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Weight Stigma Study: Exploring weight discrimination in society & the gym

Under a third (28%) of plus-size and 1 in 5 (21%) of underweight gym goers have said they don’t feel comfortable or welcome going to their local gym, according to a nationwide survey.   

Unfortunately, weight discrimination within society and the fitness industry is something that is often normalised, leading those who don’t fit the ‘norm’ to internalise body insecurities. As a health and fitness education provider, we offer an inclusive personal training diploma, we want to educate PTs, fitness instructors and gym goers on weight stigma in the community.

This report looks at the experiences of weight shaming in society, the media, at the gym and in the wider fitness community. The report explores recent research and highlights statistics that show the worrying weight stigma associated with the British health and fitness scene.

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The results revealed:

  • Over half of plus-size people have felt ‘fat-shamed’ in society - family, friends and doctors surgeries are the worst contenders 
  • Nearly half of plus-size Brits say weight stigma has had a long-lasting effect on their mental health, with over 2 in 5 (41%) of these people having ‘binge eaten’ and 33% having ‘starved themselves’ after weight shaming 
  • Almost 1 in 5 (18%) plus-size gym-goers say they have been ‘laughed at’ in the gym, while 1 in 3 ‘underweight’ gym-goers say they have been ‘excessively stared at’ in the gym

3 in 5 Brits have been ‘weight-shamed’ at some point in their lives

This percentage increases to 85% for plus size people 

The study of over 2000 Brits revealed that 3 in 5 (58%) of people said they had felt weight-shamed at some point in their lives. At the same time, nearly 7 in 10 (67%) of Brits have said they would like to either lose or gain weight. 

According to the survey, a large majority of the British public have felt some form of weight discrimination in their lives - whatever their size.  Weight discrimination can be described as a negative attitude towards someone based on their weight status and isn’t limited to those who are plus-sized. The survey indicated weight discrimination can be felt by those across the weight spectrum. 

In the study, those who classed themselves as ‘obese’ had received the most weight-related judgements. Over four-fifths (85%) of these plus-size Brits revealed they had been weight shamed at some point and said they’d felt the most discriminated against by ‘general society’, by their own family and at the doctor’s surgery. 

Those who consider themselves ‘obese’ have felt weight-shamed in the following environments:

How common is weight-shaming in the gym? 

Over 4 in 5 (84%) of plus-size and ‘underweight’ gym goers have felt negatively judged at the gym 

At OriGym, we teach budding personal trainers the importance of creating an inclusive environment for all people, whatever their size or fitness level. But our study has found many feel intimidated when stepping foot in their local gym. 

This intimidation about working out was felt most strongly by gym-goers who classed themselves as ‘obese’ and those that class themselves as ‘underweight’. 

The survey revealed over 4 in 5 (84%) of the people in these weight brackets had experienced some form of weight judgement at the gym, while under a third (28%) of plus-size and less than a quarter (21%) of ‘underweight’ gym goers have said they don’t feel comfortable or welcome going to their local gym. 

Of those plus size Brits that don’t, or have never attended a gym, over 4 in 10 (41%) said they had never been to the gym because they were ‘worried about people judging their weight’, while a third (33%) said they were ‘worried about people judging their performance’. 

Gym-goers who class themselves as ‘obese’ say they had the following gym experiences:

I've experienced some kind of weight judgement at the gym

84%

Been made to feel uncomfortable

28%

Been excessively stared at

24%

Had someone laugh or make fun of you

18%

Had someone pass comment on your body

16%

Seen someone whisper to other gym members

16%

Been made to feel unwelcome by other customers

16%

Been made to feel unwelcome by gym staff

16%

Had comments on your performance in the gym

11%

Been told not to go on/use specific equipment

8%

Had someone record/take pictures of you

6%

In a shocking reveal, the survey found that almost 1 in 5 (18%) plus-size people have experienced being ‘laughed at or made fun of’ at the gym and over 1 in 6 felt equally unwelcome by gym staff and other customers. 

Gym-goers who class themselves as ‘underweight’  say they had the following gym experiences:

I've experienced some kind of weight judgement at the gym

84%

Been excessively stared at

31%

Been made to feel unwelcome by other customers

21%

Seen someone whisper to other gym members

17%

Had someone laugh or make fun of you

17%

Been told not to go on/use specific equipment

17%

Been made to feel uncomfortable

14%

Had someone pass comment on your body

14%

Had comments on your performance in the gym

14%

Been made to feel unwelcome by gym staff

10%

Had someone record/take pictures of you

7%

Those who classed themselves as ‘underweight’ admitted they’d had equally unpleasant experiences in a fitness environment as nearly a third (31%) admitted they had been ‘excessively stared at’.

Despite not knowing anyone’s level of strength and agility, over 1 in 6 (17%) of ‘underweight’ gym-goers said they had been warned off specific gym equipment too. 

In the survey’s open responses, some people said this kind of negative judgement made them ‘inspired to work out harder’ while others said they ‘took advice at face value’. 

Others had internalised the negative judgement they had received saying they felt ‘angry’ and ‘depressed.’

Un-Hinged: Dating apps are one of the worst places for weight-shaming judgements

The rise of swipe-based dating apps has enabled daters to prioritise looks when choosing a potential partner. Seeing a never-ending stream of faces and bodies has seemingly had a negative effect and emboldened users to become more critical. 

This is highlighted in the report, as over 1 in 6 plus-size users were on the receiving end of weight discrimination. This is compared to only  4% of ‘underweight’ and 3% of ‘slim’ people.

 

Can’t choose your family: 4 in 10 plus-size & quarter of ‘underweight’ Brits have been weight-shamed by relatives

The last place you expect to feel criticised is in your home, but that’s where a fifth of Brits felt body shamed. The survey revealed family members are some of the most common sources of weight stigma. 

This increases for those that don’t fit the ‘normal’ weight bracket, with 4 in 10 plus-size Brits having been at the receiving end of a scathing comment or weight-related judgement. A quarter of those who classed themselves as ‘underweight’ had also been critiqued for their body shape and frame. 

This weight discrimination inflicted by family members can be considered a form of emotional abuse that runs the risk of leaving long-lasting psychological scars. Awareness of your body shape can start as early as childhood and our opinions of others are often passed on from our parents or other family members. 

Women are more likely to be weight-shamed than their male relatives

Whether it’s the body-image pressures of a culture or earlier generations, family members are the cause of weight stigma for nearly a fifth of Brits. This figure increases among women as over 1 in 5 (22%) of women say they have felt weight-shamed by family, compared to only 14% of men.

In a 2012 study of familial links in weight stereotypes and predictors of stereotypes among girls and their parents, it found that female respondents carried memories of being weight-shamed by their mothers which led to issues of self-confidence. Other respondents felt that the cause of criticism was mothers’ projecting their own insecurities about societal expectations.

Nearly half of plus-size Brits who’d felt weight shamed said it had ‘lasting effect’ on mental health

With 41% having ‘binged eaten’ and 33% having ‘starved themselves’ after weight shaming 

Whether you’re receiving a compliment or criticism, any comment relating to your body or weight can have a long-lasting impact on your mental health. Even compliments about your frame or performance can be unwelcome in the gym, as revealed in our study about Gymtimidation

This unwarranted feedback has been particularly harmful for a quarter of Brits and half of those who consider themselves plus-size.

This impact on people’s mental health has also affected them physically. In the study, 4 in 10 plus-size Brits said weight stigma had led them to ‘binge eat’, while almost 3 in 10 said it had ‘put them off adopting healthy habits completely’. Even more shocking is that almost 1 in 5 plus-size Brits admitted they had developed some kind of eating disorder after experiencing this weight discrimination. 

Those who consider themselves ‘obese’ say weight-shaming has had the following effect:

Over a third of ‘slim’ men ‘modify their diet’ & want to ‘build muscle’ after weight discrimination

Although weight discrimination is usually equated to women or those with a bigger build, the survey highlights that weight stigma has a profound impact on slimmer men too. Our previous study looked at how the ‘picture perfect’ body image affects mental health and found over 40% of men want to build muscle & 1 in 10 would try steroids to bulk their frame. 

This also coincides with the responses received in this recent survey.  After experiencing some form of weight stigma, over a third of men who wore a UK clothing size of ‘small’ or under said they had modified their diet in order to change their build. A majority of these men said this weight prejudice made them ‘want to build muscle’ while nearly a quarter said they’d ‘binge eaten’ because of weight discrimination and admitted it had a long-lasting effect on their mental health.

You can pursue a high-paying fitness job and start helping people gain confidence exercising in a gym environment.

Men who wear a size S or under say weight-shaming has had the following effect:

‘Looks sell’ - PT reveals there is ‘pressure’ to look a certain way in the fitness industry

Julia Buckley, 45, is the best-selling author of The Fat Burn Revolution and a Level 4 online fitness trainer at Julia Buckley Fitness where people can join up and work out with her. 

She says there is often pressure to look a certain way as a PT but says some of her worst criticism has been from social media users. 

Julia, who this year has become more toned and muscular, says that she has seen an increase in positive comments since her recent shred. 

She said: “I get a lot more compliments on how I look on my social media posts now I'm leaner - I also get more people asking about my workouts.”

But she admits there have been negative comments both before and after, she said: “One person left a comment under one of my workout videos saying ‘why are your thighs wobbling when they should be toned?’

“There were a couple of others along the lines of ‘she doesn't look like a fitness trainer.’ Now I'm leaner, I sometimes get comments saying I'm ‘too thin’ or people saying they think I looked better before. As if I put all that effort into getting leaner and gaining more muscle just to be attractive to them personally, you've just got to laugh at that attitude!”

Although she admits there is pressure to look a certain way as a PT, much of her feedback in the fitness industry has been positive.

She said: “There's no doubt that ‘looks sell’ - you've only got to look at who the most popular trainers are on Instagram to see that. 

“[But] my feeling is that the fitness industry itself is actually more enlightened in knowing fitness is not just a ‘size’.”

The weight stigma stats have come as a surprise to Julia who has only witnessed positive support of people of all sizes. She does think that people have found more comfort in working out in the comfort of their own homes and thinks body confidence could be an element of why this has risen in popularity.  

“I offer home workouts and I do have many clients who prefer to work out at home because they feel less self-conscious than in a gym setting. 

“Often that's also about wanting to avoid performance comparisons and competition as anything to do with judgments on size, but for sure that is a factor for some. 

“I totally get it, I'm not a massive fan of working out in gyms either - I'd rather just do my own thing in my own space without eyes on me - as trainers we probably get judged more than anyone!”

The PT has offered advice for anyone looking to protect their confidence, self-esteem and mental health whilst working out in the gym. 

She says: “It can definitely help to start out with home workouts. That way you'll have more confidence in how to exercise as well as a base of fitness when you go into a gym. 

Working with a trainer will help too, but the main thing is to just focus on your own training. The vast majority of people in gyms are often more concerned with how they themselves look than how you do. Try not to look around comparing yourself to anyone else - just focus on yourself and your workout.”

#fatshaming has 393M views on TikTok

In good and bad ways, social media has fuelled communication. Unfortunately, as most internet trolls have the benefit of hiding behind an anonymous profile, name-calling, negative comments and prejudice has become commonplace. 

Anyone can be on the receiving end of a scathing comment, but our study reveals that those who identify as ‘obese’ have the worst time online. This is highlighted as a fifth of those who have experienced weight discrimination said they have been weight shamed on social media. 

https://www.tiktok.com/@evmariexo/video/7127093427048697130

https://www.tiktok.com/@teamrh.uk/video/7012974536694025478

https://www.tiktok.com/@_kirstyelizabethmoore_/video/6864980061280390405 

 

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Recent social media trends have also incited weight shaming online, especially on TikTok. From ‘fat face’ filters to unsolicited recordings of people working out, TikTok has become a hotbed for fatphobia to thrive. On the app, videos with the hashtag #fatshaming have been viewed nearly 400m times, as many users share their experience of being weight shamed, particularly at the gym.  

These unpleasant experiences have shunned people from going to the gym as one user, @mariateresa5132, comments on the ‘body shaming at the gym’ TikTok video saying “Well done, I’m fat and that’s why I don’t like going to the gym. You know what most people are thinking.”

Should filming in the gym be banned?

Recording your workouts helps you track your exercises, check your form and allows you to see your workout from a whole other perspective. The only downside to doing this in a public space, like a gym, is that you may be inconveniencing those around you.

As the OriGym survey has revealed that 3 in 50 gym-goers who don’t fit the ‘normal’ body type have experienced people recording them at the gym, this might be why video recording is generally shunned by people. Although some of these experiences may have been accidental with gym-goers recording themselves, the point still remains that people have been made to feel uncomfortable. So should recording at the gym be banned? This is what OriGym founder Luke Hughes has to say on the matter:

Other gyms have put a stop to recording completely, with some even banning the practice, while others like the Gym Group have put rules in place to deter unsolicited recording. 

Gym Group state that gym-goers are ‘ welcome to take photographs and video recordings on the gym floor for personal use only’ but if anyone appears in the recordings or photographs they ‘must ask their consent first’. They also state that they may ask you to show them any images you have taken in the gym and delete them if they have received a complaint from another member. If a team member asks you to stop filming or taking photographs, then you have to, or risk being ejected too.

How exercise can help weight management

Over 4 in 10 plus-size Brits avoid the gym because they’re worried about other people’s weight judgements. This is especially distressing, as the gym provides an array of equipment that can help with weight management. 

According to the NHS, 1 in 4 Brits are classed as overweight with a BMI of 25 or more, while YouGov has revealed that over a quarter of Brits don’t exercise at all during the week. 

This is worrying as exercise is a key component to add to your lifestyle when maintaining a healthy weight. It helps to increase the number of calories that you burn, decreases appetite, improves cardiovascular function, and promotes a sense of psychological well-being.

With a high number of plus-size Brits avoiding the gym because of weight worries, there needs to be further improvement to create an inclusive environment in gyms across the UK.  

What can gyms and PTs do to alleviate the body-shaming problem? 

At OriGym, we promote inclusivity within a fitness setting and this is what is taught in our personal training diploma. As personal trainers, we recognise both customers and gym staff can feel intimidated by the pressures of a fitness environment. As highlighted, this gym anxiety is mostly felt by those who don’t fit an athletic, average or slim body type. 

Gym staff and personal trainers have a responsibility to call out bad gym etiquette when they see it: call out any weight-shaming or prejudice when it happens, make a client feel comfortable - especially if they’re showing signs of anxiety and answer any unasked gym-etiquette questions from the beginning.

Methodology

We surveyed 2,029 Brits using Censuswide, to find out about their experiences of weight stigma in society and at the gym. The sample included women, men, transgender, non-binary and gender-fluid people (and an ‘other’ option to specify a different gender not listed). They ranged between 16 and 55+ from across the UK.

We also used Google Trends and TikTok hashtag data to show the popularity for trends and searches, when comparing Jan 2022 vs. Jan 2023.

Statistics:

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1038/oby.2004.12 

https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/obesity/ 

https://yougov.co.uk/topics/society/articles-reports/2020/01/20/quarter-brits-dont-do-single-half-hour-exercise-se 

Fair use statement 

If you want to share our study, any findings or images from the study, please credit with a link to this page.

Written by Luke Hughes

CEO and Co-Founder

Join Luke on Facebook at the OriGym Facebook Group

Luke is the CEO and Co-Founder of OriGym. Holding a first-class degree in Sport and Exercise and an MSc in Sport and Nutrition, he is also qualified as a Level 4 Personal Trainer with various specialist credentials covering the entire spectrum of health, fitness and business. Luke has contributed to a variety of major industry publications, including Men’s Health, Women’s Health, Daily Telegraph, The Guardian, Metro, Cosmopolitan, The Mirror, The Sun, The Standard and more.

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