In our society, it’s not uncommon for people to make jokes about someone‘s weight, or to point out someone‘s flaws in order to make themselves feel better. But in actuality, these are examples of fat shaming, a form of discrimination and bullying that has become increasingly common in our society—more than 40 percent of American adults say they’ve been stigmatized for their weight—and can have serious psychological and physical consequences.
Fat shaming can affect all types of relationships, including romantic ones. In intimate relationships, partners may be faced with a significant other’s negative attitude toward their body image. This can manifest as criticism, insults, or even withholding affection and lead to feelings of low self–esteem and insecurity, which can in turn lead to depression, anxiety, and eating disorders. Whether you realize it or not, fat shaming from a partner can creep into your self-talk, contributing to poor body image and even weight gain as noted in a study in the journal Obesity.
“Any type of behavior that involves mocking or criticizing someone to make them feel embarrassed, insecure, or inadequate due to their body weight is fat shaming,” says Elizabeth Fedrick, PhD, LPC, owner of Evolve Counseling & Behavioral Health Services in Phoenix, Arizona. “At its core, fat-shaming is about creating insecurity for another person because you dislike their appearance.”
Fat shaming from a partner is harmful, but is it abusive?
Whether this behavior happens once or repeatedly, in public or in private, “fat-shaming can be considered a form of emotional abuse particularly, when it involves verbal attacks, insults, ridicule, rejection, gaslighting, and other non-physical behaviors meant to control, isolate, or frighten your partner,” says Akua K. Boateng, PhD, a licensed psychotherapist based in Philadelphia.
Dr. Fedrick agrees, explaining that any type of behavior intended to cause hurt, shame, or emotional discomfort to another person is a form of emotional abuse. Fat-shaming by a partner is especially hurtful because we tend to think of our intimate relationships as a safe space. Another reason is that “we want our partners to find us attractive and worthy,” says Dr. Fedrick. When a partner uses mockery or demeaning language, we may question whether they truly love, value, or desire us, she adds.
What should you do if you’re being fat shamed in your relationship?
Since your partner may not be aware of how their behavior is affecting you, it can be helpful to share specific examples of what they’ve said or done and how you felt in these instances. Afterward, it’s crucial to set clear boundaries concerning what you’re comfortable discussing when it comes to your weight, says Dr. Fedrick, adding that “you must be willing to hold this boundary.”
Here’s what this can look like in practice:
The first time they make a hurtful remark, you can say, “I don’t like when you talk about my weight. Please stop bringing it up.”
The second time it happens, you’ll need to be firm by saying something like: “I have asked you not to talk about my weight. If it happens again, I am going to remove myself from our conversation.”
If it happens a third time, Dr. Fedrick suggests leaving the situation whether it’s in-person or on a text exchange until they stop bringing up your weight. “Unfortunately, this sometimes means removing ourselves from relationships with people who aren’t capable of being kind, considerate, or respectful of our boundaries,” she adds.
Dr. Boateng agrees, explaining that you may need to step away if your partner “can’t provide the respect, trust, and dignity you deserve” If leaving isn’t an option, she recommends talking to a mental health professional about strategies for keeping safe and for help with processing the impact of fat shaming on your mental health.
How to raise concerns about your partner’s weight without fat shaming them
If you’re truly concerned for your partner’s health and well-being, or believe that there are mental health concerns that are contributing to increased food intake and weight gain, this doesn’t always fall into the category of fat-shaming, according to Dr. Fedrick.
But before you broach the topic with your partner, first pause and do some inner reflection to ensure that your concerns are truly coming from a genuine place and are not the product of your own programming around weight and body size. It’s important to reflect on how you came to internalize these beliefs and make sure you’re not projecting your insecurities onto your partner.
If you decide to proceed, Dr. Fredrick says the key is to express concern for your partner in a gentle and sensitive manner, without making it about their weight or body shape. Instead, choose a time when they’re open to having a conversation, then you can bring up changes in their mood or behavior, like if they’re more irritable when they get home from work or they’re not wanting to go out as much as they used to.
Consider starting with a “disclaimer that this is a difficult topic, and you are not trying to hurt their feelings,” says Dr. Fedrick. Once you’ve shared your concerns, “it’s neither necessary nor helpful to continue bringing this up,” she adds, explaining that this can turn into fat shaming if you’re doing it repeatedly or nagging them about their eating habits.
There’s a good chance that your partner will feel hurt regardless of your intentions or how gentle or supportive your delivery is, so you’ll need to be prepared for negative reactions. This is because conversations about weight may be triggering for people who’ve experienced fat shaming, says Dr. Boateng. But there are a few things you can do to mitigate this such as avoiding making comparisons or offering unsolicited advice.
Foster a positive relationship by focusing on healthy behaviors and self-care, rather than criticizing yourself or your partner. On the flip side, speak up if you feel that your partner is making negative comments about your weight or body shape aka fat shaming you. Acknowledge the hurtful comments, and express how they make you feel. Set clear boundaries and seek support from friends and family or a mental health professional to help you cope with feelings of insecurity and low self–esteem.