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Mental health: Weight stigma has no place in Sports, Exercise and Health

  • 28 August 2020

This blog was kindly contributed by recent graduate Abbie Jessop, Chair of Wellbeing Network at Bristol Students’ Union (SU) 2017-18, who worked with student society Beat this Together to pass SU policy in June 2020.

On 8 June 2020, the Student Council at the University of Bristol Students’ Union passed the motion ‘Changing our language to embrace body positivity’. As active policy for the next three years, this motion commits multiple stakeholders – including the University’s Sports, Exercise and Health team, societies and fitness instructors running exercise focused events for students, and the Students’ Union – to undertake training around the harmful impact of weight stigma, diet culture and fatphobic language throughout student life and to develop a greater understanding of eating disorders.

The training will be developed by working with:

  • Beat this Together, the eating disorder awareness society at Bristol SU
  • BEAT, the UK’s largest charity for eating disorders
  • workED out, a Bristol-led campaign aiming to open up the conversation about eating disorders in the fitness industry

The aim is to create positive change in student activities at the University of Bristol in which movement is free from stigmatising attitudes for all bodies. Through these actions, sport and exercise will be less harmful for both those with eating disorders and those at risk of developing eating disorders as well as more inclusive and positive for all students and staff. We call for other UK universities to follow suit.

Defining the problem

An example of diet culture would be: ‘let’s burn some calories’.

An example of fatphobic language would be ‘let’s slim those waists’.

This rhetoric is common in the fitness industry but is harmful to both those with eating disorders and those at risk of developing eating disorders. It communicates the toxic ideals of diet culture, notably that thin equals health and exercise is only a compensatory activity to burn calories. Not only are these incorrect, but viewing our bodies according to such ideals that revolve around food and exercise perpetuates weight stigma which Janet Tomiyama – one of the leading weight-stigma researchers – articulated in 2014 as:

the social devaluation and denigration of people perceived to carry excess weight, which leads to prejudice, negative stereotyping, and discrimination toward those people.

Furthermore, weight stigma is associated with a plethora of damaging outcomes which include:

  • greater body dissatisfaction;
  • an increased risk of disordered eating;
  • increased risks of depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem;
  • lower rates of physical activity; and
  • greater eating in response to stigma in controlled trials.

Clearly, perpetuating such a culture is profoundly harmful to people’s wellbeing and tackling this language and misinformation at university should be a priority. Universities can start to tackle the issue by creating sports and exercise programmes that focus on making exercise and movement accessible and fun, and free of weight stigma, fatphobia and body-shaming.

Eating disorders in higher education

This motion is the first of its kind to be passed through a student democratic meeting at a UK university. The necessity for such a policy is evident when observing the results of the most comprehensive mental health survey at the University of Bristol within the Faculty of Health Sciences, which showed that almost 20 per cent of students thought they might have an eating disorder. These statistics are echoed in national research too: the report by The Royal College of Psychiatrists in 2011 Mental health of students in higher education found a ‘relatively high prevalence of eating disorders in student populations’. Furthermore, in 2013, a BBC report highlighted that 32 per cent of students with eating disorders were diagnosed after starting their course and that 52 per cent said their university was not doing enough to support those with eating disorders or to identify those at risk and intervene to help them.

Mental health has risen up the agenda in recent years, but mental health and physical health parity is yet to be achieved. And as eating disorder statistics continue to skyrocket, it is clear this is a neglected area; indeed, there is currently no response from universities to address this problem – even at those universities which pride themselves on their work around mental health. Universities and Students’ Unions should take responsibility for the way they label exercise and ensure they are promoting health and not a culture in which disordered attitudes around food and exercise thrive.  

How can and why should other universities follow suit?

Higher education institutions can start by recognising the importance of the ‘parity of esteem’ between physical and mental health. When free of stigmatising attitudes and content, exercise and fitness spaces can provide a safe and inclusive environment for all to participate. By training all service providers at the university and their students’ union on the harms of diet culture and fatphobic and weight stigmatising language, sports and exercise at the university will provide increasingly positive experiences for all. Disordered attitudes around exercise will cease to be promoted as part of an ideal for ‘health’ and instead students will be encouraged to be more in control of their own exercise routines and patterns within classes through listening to and respecting their own bodies.

If other UK universities follow Bristol’s example, higher education can be at the forefront of promoting a healthier culture around health and exercise, challenging the insidious beliefs of diet culture. This is a vital frontier for universities to further engage with as they continue their work around mental health.

Co-founders of WorkEDout, Carly (a fitness professional) and Leah (a former eating disorder sufferer) have already seen first-hand the empowering and life changing impact of fostering an inclusive and body positive environment within fitness. They said:

It is essential that motions such as this be introduced within all universities. Doing so has the potential not only to change lives, but also to save them; [we must] empower both students and staff to explore, understand and begin to eradicate diet culture and fatphobic language within these settings.

Peter Burrows, the Physical Activity and Health Development Officer at Bristol University Sports Exercise and Health, said that this motion is a:

fundamentally necessary opportunity to begin to address the culture and use of language in physical activity. As a progressive, research driven institution we owe it to both our own and the wider community to take steps to improve here and share best practice, setting a new precedent in this arena. This student-led, insight driven approach gives me confidence that we can start to change the current, harmful narrative in exercise messaging that negatively affects our student community.

Sports and Student Development Officer at Bristol SU Rushab Shah is also committed to implementing the motion:

‘Sports and exercise has a valuable role in improving student wellbeing. This year I’m looking forward to working with Beat This Together to challenge fatphobic language and help make our Sports, Exercise and Health programme more inclusive. Diet culture doesn’t have a place here in Bristol. Together we can ensure that the opportunities offered at the University support and enable students to foster positive and healthy relationships with exercise’.

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