Understanding the systemic influence of weight bias

Alexa Ferdinands says youth can become an active and empowered voice against this side-effect of obesity.

Lisa Szabo - 26 November 2018

Obesity rates among children and youth have nearly tripled in the past thirty years, and there's more than physical health at stake. Weight bias is an all too common side-effect of obesity, and one PhD student is looking into the physical, mental, and social consequences it can provoke.

Referring to the tendency to make unfair judgements about someone based on their weight, weight bias can manifest through teasing, bullying, and social exclusion, and can have lifelong impacts for those on the receiving end. That's why Alexa Ferdinands is using her Women and Children's Health Research Institute Graduate Studentship to research how weight bias occurs in the lives of children and youth.

Ferdinands first became interested in obesity working as a registered dietitian. When counselling clients at the clinic, she notes food was not always the main topic of conversation. Instead, Ferdinands and her clients talked about experiences, many of which went back to bullying from decades ago. "They still remembered those experiences so vividly," she says.

Emotional and mental distress are just some of the negative effects of weight bias. The consequences also include health problems like high blood pressure, increased cortisol levels and weight gain as a result of unhealthy coping mechanisms like binge-eating.

Supervised by WCHRI member Professor Kim Raine, Ferdinands is going to spend the next year talking to youth about their experiences with weight bias, going as far back as early childhood. By doing so, she hopes to map out how weight bias occurs, and explore how it can be addressed systemically-which she believes is largely where the solution lies.

"Weight bias isn't going to be eliminated through one-on-one education in itself; it's got to be at a more systemic level," she says. By studying media, educational curricula and other texts, she hopes to understand how weight bias is entrenched in our society, and use it as a starting point for change.

According to Ferdinands, there has been little research done in the area of weight bias that honours the experiences and perspectives of youth. She hopes to work closely with Obesity Canada, and start a youth engagement committee where youths can help raise awareness, and play a role in the creation of strategies to reduce weight bias. By giving youths a voice, they can become an active and empowered part of the next step.

Alexa Ferdinands is a Vanier Scholar whose research has also been funded by the Stollery Children's Hospital Foundation through the Women and Children's Health Research Institute.