The recent incident of fat-shaming that TikTok influencer Remi Bader experienced was repugnant. After being denied access to riding a horse for weighing over 240 pounds, Bader said she was “laughed at” by someone working on the ranch and that one employee even posted a TikTok video stating “when you’re not a fat b—-, you can ride at Deep Hollow Ranch.”
Regardless of their weight, people who have a perception of weight discrimination are less physically active.
Beyond being an abhorrent example of bad behavior, it’s also a sadly typical example of the mistreatment that many overweight Americans suffer — one that only makes their weight struggles harder. Over 40% of American adults report experiences with weight-based teasing, and this treatment is worsening the health problems they face.
Obesity, defined as having a body mass index of 30 or higher, is increasingly common in the United States. (BMI takes into account your height and your weight. For example, a person who is 5’9” and weighs 203 pounds or more would have a BMI of 30, making them obese.) The prevalence of obesity among Americans grew more than 10 percentage points over the past 20 years, according to the latest statistics from 2017-2020 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC found that 41.9% of adult Americans are obese, with 1 in 5 Americans aged 2 to 19 being classified as obese.
People who are obese know they have a weight problem and do not need to be reminded of it. The only person who should be giving advice is their physician so that they can work together to address it. Those who think they are being helpful and justify fat-shaming as a means of motivation for weight loss are completely misguided. Instead, fat-shaming is harmful to its victims’ health. When fat-shaming turns into weight-based discrimination, it’s associated with low self-esteem, anxiety, depression and eating disorders.
So perversely, the more discrimination obese people face, the more weight they often gain. This discrimination causes stress and, in turn, behavior changes that are linked to weight gain, including binge-eating disorder. This serious medical condition causes individuals to eat large amounts of food without being able to stop, something Bader has personally struggled with.
One of the more insidious ways this weight gain can happen is after experiences like the one Bader says she faced at the horse ranch: The stigma associated with obesity can lead to a decrease in physical activity. Regardless of their weight, people who have a perception of weight discrimination are less physically active. And although most weight loss is a result of eating fewer calories, regular physical activity is the only way to maintain weight loss.
The guidelines at the ranch might have been reasonable. A link on its website spells out that horses can’t comfortably bear more than 20% of their weight, which is what a veterinary study from Ohio State University’s Agricultural Technical Institute has found. Though Bader noted she’s ridden horses in the past, she also said that she’d “never want to hurt the horses” and that being denied the chance to ride wasn’t the reason she publicized her experience. “I get it, some places have weight requirements.”
Instead, she explained, she shared what happened because of “the way I was spoken [to] and laughed at … and the way I was treated overall,” including the video posted by a ranch employee “who made very clear that they did not want me there because of my weight and that’s very disappointing.” Deep Hollow Ranch later issued an apology and said the employee’s video, since deleted, “in no way represents nor is aligned with” the view of the owners of the ranch.
Unfortunately, having an experience like Bader’s can then deter a person from attempting to do physical activity in the future. Research has found that, understandably, being spoken to in a way that draws negative attention to the fact that someone is obese affects their willingness to participate in sports.
In a study published last year, Swiss and German researchers who conducted interviews with 30 obese adults found three main reasons why they excluded themselves from certain types of exercise. First, they had some memorable negative experience, often as a child. Second was self-stigma where they felt as though they lacked physical ability. And third was a fear of stigma — that they would again be a victim of discrimination.
Naturally, many respond to these negative emotions and experiences by simply avoiding the activities. The study found that they don’t necessarily exercise less, but they limit what activities they participate in and with whom. For example, they may avoid all public pools and gyms. Some participants in the study talked about running and cycling in abandoned areas, forests and outside of the city or town in which they lived.
There’s also the problem of environmental stigma, where everyday items such a public seats are designed for non-obese people and can exclude obese people from their use. A qualitative study from Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, interviewed 141 obese individuals and found that some participants were prevented from using gym equipment and facilities that could not accommodate them. Another significant barrier was a lack of “plus-size” workout clothing or the ability to order a sports team uniform.
Given these obstacles, the last thing overweight people need as they try to be active are hurtful comments. All this does is push them away from activities they may love and contribute to a number of health consequences. The global obesity epidemic needs a multipronged approach, which includes more kindness and understanding.