How is Weight Stigma Awareness Week perceived at CMU?

This week, Sept. 28 through Oct. 2, marks the second annual Weight Stigma Awareness Week (WSAW). The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) hopes to challenge the assumptions associated with weight and create a more holistic approach to health.

NEDA defines weight stigma as “discrimination or stereotyping based on a person’s size.” Common examples include discrimination in the workforce, stereotypes about people with different body sizes, and differences in the quality of healthcare based on body size.

Weight stigma has appeared in the medical sphere in another way recently. Headlines have warned that a person may be at higher risk of COVID-19 complications should they have a higher weight. The UK is planning on requiring restaurants with more than 250 employees to disclose calorie counts to help combat obesity-related complications from COVID-19. However, despite these initiatives to lose weight, a recent study published in the JAMA Network failed to determine that weight alone does not affect mortality rates.

Weight has been a controversial indicator of health even before the current pandemic. Body mass index (BMI) is often used to categorize a person’s weight as underweight, healthy, overweight, or obese. However, BMI is an out of date metric, and was created by Lambert Adolphe Jacques Quetelet, a Belgian social scientist, in the early 19th century. He intended the indicator as a tool to efficiently calculate obesity rates so that the government could better allocate resources, not as a diagnostic tool. Although a correlation between weight and some health outcomes has been observed, such as Type 2 Diabetes, it is an oversimplified index that fails to capture a holistic view of overall health.

Students at Carnegie Mellon shared their personal experiences with weight stigma, both prior to coming to campus and on-campus, to The Tartan. A senior in Dietrich who wishes to remain anonymous shared that, “people at CMU seem to be less concerned with their own and others’ appearance,” a sentiment echoed by other students who participated in the survey. CIT senior Elizabeth Lister further expands on this observation, saying that fatphobia, or the fear of fatness, is “self-directed [by students] more than anything else.” A university like Carnegie Mellon can attract highly-driven, perfectionist individuals: individuals who are statistically more susceptible to eating disorders.

Students’ medical experiences at Carnegie Mellon vary more. Some students have had neutral experiences in medical settings. However, some students have reported that weight has had a negative impact on their experience seeking medical help, even affecting the likelihood that they would seek medical help in the future. Lister is one example. The mechanical engineering student told The Tartan that she was severely underweight during her adolescence. “You'd think that a 5'7" teenager who weighed less than 100 pounds would set off some alarm bells, but no, my weight was never flagged [in medical check-ups],” she recalled. Being in an area where a large proportion of people whose body mass index (BMI) fell in the obese category, her low weight was ignored or even praised. She summarized the unhealthy association that she learned between weight and health as “if you’re not fat, you’re fine.”

Carnegie Mellon University does offer students guidance on nutrition, though options are limited. University Health Services has one dietitian, Barb Benedict, but students may not be aware of such resources. Incoming freshmen are not introduced to nutrition services during Orientation Week similarly to how they are to Counseling and Psychological Services (CaPS) or the Office of Title IX. Both UHS and Benedict declined to speak with The Tartan for further information.

Weight is a health topic that captures media attention, especially when individuals with certain health conditions are more at risk of complications. However, drawing a causal relationship between weight and health has been suggested to be reductive. NEDA encourages people to share how weight stigma has impacted them during WSAW. On a federal level, NEDA is also pushing for The Eating Disorders Prevention in Schools Act of 2020 (H.R. 6703), which would shift the focus on health away from weight, and instead, on the importance of physical activity and nutrition. However, health does not have a one-size-fits-all shape, and emerging research is pointing towards a more refined approach to health.