- Experts say the term “summer body” implies that bodies need to look a certain way in order to enjoy summer.
- Weight stigma is associated with greater disordered eating, sleep disturbances, and alcohol use.
- Support groups and seeking professional help can help you heal your relationship with your body and food.
Like clockwork every summer, Jessica Wendall*, a product manager based in Maryland, braces herself. As the warmer months roll in, she starts seeing women online and close friends post about their ideal body on social media. The infamous phrase “summer body” permeates her conversations.
For Wendall, this concept of the “summer-ready” body, a form of weight stigma, takes a toll on her mental health.
What Is Weight Stigma?
Weight stigma is bias or discrimination based on weight. One study found that approximately 40 to 50% of adults in the U.S. who are overweight and obese internalize this weight bias in their daily life.
She isn’t the only one struggling. Experts say body image issues tend to climb during the summer. And this year, the pandemic is adding an additional layer of stress.
According to a recent survey, a majority of adults (61%) reported experiencing undesired weight changes since the start of the pandemic, with more than 2 in 5 (42%) saying they gained more weight than they intended.
Now, with another summer season in full swing, tips on how to lose that “pandemic weight” abound, only exacerbating the body image issues many are juggling.
The Mental Health Toll of a “Summer Body”
The phrase “summer body” implies that bodies need to look a certain way—favoring thinner bodies—in order to be able to enjoy summer, Ceara Calloway Cuthbertson, LISW-S, an eating disorder therapist based in Ohio, tells Verywell.
“We chase a goal weight or goal aesthetic with a false promise that when we reach it, then we will be able to enjoy time with our friends and family, which doesn’t actually happen,” Cuthbertson says.
According to Robin Hornstein, PhD, licensed psychologist and certified health and life coach, the term can set off perfectionistic tendencies, often leading to severe anxiety when a goal weight or goal body look is not achieved.
“It is an unrealistic determination of earning acceptance and the right to enjoy summer,” Hornstein tells Verywell.
To Wendall, the term summer body represents “very skinny, hourglass figure, tight abs, and no flab anywhere. Sport Illustrated images come directly to my mind.”
Wendall says that the term summer body detrimentally impacts her mental health. That pressure to weigh less, Wendall says, has made her depressed and anxious.
The data backs this up. People who have experienced weight stigma are roughly 2.5 times more likely to experience mood or anxiety disorders.
Research shows that this stigma also led to greater disordered eating, sleep disturbances, and alcohol use.
Wendall, like many others, turned to dieting. “While it never rose to a dangerous level or eating disorder, it definitely consumed an inordinate amount of my thoughts,” Wendall shares. “It can be depressing to know that you’re not measuring up to this impossible ideal.”
Weight Stigma in the Workplace
This weight stigma often extends even beyond the social and personal into professional spaces.
Currently, Wendall works in the gaming industry as a project manager. During the game development process, Wendall says that game characters were created with one ideal body type in mind: skinny.
“I worked on projects that had some really gross depictions of women,” Wendall says. “I see coworkers perpetuating that in new designs.”
When asked to give feedback, she says her opinion was not taken into consideration. “And if you gave them feedback, like ‘hey, could we have some more diversity in body shapes?'” she says. “That was never popular. It caused a lot of friction, no matter how nice I would try to present things.”
Wendall adds that weight stigma was weaved into the fabric of the company and industry’s culture. “I definitely felt that more conventionally attractive women who were skinny or blonde had an easier time navigating that space and gaining respect or authority,” she says.
Researchers have widely documented weight discrimination in the workplace. One study from 2015 found that 45% of employers were “less inclined to recruit a candidate they considered obese.” The study also found that “obese people are less likely to be regarded as able leaders.”
If a person is restricting their food intake, over-exercising, or hyper-fixating on their body, Cuthbertson says it may be time to reach out to a professional.
She suggests reaching out to healthcare providers to aid you in the healing process with food and the body.
In addition to seeking professional help, Wendall suggests finding a support group. “Having a supportive kind of network is critical, especially for anyone who struggles with any kind of mental health issues,” Wendall says.
What This Means For You
If you or someone you know is struggling with eating disorders or body image issues, you can reach out to the National Eating Disorder Association’s confidential helpline chat here. The NEDA helpline is open from Monday through Thursday from 9 am to 9 pm EST and on Friday from 9 am to 5 pm EST.
Changing the Narrative
The term “summer body” represents just one facet of weight stigma—that deems larger bodies as unworthy and undesirable. Cuthbertson says that to change the narrative requires a shift in how we engage with others about their weight.
Cuthbertson stresses that there should never be a time where someone comments on any person’s body.
“When you compliment weight loss or what you view as a summer body, you may be unknowingly complimenting depression or anxiety, physical illness, grief, or an eating disorder,” she says. “And you’re also further validating to others that being a certain size adds to that person’s value.”
In order to move away from a culture that values summer bodies, Hornstein suggests dropping the term altogether and shifting to a body positivity mindset instead.
“Body positivity is about appreciating our bodies and what they can do, how we enjoy dressing them, and how all bodies are good bodies,” Hornstein says.
*In order to respect their privacy, Jessica Wendall’s name has been changed.