A Weighty Matter: Promoting Size Diversity and Combating Weight Stigma in the Online Learning Context

Concurrent Session 2
Equity and Inclusion

Brief Abstract

As educators, we strive to create environments inclusive of racial, ethnic, ability and other differences. Accordingly, online educators should promote body diversity in their pedagogy. This session will equip you to avoid diet culture pitfalls, examine harmful stereotypes, and validate learners struggling with poor body image and disordered eating.


Desiree earned her B.A. in Communication and her M.Ed. in Instructional Technology from the University of South Florida. She joined USF in 2012 and the Digital Learning Team as a Learning Designer in 2019 after working several years in Human Resources. Her approach to instructional design is informed by her passion for student success and inclusivity, as well as a fascination with multimedia and technologies that connect learners and spur meaningful interaction. She is currently pursuing her Ed.D. in Education Program Management to develop a multidisciplinary approach to reimagine body pedagogy on campuses.

Extended Abstract

Implementation of Diversity Equity Inclusion and Belonging (DEIB) programs at higher ed institutions promote important conversations about what it means to be a welcoming place for “othered” individuals, such as advancing racial justice, rights for immigrants, LGBTQIA+ equality, access for disabled individuals, etc. Yet the conversation rarely, if ever, centers on those who live in bodies that reflect one of the most so-called dire epidemics of the past two decades: fat people (fat being a neutral descriptor). Fat people, like anyone else, may also align with various other marginalized identities, yet the unique challenges that come with their transgressive bodies are often ignored. 

People in larger bodies and those who struggle with disordered eating, regardless of their size, encounter barriers when accessing support in various non-academic spheres. Scant mental health resources, medical weight stigma, and dimmer employment prospects are just some pervasive barriers, but educational spaces provide similar obstacles.  As a learning designer serving diverse students at a metropolitan campus, I often apply Universal Design for Learning principles to collaborative work with faculty to build courses. One way I do this is by designing with accessibility and diversity in mind and offering recommendations to instructors to reflect more inclusivity, including perspectives of people who don’t fit (literally) within the mold and those who struggle with disordered eating or a poor body image. Expanding on more traditional views of inclusivity, I believe that evidence-based critiques of diet culture and obesity discourse, body diversity representation, eating disorder awareness, and size inclusion strategies should be more widely considered part of pedagogy.  

In this presentation, I will expose common myths about fatness and disordered eating with evidence. For instance, while the archetype of people with eating disorders is usually white, thin, and female, many people may not know that, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD) less than 6 percent of people diagnosed with eating disorders are considered medically underweight, and eating disorders effect people of all genders, sexual orientations, racial and ethnic backgrounds, etc.  Additionally, fatness is often perceived as indisputable evidence of low intelligence or lack of discipline, when in fact it is impossible to ascertain the nuance of one’s health by simply looking at them. While diet and exercise play a part in one’s body composition, other important factors such as genetics, chronic physical and mental illnesses, environmental settings, social determinants, and side effects of medications also contribute. Nevertheless, as educators it is our foremost goal to make our learning culture welcoming to all students, regardless of why they are considered atypical. Participants will gain a more nuanced understanding of people with eating disorders beyond the archetype, and bust myths that paper over the perspectives of the marginalized and contribute to harmful attitudes and behaviors.  

I will also discuss manifestations of diet culture (that is, social expectations prioritizing thinness above health) and how it shows up in educational contexts. Mass media are chock full of diet advice, weight loss influencers, and commentary on bodies. Social media platforms are battling pro-eating disorder content where users gather to share their “thinspo” images and tips on avoiding food. Meanwhile, people with eating disorders often have to take special care to avoid these as they exacerbate the tendency for restriction. People with eating disorders also often deal with mental health challenges such as depression, anxiety, or OCD. They may sign in to class and see materials that reflect diet culture triggers (such as portrayals of fat people in stereotypical presentations, analogies or interpersonal discussions that lack nuance or denote judgment, etc).  As educators concerned with inclusion, it is necessary to understand how to avoid those triggers in the instructional environment and provide resources to assist students who are struggling. I will shed light on those triggers and offer advice on auditing materials for fatphobia.

I also offer my unique perspective as an educator and student in a larger body, discuss educational barriers, and highlight ways to advocate for learners like myself in the capacity of a learning design collaborator. What should learning designers or instructors do when they encounter content that lacks inclusion or when they receive pushback from students when approaching topics around eating disorders or fatness? For example, I recently worked with a faculty member on an online course about Medical Sociology In a unit discussing nutrition, the instructor aimed to describe how much of what is written about diet and wellness is not substantiated by research, and he offered some practical advice to students so that they would avoid fads and junk science. In his advice, he intimated that being fat is automatically bad and that if you’re overweight, you must lose weight to be healthy, which is in accordance with what is understood and echoed by the medical community by and large even though dieting for weight loss is a largely unsuccessful endeavor - studies have found that about 80% of people who lose large amounts of weight will gain it back within 2 years, and some even gain back more than they lost.  I decided to address the language and adjust it to communicate a more inclusive tone so I broached the subject with the professor and related that, as someone who has experienced disordered eating, I recommended that he reword some of his content to remove triggers for people with eating disorders, people who fall outside of the Body Mass Index (BMI) ranges, and those who struggle with their body image. The instructor agreed to rewrite that section to remove the fatphobic language and emphasize that students should consult their doctors before adopting any medical advice as every person has different needs. Participants will learn how to broach these topics in the collaboration process and avoid contributing to harmful anti-fat biases.

I will also offer specific guidance on representing larger bodies in instructional materials beyond stereotypes. For instance, care should be taken to select images that depict people in larger bodies with their heads in the frame and facing the camera, rather than images of headless bodies taken from behind as if the photographer was standing a safe distance from a wild animal. Another approach could be to remove value judgments of different food types in nutrition courses. While it is absolutely true that some foods are more nutritious than others, people with restrictive eating disorders, whether or not they have received a diagnosis, can internalize messages of good and bad foods as prescriptive, so they may further cut out the “bad” foods from what is likely a limited list of foods they are comfortable eating. An eating disorder informed approach could de-emphasize calories as the primary indicator of a food’s healthfulness and assure students that all foods are safe to eat unless one has an allergy to them or the food is spoiled. They could also highlight how it is important to listen to their body’s hunger and fullness cues, and provide information about eating disorder screening. 

The conversations about size diversity, combating anti-fatness, eating disorder prevention, and body image are more relevant than ever given the spike in disordered eating behaviors due to COVID-19 so it is paramount to reexamine our content to remove fatphobic attitudes and inspire inclusive body positivity however we can. While stemming the tide of harmful diet culture as it permeates our society is a herculean undertaking that will require sustained effort on a global scale, as educators we can do our part to challenge the culture, model ways to include fat people in academic spaces, and point to sound evidence that defies the current culture in whatever we do.

Level of Participation:

Individuals who attend will be given a handout to record their personal reflections on the content (and with my research references on the back). There will be pauses throughout the presentation for attendees to “weigh in” with their personal experiences and questions if they feel comfortable sharing, so that others can benefit from their input. And at the conclusion there will be a final weigh in with attendees presenting their recommendations for application within their own spheres. 

Session Goals:

Individuals attending this session will be able to examine their own biases and buy-in to exclusionary attitudes and assumptions regarding weight and body size. They will be able to promote fact-based discourse around larger bodies in instructional spaces to afford more inclusion and dispel diet culture myths. Finally, they will be able to craft and curate instructional materials mindfully to indicate care for online learners in diverse bodies.