Lizzo lawsuit: What is weight-shaming and what can you do about it? Advice from an eating and appearance expert

Lizzo performing on stage at BottleRock Napa Valley Music Festival
Lizzo performs at the BottleRock Napa Valley Music Festival on May 27, 2023, in Napa, Calif. Lizzo has been sued by three former dancers who accuse the Grammy winner of sexual harassment and allege the singer and her production company created a hostile work environment. Photo by Amy Harris/Invision/AP, File

The Grammy-winning singer Lizzo has made a name for herself as a champion of body positivity and inclusivity

But that image has been challenged by a recent lawsuit accusing her and her dance team captain of creating a hostile and “overtly sexual” work atmosphere and weight-shaming.

“The stunning nature of how Lizzo and her management team treated their performers seems to go against everything Lizzo stands for publicly, while privately she weight-shames her dancers and demeans them in ways that are not only illegal but absolutely demoralizing,” Ron Zambrano, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs, said in a statement.

Even the singer herself alluded to the surprising nature of the charges, saying the claims were “as unbelievable as they sound” in denying the allegations.

headshot of Rachel Rodgers
Rachel Rodgers associate professor, department of applied psychology. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

But what is weight-shaming? Moreover, what can we do about it? 

Rachel Rodgers is an associate professor of applied psychology and director of the Applied Psychology Program for Eating and Appearance Research (APPEAR) at Northeastern University. APPEAR studies the messages that society sends people about which appearances are socially valuable and the emphasis on using behaviors to change one’s appearance—studying how those messages can increase the risk for body-image concerns and risky body-image behaviors. It uses this information to develop interventions to buffer people from those messages and inform policies and practices that can change the appearance-focused environment.

Rodgers described weight-shaming as simply as it sounds—“making a person feel ashamed of their weight.” 

But the causes and mechanisms of this, or any, weight-based stigma are anything but simplistic.

“The reason that (weight-shaming) is possible, is that we live in what we call a ‘diet culture’ where being anything other than thin, really, is considered to be shameful,” Rodgers says. “And that it’s shameful because there is this underlying understanding that weight is controllable, which is not the case.”

Rodgers says there are several factors that play into weight-shaming. 

The media is a major factor—Rodgers notes that larger-bodied characters are seldom the heroes of shows.

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But even healthism, or “the contemporary concept that socializes people to believe that being healthy is a moral need, and that if you’re not performing healthy habits you’re a burden,” and capitalism, through the health care system and health care industry, have an impact.

Perhaps most important, however, is the idea of control. 

“It’s difficult to elicit shame about something unless you perceive that what they’re criticizing is something you have control over,” Rodgers notes.

Meanwhile, weight-based stigma has been found to have consequences for a person’s career, physical and mental health, and more.

In fact, a study has found that weight-shaming actually increases the risk of gaining or maintaining higher weight.

Another way to combat weight-based stigma is to change social norms.

“A lot of weight stigma occurs not at the individual level but societal level,” Rodgers notes. 

Changing social norms has given rise to the body-positivity movement, which Rodgers says resists appearance ideals and patriarchal possession of bodies. It grew out of the feminist movement and activism in the 1960s but “really took off” with the rise of social media.

“At that point, individuals were able to contribute images to media that were divergent from mainstream beauty ideals,” Rodgers says.

But even the body-positivity movement has endured criticism for being too much appearance-focused, and some similar movements have emerged. 

Body liberation is defined as “the freedom from social and political systems of oppression that designate certain bodies as more worthy, healthy, and desirable than others.” 

Meanwhile, Rodgers particularly likes the idea of body neutrality, which advocates for appearance really taking the background and not being a strong focus. 

“It’s a way of being in the world where you appreciate your body, take care of it, but it is really not the main thing you are worried about,” Rodgers says. 

But while these movements all increase awareness of the harmfulness of certain images, messages, and “advice” that assault you each day, and despite our better understanding and health and the role of genetics on our body, weight-shaming remains prevalent.

“It has been said that weight-based stigma is the last socially acceptable form of stigmatization,” Rodgers says. “It’s no longer acceptable to be shaming people for things, but for some reason weight clings on.”

Cyrus Moulton is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email him at Follow him on Twitter @MoultonCyrus.