Every January, gyms get more crowded and deliberations begin about the best way to finally lose weight. It’s the season for resolutions.
I would like to offer a different resolution for 2017: Change the way you think about weight — for yourself, for others and especially for our children.
Weight prejudice and body shaming are pervasive problems.
Most of us understand that it is unacceptable and unkind to show prejudice toward people because of race, disability and other ways that we might differ. But, for some reason, people see weight differently.
We diminish overweight people with the negative comments we make, the “fat” jokes and television characters we laugh at and our shaming glances.
And, truth be told, we diminish ourselves when we hold our own bodies to unrealistic ideals and focus too much on weight.
Idealizing thinness and holding unrealistic beliefs about what bodies should look like can put women and men at risk for body dissatisfaction and eating disorders.
And, whether weight shaming is coming from others or from ourselves, it can result in psychological harm.
Nothing good comes from weight shaming. It will not encourage an overweight person to “make better choices.”
Being a victim of prejudice and discrimination is stressful, which can result in overeating and a physiological response to the stress, both of which can contribute to weight gain.
The reality is that weight is not as controllable as people think it is. There are many factors that contribute to weight and body shape.
Our unique biology is one factor. Genes predispose us to be a certain size and shape and influence the way our body stores and processes energy.
Another factor is the environment. Our busy lives make us more likely to eat for convenience and give us less time for physical activity.
And, importantly, not everyone has the resources to join a gym, purchase a diet program or even to buy healthy food.
To be fair, the food we eat and the amount of energy we use through physical activity plays some role in weight.
But its impact is negligible when you consider that these “personal choices” will not change biology and are made within the confines of our environment.
As a mother of two young children and a developmental psychologist, I can’t help but think of the negative impact weight prejudice has on children and youth.
Weight prejudice and body shaming have no place in our homes.
Our The University of Texas at Dallas research shows that preschoolers exhibitweight prejudice as early as age 3.
Many children believe that overweight peers are “mean,” “ugly” and “dumb,” and they are less likely to want to play with or help overweight peers.
Children hear messages about weight from many sources, but parents play an important role.
Our research suggests that weight prejudice can be transmitted from parent to child.
Parents’ messages about weight can be overt (making a negative comment about someone who is overweight) or more covert (looking disapprovingly at one’s own reflection in the mirror).
We found that one of the biggest predictors of a child exhibiting weight prejudice is the child’s mother having a fear of gaining weight.
When we look at someone and make judgments about them because of some aspect of their outward appearance, such as their weight, we don’t just hurt them. We hurt ourselves and our families.
We miss opportunities to get to know people, we risk setting our children down a path of low body image and eating disorder disturbance, and we further perpetuate the societal notion that fat is bad and thin is good.
So, what do we do instead?
First, leave it to individuals and their health professionals to make determinations about weight loss.
Focus on people's internal qualities, the positive things they are doing, and their abilities, rather than on physical appearance.
And, if you are concerned about your own weight, focus on health. Add healthier foods to your diet and try to participate in more physical activity — not to look a certain way, but to improve your health.
This will lead to more long-term change anyway.
These ideas also apply when raising children.
Provide children with healthy meals and plenty of active time to build healthy habits — not to avoid a certain physique.
When you talk about “bodies,” focus on the wonder that is the human body and how amazing it is that it can do all of the things that it can do.
Avoid talking about the size and shape of others’ bodies, except to remind children that appearance doesn’t matter — it’s what’s on the inside that counts.
Let’s raise a generation of young people who value all people regardless of weight.
Shayla Holub is an associate professor in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences at The University of Texas at Dallas.