Economist, claiming that it is “economically rational for ambitious women to try as hard as possible to be thin.” In “The Economics of Thinness” published last December 2022, the author asserted that as much as weight should not be a factor for getting ahead in life, an examination of the evidence shows a negative correlation between income and weight among women. And that the advantages that a slim figure gives to a woman could almost be likened to the benefits of a college education.
There are various research studies that support this notion. A study conducted by the University of Texas found that thin women are more likely to be hired and offered higher salaries compared to heavier women. Another study from the University of Liverpool found that thin women are perceived as more likable and more competent, making them also more likely to be promoted at work.
When we talk about discrimination, what we often imagine are the more blatant kind—like physically or verbally assaulting someone because of their gender or race. What we are actually more likely to encounter are subtle forms of discrimination. These are more difficult to detect but are just as injurious. One reason is that many of its manifestations do not seem offensive enough to be taken seriously. As a result, the frequency with which they occur is also much higher than the more overt kind. Imagine yourself being constantly subjected to jokes or ridicule since you were a child. Even people who start with high regard for themselves will eventually doubt how much of their self-worth is tied to their weight.
It is also more insidious in nature because it could happen without the offender even realizing it at all. Our unconscious biases—formed by all the beliefs and stereotypes we have been exposed to—are often quite difficult for us to identify, unless there is a deliberate effort to uncover and unlearn them.
The most pervasive, and perhaps most damaging, cultural notion about weight is that heavier people lack self-control and motivation. This stems from a long-held misconception that being overweight is simply a result of a poor diet and lack of exercise, and hence easy to resolve, when in fact, there are many factors that can contribute to weight gain. By believing that being overweight is a moral failing rather than a complex issue that can have a variety of causes, it becomes easy for people to justify their weight-related prejudice.
The Philippines is undeniably a weight-obsessed society. Our hellos are usually followed by “tumaba ka” or “pumayat ka.” If that’s not enough, you can always count on Christmas parties and family reunions, where having your weight gain pointed out to you is par for the course.
Just like in other countries, overweight individuals in the Philippines experience various forms of discrimination. Most of the local research is focused on the experiences of adolescents and how the accumulated effects of bullying and teasing about their weight lead to long-term psychological harm, particularly anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem. This could negatively affect their ability to succeed, without even considering the added hurdle of implicit marginalization they could possibly encounter in their future places of work.
In recent years, we have seen the body positivity movement gain momentum in creating conversations to challenge societal norms about beauty and size. But apart from the more diverse representation of bodies in media and advertising, it is difficult to measure how effective it has been in changing people’s internalized beliefs. Recently, the diabetic drug Ozempic, faced a worldwide shortage because influencers and young people have been promoting it on TikTok as a miracle drug for weight loss. The painful similarities of this news to what I wrote about in the early 2000s highlight the sad reality that as commonplace body-diverse campaigns have become, the landscape has not really been transformed in ways that truly matter.
I do not wish to undermine the importance of addressing the growing percentage of obesity in the country. However, I cannot stress enough that the stigma around weight is just as worrisome and harmful. Initiatives that tackle obesity should also include education programs aimed at reducing weight-related ostracism, especially on how shaming people for being overweight actually leads to more maladaptive behaviors like excessive eating and poorer dietary choices.
In She Talks Asia, the women empowerment platform I co-founded, we have seen the power of harnessing stories to create more empathy, especially by discussing the negative impact of seemingly harmless words about someone’s weight. Having more targeted interventions that humanize how damaging weight stigma is help reduce implicit and explicit forms of weight bias.
As we come to the final week of women’s month, awareness about subtle forms of discrimination, including a discussion on weight-related prejudice, should be part of the ongoing efforts. While it feels warm and fuzzy to just celebrate our wins, progress entails putting the spotlight on uncomfortable topics that invite self-reflection about one’s own biases.
My college roommates and I never tried Ionamin. But we did subject our young bodies to several fad diets. I remember how my roommate nearly fainted in class after three days of being on the South Beach diet. It is heartbreaking to know that our teenage fears about gaining weight were not unfounded after all.
Everyone should be treated with respect and dignity regardless of their body size. And the children and young women in our lives deserve to grow up in a world where they will not be pressured to measure their worth on a scale.
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