Weight stigma is so widespread that many people do not even recognize it when it occurs. For example, you may overhear a friend complain they "feel so fat," or find clothing in a store that claims to be "one size fits all," or recommend a weight loss program to a friend, or try to fit into small chairs with narrow armrests at the doctor's office. These seemingly trivial moments reflect fat microaggressions—daily and commonplace acts of discrimination against people in larger bodies that accumulate over time, cause real harm in the lives of fat people, and legitimize anti-fat attitudes in society.  

What Do Fat Microaggressions Look Like?

My colleagues and I conducted four studies to identify microaggressions that people encounter because of their weight. Through a series of online surveys, we asked a racially and gender diverse sample of almost 1000 people who identified as fat (reclaimed by fat activists, 'fat' is used as a neutral descriptor of bodies) about their everyday weight-related experiences.

The first type of microaggression against people who are fat that we identified, direct microaggressions, encompasses rude comments or dirty looks directly experienced by a fat person.  For example, someone might express surprise that they have a conventionally attractive partner, or stare at at them at the pool. These direct encounters may also be part of the built environment, such as small and inaccessible seating at restaurants or on public transportation.

A second type involves indirect microaggressions, where people see others being treated poorly because of their weight or encounter anti-fat messages in public settings. Indirect microaggressions are pervasive and unavoidable.  Television and movies frequently depict fat jokes, or portray fat characters as unintelligent, gross, or unattractive (see "Fat Monica" from Friends). News headlines warn about the dangers of "obesity," and thin friends may complain about how fat they feel. Participants in our studies experienced these indirect microaggressions most often.

A third type of fat microaggressions involves clothing exclusion, the immense difficulty in finding clothes that fit. Every day, people need to choose which clothing to put on their bodies, whether for work, formal events, or just daily life. Stores typically have far fewer options in larger sizes, and those they do have are less stylish and pricier. Clothing that claims "one size fits all," still only fits smaller bodies. Limited clothing choices for people with larger bodies are not merely an inconvenience; they stifle self-expression and reflect a form of exclusion, signaling that fat people do not deserve clothing that others can access freely.

The last type of microaggression involves unsolicited diet tips, weight loss advice, and prescriptions that fat people receive from their coworkers, family, friends, and even strangers. This "benevolent" weight stigma, although sometimes well-intentioned, reflects the widespread assumption that fat people should actively try to lose weight or at least want to lose weight, despite research showing that the majority of weight loss attempts are unsuccessful and sometimes make people sick. These comments can be intrusive or embarrassing, ignore the fact that most fat people have attempted to lose weight numerous times, and remind them that their bodies are viewed as unacceptable.

Are These Fat Microaggressions Harmful?

Microaggressions, even those that are well-intentioned or seem harmless to others, reinforce inequality through stereotyping, exclusion, and invalidation of fat people. The effects of microaggressions have been described as "death by a thousand cuts." Seemingly small indignities, when repeated over time, have cumulative negative health effects. Microaggressions create a hostile environment for fat people, creating constant stress and requiring vigilance in anticipation of the next attack on their bodies.

In our research, we found that experiencing fat microaggressions was connected to worse mental health, as reflected in higher levels of stress, anxiety, and depression, and lower self-esteem. Fat microaggressions were associated with trauma symptoms caused by discrimination, including feeling on edge or constantly on guard, fearing embarrassment, or feeling isolated from other people.

Fat microaggressions also predicted increased self-isolation and avoidance, such as not attending social events, avoiding eating in front of others, or skipping doctor's appointments or going to the gym. This avoidance can lead to the accumulation of additional negative health effects and reduce quality of life.

Recognizing and Eliminating Fat Microaggressions

Becoming aware of fat microaggressions and learning to recognize them is an important first step toward eliminating them. Understanding what fat microaggressions are and the harm they cause, may prompt people to think twice before engaging in fat talk, suggesting a diet to a coworker, or sharing fat jokes with friends and the public.

When one type of body is judged as wrong and oppressed, it puts every body at risk of devaluation. Challenging and changing anti-fat attitudes and practices in everyday life can help create a more inclusive and less harmful world for every body.

For Further Reading

Lindloff, M. R., Meadows, A., & Calogero, R. M. (2024). Living while fat: Development and validation of the Fat Microaggressions Scale. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspi0000450

Munro, L. (2017). Everyday indignities: Using the microaggressions framework to understand weight stigma. The Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics45(4), 502–509. https://doi.org/10.1177/1073110517750584

Megan Lindloff is an advanced PhD candidate in psychology at Western University. Her research is focused on social and appearance-related stigma, stigma management, well-being, and health.