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Women, Body Image, and Health



Constantly changing standards of the “ideal” body are prevalent in popular and social media. This affects people’s perceptions of their own bodies, but also how we see each other’s bodies. Weight bias may affect the experiences and treatments people receive at the doctor’s office.


Gendered Differences in Body Image


The expectations people have for how bodies should look can vary by gender. While fatness is viewed negatively across all bodies, women may feel additional societal pressure to be thin. Women tend to have lower body esteem than men, and they also feel negative about their bodies in more situations than men do (Brennan et al., 2010). Women were also more likely to feel body shame and be more aware of their bodies (Brennan et al., 2010). One reason for these discrepancies might be the different socio-cultural expectations for how women should look. Consistent with this, women tended to internalize these expectations more than men did (Brennan et al., 2010).


Weight and Healthcare Avoidance


With the existing pressures to look a certain way, negative feelings about their bodies might be exacerbated when women have their weight excessively scrutinized during healthcare appointments. It may be made worse still if healthcare providers are unaware of their weight biases when providing care.


The Weight Normative Approach is common in the Western healthcare system. It uses the Body Mass Index (BMI) to make assumptions about health and treatment plans; specifically, people with a BMI over 30 are encouraged to lose weight to address health concerns (Mensinger et al., 2018). However, the BMI is not necessarily an accurate or reliable predictor of health (Nuttall, 2015). Using weight to assume health contributes to weight stigma and body shame which are related to increased health stress, and women with higher BMIs are more likely to avoid healthcare than thinner women (Messinger et al., 2018).


Providing Better Care


The Weight Inclusive Approach to healthcare challenges the notion that weight is the best indicator of health (Messiger et al., 2018). It acknowledges the diversity of bodies and takes into account more factors, such as diet, exercise, and other lifestyle choices, that are more relevant to health (Messiger et al., 2018).


Being aware of weight biases both inside and outside of healthcare settings is crucial to supporting everyone in our communities and providing the best care possible. Everybody deserves to feel safe and cared for in healthcare settings.



References

Brennan, M. A., Lalonde, C. E., & Bain, J. L. (2010). Body image perceptions: Do gender differences exist? Psi Chi Journal of Psychological Research, 15(3), 130–138. https://doi.org/10.24839/1089-4136.jn15.3.130

Mensinger, J. L., Tylka, T. L., & Calamari, M. E. (2018). Mechanisms underlying weight status and healthcare avoidance in women: A study of weight stigma, body-related shame and guilt, and healthcare stress. Body Image, 25, 139–147. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bodyim.2018.03.001

Nuttall, F. Q. (2015). Body mass index. Nutrition Today, 50(3), 117–128. https://doi.org/10.1097/nt.0000000000000092


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