Healthism: The bias harming two-thirds of Australians


More than two-thirds (67 per cent) of Australians are classified as ‘overweight’, a mostly meaningless term based on the thoroughly debunked Body Mass Index, which is known to be arbitrary and inappropriate for determining individual health status.

Yet this statistic highlights that most ‘real’ people do not look like those we see in mainstream media, which are almost always thin, white people without disabilities. It seems obvious, but it directly contradicts the idea that thinness is not only desirable but also ‘normal’, and anyone with a larger body is somehow diverging from the laws of nature and health.

These ideas form the basis of body shaming those who don’t fit into our extremely narrow beauty ideals and harm the social, emotional, physical, and professional wellbeing of people who deserve more respect and dignity.

People of higher body weight face rampant discrimination in social, professional, and medical settings and are denied potentially lifesaving treatment for eating disorders due to the false belief that they must be underweight to be in serious danger.

The serious, legitimate health concerns of larger individuals are dismissed, and they are sometimes flat-out refused medical treatment until they lose weight. This discrimination reflects the dark side of the ‘personal responsibility’ philosophy of health and directly contributes to healthism, a bias that destroys lives but remains more socially accepted than other types of prejudice.

People who make ignorant and hurtful comments to or about someone’s weight or eating habits often insist it is simply an act of compassion and concern for their health. This excuse is embarrassingly flimsy, considering that it is seldom directed at thin people.

Our obsession with health as a proxy for attractiveness is nothing new. The term healthism was coined by Robert Crawford in 1980 in a paper published in the International Journal of Health Services.

He described it as “the preoccupation with personal health as a primary focus for the definition and achievement of wellbeing; a goal which is to be attained primarily through the modification of lifestyles”.

It may seem innocuous, but pinning all responsibility for one’s health on individual behaviours while ignoring the glaring systemic, socio-political, racial, and classist inequities that directly influence our health status is more sinister and dangerous than it seems.

What’s so bad about wanting people to be healthy?

Healthism is tricky and divisive because it is often well-intentioned but rooted in privilege, access, and moral judgement. We don’t all have the same ability (or desire) to access the time, resources, motivation, or support it takes to achieve optimal wellbeing.

Furthermore, reducing a human’s worth to their health status erases the experiences of people with disabilities and chronic illnesses and has concerning links to eugenics.

If the only lives worth living are healthy ones, what message are we sending those who live with chronic illnesses they have little control over? It’s perfectly fine to value and prioritise your own health, but we need to respect that others may value or interpret it differently and stop using it as a thin veil for our unconscious biases towards people who look or live differently than us.

We’ve seen this highlighted during the pandemic. When deaths were announced as a result of COVID-19, some breathed a sigh of relief upon hearing it was someone with ‘pre-existing conditions’. I understand that in scary times, it’s natural to seek any information as reassurance that you aren’t next. However, this mentality is inherently ableist and implies that it is somehow less devastating when fat people, sick people, or people with disabilities lose their lives.

Fat-shaming and perpetuating weight bias is unkind and ignorant, but it’s not actually dangerous, right? Wrong. Research presented at the Canadian Obesity Summit in 2019 found that body shaming is directly related to worse health outcomes and an increased likelihood of further weight gain.

Contrary to the problematic but widespread belief among diet culture enthusiasts and some medical professionals, telling fat people to eat better or exercise often has the opposite effect.

“The more people are exposed to weight bias and discrimination, the more likely they are to gain weight and become obese, even if they were thin to begin with,” the study found.

“They’re also more likely to die from any cause, regardless of their body mass index.”

If you think you’re doing a good deed by trying to instil ‘healthier’ habits into a loved one or acquaintance you think is heading down a dangerous path, think again and practice caution. You will probably hurt their feelings at best and severely damage their physical and socioemotional health at worst. There are a million things to talk to someone about or compliment them on, but their body should rarely be one of them.

Why we need to stop complimenting women on losing weight

Disentangling fatness, health, privilege

I’ve been on a multi-decade journey of unlearning my fatphobia and toxic diet culture mentality.

I grew up in the 90s idolising and gaping at images of waif-like supermodels with a mixture of awe and despair. Even now, I feel some lingering discomfort using the word fat.

I default to euphemisms like ‘larger bodies’ despite many self-identified fat activists online telling me not to dance around the word. Fat is just a descriptor, like tall or brunette. Only our deeply rooted feelings of fear and shame around fat bodies tell us it’s a dirty word.

I acknowledge the irony of my writing this as a thin, white, middle-class woman with little direct experience of the barriers and discrimination I’ve explored. I believe that it should primarily be fat content creators, educators, and activists from whom we learn these lessons. I also think it is my job as an ally, who desperately wants the next generation to grow up without the devastating impacts of my own thin-obsessed childhood, to speak up.

Unfortunately, it’s also true that some people will take my views about health and body image more seriously than those of someone who is visibly fat. People are quick to cruelly dismiss their pleas for basic human rights and dignity as ‘jealousy’ or ‘promoting’ obesity, which is a ridiculous statement in a world where five-year-old girls are going on their first diets.

Healthism does nothing to create healthier, more resilient individuals or communities. Discriminating against others based on their health status will not help them feel more confident and capable to take care of their wellbeing.

If anything, it only perpetuates the isolation, social withdrawal, and health-harming behaviours like soothing with alcohol, drugs, or food to deal with the barrage of concern-trolling and outrageous comments that plague the existence of fat people.

You don’t have to love how other people’s bodies look to understand that they deserve respect, dignity, and choice, just like you. There is no justification for monitoring how someone eats based on their size or shape. It is embarrassingly obvious when your concern for someone’s health is just a thinly veiled form of shame and discrimination.

If you can’t appreciate the beauty of someone’s soft curves the same way you can a taut six-pack, it might be a sign that you need to explore your biases. Until you can stop projecting your insecurities or anti-fat bias onto other people just trying to live their lives, learn when to say nothing. Unlearning these ideas is a difficult but empowering process that will make you happier and kinder.

No one should ever have to feel apologetic or embarrassed for taking up space in the world. Human rights and worth are, by definition, afforded to every human existing on this planet, regardless of their health status or appearance.

Helpful resources

Want to learn more about the harmful impacts of diet culture? Here are some great resources:


I Weigh – podcast by Jameela Jamil

The Maintenance Phase – podcast by Aubrey Gordon and Michael Hobbes


Your Body is Not an Apology – Sonya Renee Taylor

Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia – Sabrina Strings






Sabrina Strings Explains How ‘Fatphobia’ is Rooted in Racism

Emma Lennon

Emma Lennon

Emma Lennon is a passionate writer, editor and community development professional. With over ten years’ experience in the disability, health and advocacy sectors, Emma is dedicated to creating work that highlights important social issues.