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Weight Bias: How Does It Influence Our Industry?

Anti-fat bias harms our clients—and us—in myriad and significant ways that our privilege and perspective may make it difficult to see. Here’s what the research shows, plus steps we can take to be more inclusive for clients of all shapes and sizes.

Weight bias art

These last few years have awakened many to the injustices that exist in this world and have challenged us all to think through how we contribute to them. By now, you’ve likely read articles, attended educational sessions and maybe done some sort of worksite training on equity, diversity and inclusion. While the topics of equity and diversity are extremely important, the focus of this article will primarily be on inclusivity as it relates to weight bias, and how you can be more inclusive toward individuals of all body sizes and shapes in the work you do, which starts with becoming more educated and more self-aware.

What Is Weight Bias?

Weight bias refers to discriminating, stigmatizing, bullying and/or being prejudiced toward individuals who are in larger bodies solely based on their appearance and/or weight (Puhl & Brownell 2001).

In recent decades, many academics have begun to study the implications of implicit and explicit biases (i.e., unconscious and conscious biases), including weight bias, sometimes referred to as anti-fat bias. What is often overlooked in the literature, however, is the historical context of how weight bias developed in society.

The modern perception that whiteness and thinness is analogous with having a “good” body—often referred to as the “thin ideal”—is rooted in colonialism and racism. While some Indigenous cultures practiced fasting for spiritual reasons, the pursuit of weight loss as a means to prove one’s worth is a direct result of colonialization (Strings 2019). Shewan (2021) states, “Anti-fat bias is an inherently colonial idea, and was used by white, European men to justify the enslavement of Black African peoples to then colonize Indigenous lands and bodies.”

If this is news to you, it was to me, as well: I never learned about it in my kinesiology coursework. The lack of education around weight bias among fitness professionals is a significant part of the problem. Research has demonstrated that exercise science students hold strong anti-fat biases, and as students progress in their schooling, their anti-fat biases become stronger (Wijayatunga et al. 2019; Langdon, Rukavina & Greenleaf 2016; O’Brien, Hunter & Banks 2007).

See also: Weight Bias in the Health and Fitness Industry

The Pervasiveness of Weight Bias

Weight bias is one of the most frequently experienced types of discrimination in the United States, particularly for women and people of color. Puhl, Andreyeva & Brownell (2008) conducted a large study examining weight biases in a nationally representative sample of 2,290 U.S. adults. They found that approximately 10% of women and 5% of men report daily or lifetime discrimination based on their weight/height. The authors also found that weight bias was most prevalent in people who are racially minoritized, including Black and African American women and men (23.9% and 12.7%, respectively). Additionally, individuals in larger bodies were at the greatest risk of experiencing weight bias, regardless of their sociodemographic background.

Unfortunately, research suggests that weight bias continues to grow as one of the most pervasive forms of bias (Täuber, Mulder & Flint 2018). Evidence demonstrates that while other forms of discrimination (age, race, etc.) remained stable between 1996 and 2006, weight discrimination increased by 66% (Andreyeva, Puhl & Brownell 2008). And the trend appears to be continuing: In a 2019 study evaluating 4.4 million implicit association tests taken in the United States, Charlesworth & Banaji reported that implicit biases based on skin color, age, disability, sexuality and ethnicity shifted toward neutrality between 2007 and 2016, whereas negative weight bias became more prevalent.

Fortunately, just as fitness professionals embrace new methodologies, tools and strategies for helping clients improve their well-being and fitness, we can do the research and the personal work needed to help them feel welcomed and supported on their journey.

Key Factors Promoting Weight Bias Today

Weight bias art

One of the primary ways in which we receive information about weight is through media consumption.

We are all born innocent and without bias, and as we grow up, we develop our opinions, thought processes and attitudes based on who we are around, what media we are exposed to and how we experience the world. Taking a deeper dive into our own social identities can provide a helpful perspective (see “5 Steps Toward Reducing Weight Bias,” below), as can taking a closer look at the outside forces contributing to these biases.

One of the primary ways in which we receive information about weight is through media consumption. It is no longer just the mass media (television/movies/magazines) that exalts the thin ideal, but also social media content creators—including fitness professionals—who perpetuate unrealistic beauty standards (Bair et al. 2012). In fact, in a large representative survey, adolescents who spent more time consuming social media were more likely to experience mental health issues compared with adolescents who spent less time in front of screens (e.g., consuming print media instead) (Twenge et al. 2018). This is understandable given the fact that 75% of women featured on social media are “thin,” 25% of whom were also adopting a “sexy” pose (Tiggemann & Zaccardo 2018).

Here are some modern-day factors that play a significant role in the perpetuation of weight bias.

The Hidden Dangers of Fitspiration

Research has demonstrated that prolonged exposure to fitspiration posts can lead to excessive workouts, negative mood, body dissatisfaction and poor self-esteem (Cataldo et al. 2021; Easton et al. 2018; Slater, Varsani & Diedrichs 2017; Tiggemann & Zaccardo 2015). What makes this particularly problematic is the deceptive nature of the fitspiration hashtag, which represents a socially desirable way of pursuing thinness under the guise of becoming more fit.

In a 2021 study, Dignard & Jarry reported that, while having a positive body image can protect someone from making appearance comparisons when viewing images under the thinspiration hashtag, this does not hold true when viewing images under the fitspiration hashtag. At face value, people might not associate the fitspiration hashtag as much with thinness (compared to the thinspiration posts), which may make it more difficult to protect themselves from the negative effects (Rodgers et al. 2016).

Over the course of the past 2 years, social distancing and in-home lockdowns have led to increased use of social media platforms and exposure to fitspiration. In a cross-cultural study (Spain, Lithuania, the United Kingdom, Japan and Hungary) investigating the risks associated with social media and fitspiration content exposure during the pandemic, researchers report that the more someone was exposed to fitness-related content on social media, the greater their appearance anxiety, with women being more subject to these images than men (Cataldo et al. 2022).

If what our clients consume from our industry is hyperfocused on weight loss, we are communicating to them that losing weight should be a health priority for them. Through our marketing messaging (e.g., “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels”), product sales (e.g., fat burners) and program specials (e.g., weight loss challenges), we are very clearly communicating, and financially benefiting from, our clients’ weight loss “goals.”

Manufactured Fears of the Quarantine 15

There is no doubt the fitness industry has been financially hit by the pandemic, and as a result, many in our field began doubling down on what we know sells: the fear of gaining weight (IHRSA 2021).

During the pandemic, the term “Quarantine 15” became widespread, especially in our industry. Despite the many real fears associated with COVID-19 (illness, death, job loss, etc.), the use of this term gave people another focus: fear of gaining weight. Many companies and industries in the health field have capitalized on this fear, highlighting one of our industry’s greatest shortcomings: fitness capitalism. If our industry aims to improve the health of our communities and health is often deemed analogous to being thin, fitness professionals inherently benefit from individuals wanting to lose weight.

The “self-quarantine imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic” may also have caused a shift in fitness professionals’ views and biases related to weight, according to the 2022 ACSM Fitness Trends, a global survey sent to health and fitness professionals. This revealed “exercise for weight loss” as the fifth highest trend in our industry—a dramatic rise from sixteenth place in 2021. This further demonstrates what fitness professionals (not necessarily our clients) see as one of the most important health priorities right now (Kercher et al. 2022).

See also: Creating Inclusivity in Fitness Spaces

Weight Bias in Health and Fitness Professionals

One might assume that, in an industry developed to improve the health and well-being of individuals and communities, fitness professionals would be less likely to possess anti-fat biases. However, the continued drive to meet culturally idealized body norms—coupled with a profession where one’s expertise is often associated with one’s body aesthetic—has contributed to a high prevalence of anti-fat bias in our industry.

Types of Anti-Fat Bias in Fit Pros

Robertson & Vohora (2008) found that gym and aerobics instructors reported strong anti-fat implicit and explicit biases.

More recently, our research (Walters & Ede 2022) examined the prevalence of anti-fat bias in fitness professionals, aggregated by age, gender, body dissatisfaction and role in the industry (e.g., group fitness instructor versus personal trainer). Results indicated that regardless of these characteristics, fitness professionals possess a strong, explicit (conscious) anti-fat bias.

The scale used in this study was the Anti-Fat Attitudes Test, which includes three subscales measuring different types of anti-fat bias:

  1. social/character disparagement;
  2. physical/romantic unattractiveness; and
  3. weight control/blame.

We found that the greatest amount of anti-fat bias was in the social/character disparagement subscale, indicating that fitness professionals are very likely to assign socially undesirable characterizations to individuals in larger bodies.

We also found that Hispanic and Black participants reported significantly greater total anti-fat bias scores compared with white participants, and for both Black and mixed-race fitness professionals, those in larger body sizes reported greater anti-fat bias than those in smaller body sizes. This might be explained by the internalization of the thin ideal.

The Internalization of Anti-Fat Messages

Research demonstrates that the more one is socialized within anti-fat culture, the more likely they are to possess strong anti-fat attitudes (O’Brien, Hunter & Banks 2007; Durso & Latner 2008). This internalization process can happen as a result of experiencing stigma firsthand and/or by absorbing anti-fat messaging about weight through one’s sociocultural environment (Mensinger, Calogero & Tylka 2016; Pearl et al. 2019).

Ravary, Baldwin & Bartz (2019) found that exposure to fat-shaming in the media led to increased implicit anti-fat attitudes. Therefore, if larger-bodied fitness professionals are raised in the United States and exposed to messaging about the fitness industry that idolizes the thin body ideal, there’s a strong possibility that they internalize those messages (i.e., it’s better to be in a thinner body than in a larger body) and, thus, hold stronger anti-fat biases.

Blame Culture and Health Care

Robertson & Vohora (2008) found that the greatest anti-fat bias among gym and fitness pros was evident in instructors who had never experienced being overweight or obese and those who believed obesity was controllable. This extends into the healthcare industry as a whole.

Many people in larger bodies report being told by a medical/health professional that their illness or disability was due to their larger body, rather than other more likely causes (Bacon & Aphramor 2014; Gordon 2020; Sigman-Grant 2020). This is a great example of the blame culture surrounding an individual’s weight: Those who believe that individual weight is entirely within a person’s control are likely to blame and stigmatize that person for gaining weight and/or having a larger body (Roehling, Roehling & Pichler 2007).

In actuality, the causes of weight gain are complex, with most scholars agreeing that an individual’s weight is multifactorial, including one’s social, political and economic environment (McLaren et al. 2012). While people do have some agency over their weight, simply ascribing weight gain or obesity to “too many calories in and too few calories out” is oversimplified and outdated (Tesh 1988).

The Intersectionality of Biases

Future research needs to examine the intersectionality of biases in the industry (e.g., how one’s age and abilities influence weight bias). People are complex, holding multiple identities. It’s important that we learn more about how these intersecting identities influence and/or are influenced by weight bias.

In an interview with Marybeth and Marcia from @disabledgirlswholift (a group built by disabled folks for the disability community to share experiences), they mentioned how common it is for individuals with disabilities to experience weight biases in the health industry, as if their weight was more important than the health reason that brought them into the medical office. Marcia stated, “If you happen to be disabled and fat, then [it’s assumed that] the disability is probably your fault . . . . It’s the first thing that gets talked about with any of the specialists.”

Marybeth and Marcia also referenced a conversation they had with Ilya Parker (@decolonizing_fitness) where he discusses how we as a society are obsessed with the binary. As individuals, our brains are programmed to be as efficient as possible which means we like to put people in boxes (male or female, thin or large, white or Black), and when we are asked to think about individuals in a nonbinary, intersecting way (e.g., a mixed-raced trans woman) it can be harder for us to process (Wood & Petriglieri 2005).

For decades, we have been taught that being thin is equivalent to being healthy. It’s not only what society has advertised, it’s what our own industry has promoted. To help break this pattern, it can be helpful to think beyond the binary and expand our definitions of what it looks like to be healthy and fit. It is possible (and very common) to be healthy and be in a larger body, just like it is possible to be unhealthy and be in a smaller body (Sui et al. 2007).

Professional Impacts of Possessing Weight Bias

Weight bias in ft pros

A personal trainer who has a strong anti-fat bias may be less likely to expose their larger-bodied clients to new exercises.

There are many negative implications of possessing and experiencing weight bias. From a possessive perspective, if one has a strong anti-fat bias, they are incorrectly judging an individual’s character based on their body size. This judgment is likely to lead to discrimination and, ultimately, a missed opportunity to connect and engage with an individual in a meaningful way. 

Mistaken Assumptions

A personal trainer who has a strong anti-fat bias may be less likely to expose their larger-bodied clients to new exercises, assuming those clients are not strong/motivated/energetic enough to perform them. On the other hand, a personal trainer with little anti-fat bias might be more inclined to introduce similar clients to new routines, equipment, fitness classes, etc. and base those decisions on what the client prefers and requests rather than assumptions about the individual.

In a research study examining weight biases in frequent exercisers, assumptions about individuals in larger bodies often led to bullying comments such as, “Maybe they will eat healthier and lose weight so they don’t get bullied” and “because they’re fat, sometimes they’re not as socially well adapted, because they don’t have the confidence so that’s why they don’t make as many friends” (Flint & Reale 2018).

Workplace Discrimination

Additionally, the negative perceptions of larger-bodied individuals’ abilities and motivation may lead a fitness professional to engage in workplace weight discrimination without being conscious of their behaviors (e.g., not promoting an employee to manager due to assumptions about their work ethic as a result of their weight). In fact, nearly 60% of people report experiencing weight discrimination in the workplace, such as not being hired for a job, at least four times in their lifetime (Puhl, Andreyeva & Brownell 2008).

While federal legislation and civil rights laws to protect individuals based on race, gender and age have been in place for more than 40 years, there are no federal laws prohibiting discrimination based on weight. This makes it very difficult for those experiencing weight discrimination to feel protected in their professional careers.

Health Impacts of Experiencing Weight Bias

From the perspective of those experiencing weight bias, the impact can be devastating. Those who experience weight stigma report increased psychological distress, including greater rates of body dissatisfaction, increased prevalence of disordered eating, depression, low self-esteem, cardiovascular disease risk factors and exercise avoidance (Hunger & Major 2015; Vartanian & Novak 2011; Fettich & Chen 2012; Dolezsar et al. 2014).

Increased Health Risks

A growing body of literature has shown that an increased allostatic load (cumulative burden of chronic stress) from experiencing weight bias has a greater impact on health than actually being in a larger body does (Guidi et al. 2021; Gordon 2020; Milburn, Beatty & Lopez 2019; Nutter et al. 2016).

For example, in a recent study examining the association between weight discrimination and health in 986 participants, those individuals who experienced weight discrimination had twice the risk of high allostatic load (Roehling, Roehling & Pichler 2017).

Moreover, experiencing weight discrimination was associated with the dysregulation of lipids, glucose metabolism and inflammation (Roehling, Roehling & Pichler 2017). The authors suggest that reducing weight discrimination may be a successful solution to improving obesity-related morbidity and mortality. Based on this research, academics should aim to include weight bias and/or discrimination as a key variable in understanding obesity.

Compromised Health Care

Research has shown that if someone in a larger body experiences weight bias from a health professional, they are less likely to use health services due to receiving disrespectful treatment and unsolicited comments about weight loss, as well as embarrassment due to being weighed and being forced to use medical equipment that was too small for their body (Amy et al. 2006). It has also been shown that doctors have shorter appointments with, and show less emotional support for, people in larger bodies (Brown & Flint 2013; Gudzune et al. 2013). These findings may lead those in fitness professions to wonder, “How often do people in larger bodies receive compromised care from us as well?”

See also: Body Image in Menopause

Inspiring the World to Inclusivity

Weight biases are pervasive and detrimental to our field and, most importantly, to the human beings we work for, with, and alongside. If our goal is to truly “Inspire the World to Fitness®,” it’s time we all start taking action to reduce weight bias in our industry.

If this article left you overwhelmed, that’s probably a good thing. While it may seem like a lot to think about (being inclusive involves intention, time and effort and is a never-ending process), please recognize that your privilege is what has protected you from seeing those areas of exclusion in the first place. My hope is you’ll use this as a springboard for changes you’ll make as a fitness professional, a member of society and a role model for others looking to do the same.



5 Steps Toward Reducing Weight Bias

1. Start With Yourself

What biases do you have that may be influencing how you engage with your clients and other fitness professionals? If you’d like to learn more about your potential biases, consider taking one of the Harvard Implicit Association Tests (https://bit.ly/3xrfRPs).

As part of this self-reflection, start to recognize where power and privilege exist in the fitness industry, where you hold power and privilege, and how that influences the decisions you make and viewpoints you possess. Spend time thinking through ways in which your work in this industry can be more inclusive. Ask yourself who you are serving and who you aren’t serving.

For example: I, Kellie Walters, am a mixed-race, white-passing woman. I am cisgender, able-bodied and educated. I grew up in a middle-class family, which afforded me the ability to advance my education, and I possess many of the features aligned with ideal beauty standards. I am also an advocate for inclusive fitness.

I am continuing to learn and unlearn what it truly means to be inclusive in this industry. As an assistant professor, I research the prevalence and influence of weight bias in the fitness industry. I understand that it is with this privilege and perspective that I write this article.

2. Solicit Feedback

Reach out to the individuals you work for and work with. When you ask them for feedback, most importantly, pay them for their time. If you’re surveying your clients, patrons and employees and not paying them, you’re likely only getting one type of respondent. Paying people demonstrates that you value their experience and their time. If this is truly a value of yours and you want to improve the experiences you provide others by being more inclusive, consider this an investment.

3. Expand Your World View

As mentioned in this article, there are many negatives to engaging on social media, but one of the positives is expanding our network of individuals. Do you find yourself surrounded by people who look just like you? You can use the internet to engage with, create and foster new relationships with individuals of all backgrounds. Start by curating a social media feed that aligns with your inclusion values.

Who is doing this work in the fitness space? Follow them. Love on them. Pay them.

For example: Here are a few of my favorite fitness professionals doing really incredible work to challenge the status quo and create inclusive spaces in our industry:

  • Disabled Girls Who Lift (DGWL) @disabledgirlswholift
  • Fitness 4 All Bodies @fitness4allbodies
  • Tasha Edwards @hiphealthychick
  • Kanoa Greene @kanoagreene
  • Jennifer Hutton (Dr. Jpop) @dr.jpop
  • Chrissy King @iamchrissyking
  • Ilya Parker @decolonizing_fitness
  • Katrina Liew Pilkington @fittykat_

4. Think Through Your Actions

Are you making changes aligned with your values? Do you plan on continuing with these changes when doing so is less trendy? Being more inclusive toward individuals in larger bodies is a wonderful thing, but only when done in an authentic manner. Avoid performative changes (e.g., using images of larger-bodied individuals in your marketing but only hiring thin employees), and aim for changes that truly make a difference in the lives of your clients, employees, co-workers, etc.

When making any decision for your fitness career, try to also think through how that decision is inclusive toward individuals of varying body sizes (e.g., “What cues can I include to be more welcoming to all body sizes?”).

5. Continue Your Education

Recently, organizations in our field have begun to offer continuing education content to help fitness professionals become more inclusive in their practice. Consider signing up for one of these courses, such as Taking Action With ACE: Practicing Equity, Diversity and Inclusion as an Exercise Professional, and/or look for online or in-person workshops on this topic. Also expand the content you consume to include more
information in this area.

 For example:

  • Articles on ideafit.com: Chrissy King’s “Creating Inclusivity in Fitness Spaces” and Katrina Pilkington’s “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in Fitness: What’s Your Strategy?”
  • Book: Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia by Dr. Sabrina Strings (NYU Press 2019).

Notes From the Author

Reading this article may stir up emotions and thoughts that are unexpected. There may even be times you feel defensive. Keep in mind that the things discussed here are not directly aimed at you; although, if you’re feeling a particular way about something, I suggest pausing and “sitting” with your thoughts for a while. There is likely a reason you’re feeling this way, and I commend you for leaning in, listening and learning. Most importantly, remember that you are an ever-evolving human. Just as we remind clients to keep the focus on their goals (not their shortcomings), we can be confident we will do better, day by day.

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Kellie Walters, PhD

Kellie Walters, PhD, is an assistant professor at California State University, Long Beach where she studies the psychosocial aspects of physical activity. Most recently, she has focused her research efforts on body image concerns within the fitness industry. Kellie is the co-founder of two organizations: Smart Fit Girls™, a non-profit program that promotes adolescent girls’ physical and emotional health and Smart Fit Womxn™, a wellness coaching company geared toward helping adult women become the best version of themselves.

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November-December 2020 IDEA Fitness Journal

Concerned about your place in the new fitness industry? We have 40 years of experience supporting pros just like you! Let’s create a new wellness paradigm together—IDEAfit+ is the extra edge you need. Once you team up with IDEA, be sure to take full advantage of all the benefits of membership.

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