Do you ever notice the following thoughts wandering through your mind? If so, how often does this happen?
- ‘I am not good enough’
- ‘Everyone else is better than me’
- ‘I don’t deserve to be liked for who I am’
- ‘I am not as good looking as my friends’
The above are example of self-deprecating thoughts. Such thoughts indicate a low self-esteem, which refers to the attitude and emotional evaluation of the self. Self-esteem is made up of feeling good about oneself (having high self-esteem) and thinking about negative attributes about oneself (having low self-esteem). Reasons to have a low self-esteem include bullying, mental health issues, emotional experiences, and physical appearance.
Obese individuals are more prone to having a low self-esteem and feelings of decreased self-worth compared to non-obese individuals. Obesity is defined as the abnormal or excessive fat accumulation and storage in the body which puts the individual’s health at risk. Hence, obese people likely experience negative consequences – both physically and psychologically. The reason for this is that they have negative thoughts about themselves wandering through their minds often. Non-obese individuals are naturally also at risk for low self-esteem, however obese individuals are confronted with additional critical situations that elicit feelings of insecurity about the self.
But Why is Obesity so Commonly Associated with Low Self-Esteem?
- Body dissatisfaction
- Decreased self-image
- Feelings of ostracization (feeling excluded) when comparing with others
- Less proud of oneself because of stigmatization and discrimination
Research on obesity reveals that there is, in fact, a link between obesity and low self-esteem. In childhood and adolescence, obesity is linked to low self-esteem and lower quality of life. The reason for this is that individuals in that age range experience major psychosocial consequences, such as social exclusion or marginalization, bullying, or weight-based discrimination. Such experiences make people feel worthless, or not good enough to be treated better. As a result, negative and self-deprecating thoughts easily manifest themselves and individuals face the risk of spiralling into negative thinking patterns. As a consequence of this, people who are obese are more likely to have low self-esteem.
Underlying Psychological Mechanisms
The underlying psychological mechanisms to low self-esteem in obese individuals are rooted in perceived stigmatization and victimization. Weight stigmatization refers to the discrimination toward others based on their weight or size and is built on the negative associations people hold with obesity. Victimization occurs when someone is singled out to be treated unjustly. Obese people might internalize the weight stigma others hold, which worsens negative thoughts about themselves. Weight bias internalization happens when obese individuals start believing the negative associations which other people link to obesity. For example, a person with obesity may share society’s biased attitude towards excess weight, and believe that they are, in fact, lazy, undisciplined and otherwise undesirable because of their weight. This form of self-criticism heightens the risk for obese people to have low self-esteem.
To counter the risk of low self-esteem, obese individuals can strengthen positive aspects of their self-esteem. One factor that is known to facilitate feelings of self-worth is social support, such as strong family cohesion and familiar support. The individual is hereby valued beyond their weight and appearance, and instead valued according to their capabilities, character and values. Another key protective factor is resilience, namely the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties. Since obese individuals cannot control how others see and treat them, it is in their power to work on their coping mechanisms. Building resilience can prevent weight bias internalization, and thereby lower the risk of low self-esteem.
Overall, obese individuals are, in fact, more at risk to develop a low self-esteem. This is especially relevant in obese children and adolescents, who undergo a critical developmental phase regarding their self-esteem. The emergence of low self-esteem in obese people stems from perceived weight stigmatization and the subsequent weight-bias internalization. To prevent feeling worthless because of obesity, individuals can draw on their social resources and resilience.
If you think that you can benefit from professional support on this issue you can reach out here.
Ronja Sina is an intern at Willingness. She graduated with her MSc in Work, Organizational and Personnel Psychology from the University of Groningen.
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Moradi, M., Mozaffari, H., Askari, M., & Azadbakht, L. (2020). Association between overweight/obesity with depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and body dissatisfaction in children and adolescents: a systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, 1-16, 1–16. https://doi.org/10.1080/10408398.2020.1823813