Counseling Today, Online Exclusives

Fatphobia: How can counselors do better?

Compiled by Bethany Bray November 23, 2022

Michael Poley/canweallgo.com

Stop and think for a moment: Have you ever seen a plus-size Barbie doll or rooted for a romantic hero who wasn’t thin?

Kaitlyn Forristal, a licensed professional clinical counselor, poses this question to illustrate the way fatphobia and weight stigma saturate our culture and society.

“We are programmed from a very young age to associate fatness with bad things … [and] counselors are not immune from socialized viewpoints and messages,” says Forristal, an assistant professor of clinical mental health counseling at New England College in Henniker, New Hampshire.

It’s up to counselors, therefore, to examine their own feelings and assumptions about weight and body size to keep from passing them on to clients in therapy, she stresses.

Forristal studied fatphobia’s influence on diagnosis decisions made by counseling graduate students in her 2018 doctoral dissertation; fatmisia is an area of research and specialty for her. Counseling Today sent her some questions via email to learn more about how weight stigma can show up in the therapy room and what counselors can do to dismantle it — both in themselves and in their clients.

How might fatphobia and weight stigma show up in counseling? Misdiagnosis is one area, but what else?

Yes, misdiagnosis is a concern due to a societal belief that “obesity” is a medical disease. Aside from diagnosis and treatment, counselors are also at risk for projecting their own (potentially negative) beliefs about their bodies and health status onto their fat clients. Despite what a clinician may assume, many fat clients are comfortable in their bodies and have no intention of changing them.

It could also be dangerous for counselors to assume that a fat person’s presenting issues, such as body image struggles, anxiety, depression or other mental health concerns, will be alleviated if the client loses weight. It is likely that fat people have internalized fatphobia — a set of negative beliefs about themselves because they are fat — and believe that losing weight will help them to solve their problems. While this may be true to some extent, losing weight cannot repair relational issues or make up for [brain] chemical imbalances.

If a person is struggling with the stigmas associated with being fat, or expresses hatred of themselves for being fat, attempting to change their body is not the solution. We eradicate prejudice by addressing the socialization of fatphobia and working to make our society safer and more inclusive for everyone.

What would you want counselors to know about approaching the assessment and intake process in a nonstigmatizing way? How can counselors ask about weight or weight loss, eating habits, etc., without a client feeling they are being shamed or judged?

Using the same intake measures and assessments with both fat and thin clients is the best way to approach this; don’t assume that a fat person overeats or that a thin person exercises regularly.

Consider why you may want to ask about weight loss or eating habits: Is it to confirm your suspicion that a fat client doesn’t get enough cardio or because you [assume] that their weight loss/gain is a symptom of depression?

If a fat client reports on an intake form or during an interview that they struggle with self-esteem due to their body size, want to lose weight or have poor body image, counselors should address that the same way they would with a thin client. If a new client doesn’t mention struggling with these things but happens to be fat, they are probably there for other reasons and you don’t need to ask about weight loss or eating habits.

Counselors don’t need to be afraid to discuss body size, fatphobia and marginalization with fat clients, but they also don’t need to broach this with a client just because they think someone may have an issue solely because of their body size.

How might counselors be making assumptions that someone who doesn’t fit society’s norms for shape and size is unhealthy and/or somehow to be blamed for their challenges? How might this bias creep in without counselors realizing?

It is an unfortunate societal belief that we can tell someone’s health status by looking at them. We see this all the time with news coverage of the “obesity epidemic” (spoiler alert: fat people have always existed!) and dehumanizing b-roll [news footage] of [faceless] fat people walking around and living their lives.

Something that is really strange about society if you think about it is the notion that others’ bodies are for us to comment on or have an opinion about. How often do you see someone who has changed size (lost or gained weight) and made an assumption about them, whether they have “let themselves go” or are now healthier due to a smaller body? When you run into someone you haven’t seen in a while and they are smaller, do you automatically congratulate them or tell them how great they look? Each time you do this, you are making an assumption that they lost weight intentionally and that it is worth celebrating that there is now less of them.

There are many medical conditions that are often attributed to fat people (diabetes, heart disease, sleep apnea) that medical research doesn’t support. The average size person in the United States is “overweight,” so it is likely that many findings that fatness is a cause of these medical conditions are misinterpreted when fatness is correlated to these conditions. It is important to be good consumers of research and pay attention to who is putting out studies that demonize fatness (I’m looking at you, Weight Watchers!) and who the intended audience is.

Researching the history of the body mass index (BMI) can help as well. Considering that the BMI is still used in western medicine for pathology and treatment of patients is baffling and is not rooted in accuracy or health outcomes. The BMI is unnecessarily vague (e.g., “overweight” — over what weight?) and doesn’t account for muscle mass or many other confounding factors. Some of the most elite athletes in the world are “morbidly obese” according to the BMI.

It was never created to be used the way that it is now, and aside from the harmful labels it puts onto people’s bodies, it creates real issues for mental health care treatment. For example, due to the BMI categories, many fat people have difficulty receiving treatment for eating disorders, which is detrimental to client and community health and to the profession of counseling.

What do counselors need to do to check themselves and unlearn old patterns and assumptions about weight and body size? How can counselors do better?

Unlearning negative beliefs about fat people is a similar process to unlearning socialized beliefs about other marginalized identities (LGBTQIQA+ community, BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and people of color], disabled people). There is nuance to this in the United States as we are an individualistic society who believe that for the most part, people get what they deserve or work for.

Therefore, fatphobia falls into a category with other social issues like poverty where we feel more comfortable attributing blame to individuals that we believe can change their status if they only tried and worked hard enough for it. Poor people can just work harder or get better jobs to “pull themselves up from their bootstraps,” or fat people could lose weight if they only had more self-control. Obviously, neither of these things are true for the vast majority of people facing this discrimination, but the societal belief that we can change our circumstances continues to harm those in our communities.

Counselors can do better by speaking out about these things and advocating for the rights and dignity of fat people. It should come as no surprise that bias against fat people is rooted in racism and xenophobia.

Fatmisia is also rooted in capitalism; the weight loss industry was worth $72 billion in 2018. Selling weight loss programs, weight loss surgeries and weight loss-focused fitness programs is a business that is only viable because people buy into the notion that fatness should be avoided at all costs (literally).

Having this information is helpful for counselors to (a) reconceptualize the way they feel about their own bodies, (b) provide validation and psychoeducation for clients struggling with body image or other weight-related issues and (c) advocate for changes in the way that others in society view and relate to fat people.

How can counselors support a client who names weight loss as a goal in counseling? What should a counselor’s role be in this situation?

A counselor’s role is always to support their client in treatment, and there are many valid reasons for clients to want to lose weight: to be safer in society by living in a smaller body, because a family member has expressed concern for their weight, a medical provider suggests it for overall health, or as a requirement for a certain procedure, etc. However, counselors are not medical providers, physical therapists, dietitians, etc., and should refrain from providing any medical advice as this is outside of our scope of practice and unethical.

It can be easy to automatically support a client who wants to lose weight because we believe that a fat body is always an unhealthy one, but this is not the case and could cause harm. Most research on dieting shows that intentional weight loss does not work and that only 5% of dieters maintain their weight loss for an extended period of time; most dieters gain back the weight they lost and more due to the metabolic disruption of putting one’s body into starvation mode.

Counselors can, of course, ask about the reasons the client is bringing this up in session: Are they having body image concerns, experiencing disordered eating or relational problems? These are issues that counselors are trained and qualified to help with. Exploring these issues may reveal the deeper issue that a client has an eating disorder or is being verbally/emotionally abused by a partner. A counselor’s role in either of these cases would be to explore options for the client and set goals in treatment. If a counselor has training/knowledge in this area, this is a good opportunity to self-disclose their own body image concerns and ask the client if they would like [the counselor] to share with them some information about weight loss, the diet industrial complex, etc., that may help them reframe these issues.

What should counselors avoid doing or saying in sessions with clients to keep from harming them with weight stigma?

The easiest way counselors can know how to speak about clients’ bodies is by asking them! Some people prefer to describe themselves as fat because it is merely a descriptive word like tall, dark-skinned, etc. For others, there is such a negative connotation with the word fat (and a lot of harm associated with it) that they prefer other ways to describe themselves.

Counselors should avoid making assumptions about fat clients that they wouldn’t make about their thin clients, such as [whether] they overeat or binge eat, do not exercise enough, hate their body, etc. Practicing weight neutrality, or making no assumptions (good or bad) about a client’s weight or body size, is a great start.

It is also imperative that counselors resist the notion that fat people can or should lose weight to avoid stigma and marginalization due to their body size. We would not expect a little person to just grow taller to access the world with more ease, and we should not project this onto fat people either. Humans have always come in all shapes and sizes and being fat is just one way of having a body — it is that simple.

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See more on this topic in a feature article, “Pushing back against fatphobia” in Counseling Today’s upcoming December magazine.

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Bethany Bray is a senior writer and social media coordinator for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org.

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

 

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