Men Who Experience Weight Stigma Are at Risk for Dangerous Consequences

"Weight stigma is not a gendered issue." 

man, uncertain, thinking

Women’s bodies are trapped by cultural rhetoric. They are continually objectified and expected to espouse certain ideals, but at the same time they are the center of a conversation involving scientists, cultural critics, and everyday people who are increasingly aware of the dangers of judging beauty. Men and their bodies, meanwhile, receive less attention. But a study published Wednesday in Obesity suggests it’s time that changed.

While the way men feel about their bodies remains overlooked and understudied, that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing hazardous going on there. As the new study from the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut shows, men who experience weight stigma are at risk of serious health consequences — and many are experiencing those consequences already.

Weight stigma, as it’s defined by the National Eating Disorders Association, is discrimination or stereotyping based on a person’s weight. In the new study, a team led by postdoctoral fellow Mary Himmelstein, Ph.D., asked 1,753 American men to self-report their height, weight, demographics, and the extent to which they experienced weight stigma. They were also asked whether this stigma was something that they internalized (did they blame themselves?) or something that was put upon them by others.

The men also shared details about their health behaviors, like how often they dieted, as well as their psychological well-being.

Overall, 40 percent of the participants said they had experienced weight stigma. The men who internalized weight stigma had lower self-rated health than others, and all had an increased odds of engaging in binge eating.

Furthermore, the men who experienced and internalized weight stigma were the group most associated with more depressive symptoms and more dieting behaviors. 

Men are experiencing an increasing pressure to be lean and muscular. 

“Weight stigma is not a gendered issue,” says Himmelstein. “It can affect men’s health in the same damaging ways in which we already know that it harms women’s health, and neglecting issues in men, either in research or clinical practice, may put them at a serious disadvantage in treatment.”

Previous studies have argued that the high levels of body dissatisfaction among men are driven by the representation of men in media and pop culture. Recent analysis shows that media images of men are more muscular and lean than ever before. Dissatisfaction emerges from the discrepancy between actual bodies and ‘ideal’ physiques, and this dissatisfaction can lead to disordered eating, depression, and increased risk of using performance-enhancing substances.

And dissatisfaction with one’s body starts young: A 2014 study published in JAMA Pediatrics found that, out of a group of 5,527 males aged 12 to 18 years old, 18 percent were highly concerned about their weight and physique.

Himmelstein argues that there’s a need for more research exploring how men cope with weight stigma, especially if those coping responses involve behaviors like binge eating. She also advises health professionals to pay more attention to the men in their care: Historically, it’s not common for men to be asked about how they feel about their weight. That needs to change so that experts can identify who needs help and interventions can be provided before it’s too late.

Partial Abstract:

Objective: A substantial amount of literature has suggested that weight stigma impairs health. Evidence on gender differences in weight stigma has been mixed, but studies of weight stigma within men have been primarily absent from the literature.

Results: Regression analyses showed that, independent of race, socioeconomic status, and BMI, experienced weight stigma and weight bias internalization among men were associated with poor health, including greater depressive symptoms, increased dieting, lower self‐reported health, and increased odds of binge eating. Neither internalized nor experienced weight stigma was consistently associated with physical activity, smoking, drinking, or trouble sleeping.