A Guide to Size Diversity 

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Bodies come in all shapes and sizes. Genetics, family history, culture, and environment all play a role in how we look. But deep down, many people think we should all look the same. And when someone doesn’t conform to that idealized view, they’re judged.

Almost 80% of Americans report feeling unhappy with how their bodies look at times. [1]

Often, we judge ourselves. But we can externalize that inner voice and judge others by denying them jobs, refusing to date them, or bullying them due to their weight or shape. 

Size diversity involves accepting all bodies—including our own—as worthy of love and respect. Of course, it takes time to embrace these principles, but when we do, we make the world a better place.

Body Size & Discrimination 


We all have bodies that are composed of bone, muscle, and fat. Our bodies can be as familiar to us as the sound of our voices, and we may have many opinions about how we look and feel. 

We may also have many thoughts and feelings about how others look. And sometimes, sharing those thoughts leads to discrimination.

Overweight & Obesity

Almost 74% of American adults 20 and older are overweight or obese. [2] Larger bodies are the norm in our society, and they’re found in all walks of life. Despite their majority status, people who are overweight or obese often feel the brunt of discrimination. 

The risk of weight-based discrimination increases with weight. [3]

  • Overweight women: 10% report discrimination
  • Obese women: 45% report discrimination 
woman in dress

That discrimination can take many forms. For example, people may experience the following:

  • Medical discrimination: People can’t get knee replacement surgeries or other needed treatments until they hit a goal weight set by doctors. 
  • Employment discrimination: Larger body sizes are associated with laziness, leading to fewer leadership opportunities or promotions. There may be a limit on career advancement.
  • Travel discrimination: Larger people must buy extra plane tickets, cram their bodies into uncomfortable seats, or skip some travel plans altogether due to fear of discrimination. 
  • Overt bullying: Larger people are told they’re fat, lazy, disgusting, or lack self-control. Young children experience this bullying at school and online, but adults can also hear muttered comments at work or the store. 

Some people assume stigmatizing weight will encourage people to lose pounds. Instead, researchers say, this stigma leads to poor physical and mental health. [4] Some people deal with stigma by resorting to disordered eating. 

Underweight

Skinny, small people often fit into the culture’s idea of an ideal. As a result, they may not face the same type or level of bullying compared to their larger counterparts. Still, they may feel intense pressure to stick to their small size, even when they’re aging, getting pregnant, or facing another issue associated with weight gain.

woman standing

Staying thin comes with its own costs. Researchers say that 66% of American fashion models, who fit our standards of thin beauty, have body mass index ratings within the range of anorexia. [5]

Thin people can also get teased to eat food, work out more, or change how they look to make others happier. They may face discrimination and judgment because they are skinny.

5 Ways to Foster Size Diversity 


Many of us have said or done something to harm another’s body image. It could have come from a conscious decision to cause harm, or it could have come from a place of ignorance. 

No matter the cause, we can all promise to do better to serve our communities and ourselves. 

Embracing weight inclusivity means accepting and respecting diversity in body shape and size. [6] Rather than believing in a model who celebrates thin and small bodies, we acknowledge that every body is different and no form is better than another. 

If you’re supporting the fashion industry, take a step back. Does buying magazines filled with thin models make your community safer for all body shapes? Does writing a blog about your newest diet help people feel better within their own skin? Be mindful of the media you consume and create. 

The internet is filled with body mass calculators and height/weight charts. In just a few minutes, you can find out if you hit an ideal revered by medical professionals. But these tests don’t consider your age, fitness, culture, and more. 

Your body can be healthy across many weights. Don’t use weight/height charts without the help of a medical professional. [7] You need context and support to understand the results. Encourage your friends and family members to do the same. 

“You look great! Have you lost weight?” It’s something we’ve all said or heard at least once, and it’s not helpful. Training yourself to stop commenting on weight could also help you stop noticing it in other people. 

If you would like to dole out a compliment, discuss a person’s accomplishments. Better yet, just tell them how much you appreciate them.

Weight fluctuations are remarkably common. Researchers say, for example, that boys between ages 4 and 6 can gain or drop up to 4 pounds between daily check-ins. [8] 

Commenting on someone’s weight fluctuation could spark disordered eating. And you could inflict that damage on someone you care about. 

What if you change your language, but no one around you shifts in return? You can help. 

Culture is pervasive, and it’s hard to see our mistakes without outside help. If you hear someone being discriminatory, speak up. Most people don’t understand that they’re being hurtful. [9]

If you’re comfortable, speak up in the moment and provide direct feedback. If not, reach out to the person later to discuss what happened.

For example, if someone turns down a coworker’s offer of a cookie by saying, “No thanks! I don’t want to get fat,” you could say the following:

  • In the moment: “Hey, that’s not nice! All of us deserve cookies, and all bodies are beautiful, no matter their shape and size.”
  • Later on: “Hey, your comment about cookies wasn’t very sensitive. You didn’t notice, but Jane looked upset after you spoke. Talking about your diet can make people feel like they should diet too.”

It’s hard to open up a dialogue about body positivity, but it’s one of the most effective ways to deliver real change. 

Mend your relationship with your own body. Pay attention to how you feel about:

  • Food: Eat when you’re hungry, and stop when you feel you’ve had enough. Remember that all foods are okay, and indulging in an occasional craving is just fine. Food is fuel, not a reward or a punishment.
  • Health: How you feel about your body’s ability to do what you want matters more than an arbitrary size. Celebrate what your body does for you every day. Don’t blame it for how it looks.
Woman working on computer

Get Help When You Need It


For many people, size-based discrimination leads directly to disordered eating. If you’ve been using unhealthy techniques to change your appearance, know you can get help. 

Treatment teams can help you to address negative thought patterns that translate into disordered eating behaviors. You will work with a treatment team to identify the underlying factors that led to your disordered eating, and you’ll develop techniques to build a better self-image.

While there is no quick fix, you can do the work to build a healthier life. And this will translate into a happier life down the road.

Resources


  1. Jackson C, Lemay M-P. (2018). Most Americans Experience Feeling Dissatisfied With How Their Body Looks from Time to Time, Including Nearly Two in Five Who Feel This Way Whenever They Look in the Mirror. Ipsos. 
  2. Obesity and Overweight. (2022). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 
  3. Puhl, R. (2008). Weight Discrimination: A Socially Acceptable Injustice. Obesity Action Coalition. 
  4. Hunger JM, Major B, Blodorn A, Miller CT. (2015). Weighed Down by Stigma: How Weight-Based Social Identity Threat Contributes to Weight Gain and Poor Health. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 9(6):255-268.
  5. Park S. (2017). Comparison of body composition between fashion models and women in general. Journal of Exercise Nutrition and Biochemistry, 21(4):22-26. 
  6. About Health at Every Size. (2022). Association for Size Diversity and Health. 
  7. Size Diversity and Health at Every Size. (n.d.). National Eating Disorders Association. 
  8. Rao DH, Sastry JG. Day-to-day variation in body weights of children. Annals of Human Biology, 3(1):75-6. 
  9. Lobell KO. (2022). How Some Employers Are Addressing Weight Discrimination. SHRM. 
  10. Body Size Diversity and Acceptance. (1999). University of Illinois. 

Last Update | 11 - 7 - 2022

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