Anyone who is overweight has experienced it, that “well intentioned” snarky comment from a friend, family member, or random stranger who felt the need to inform you that your body is unacceptable. These comments often take the form of a discussion about what is healthy, as if health is the determining factor of worth and can only be measured by a person’s thinness. This form of discussion is merely a smokescreen, a justification for shaming a person based on health ideals held by another. Those who struggle with obesity can rejoice, however, because science has your back in the form of a recent study which confirms to the masses that fat shaming simply does not work to help anyone lose weight.
The study, published this year, concluded that individuals subjected to weight discrimination were up to three times more likely to remain obese. The psychological effects of being shamed and bullied based on weight tend to lead to maladaptive behaviors that contribute to obesity. The commonly embraced negative attitudes held by many members of society, including physicians, is proving to be counterproductive.
The irony of humiliating other people for the sake of their “health” is often lost to those perpetuating the negative attitudes surrounding America’s weight crisis. It has lead to the development of stigmas such as the perception that those who are overweight are slobs, lazy, or in someway incapable of being productive members of society. These stereotypes, communicated to the obese, inform how they view themselves. A person who feels shame about their body and the assumption that their size defines them as lazy are far less likely to seek out physical activities. The associated embarrassment would deter them from healthy lifestyle choices.
The concept that health is the focus of the stigmatized views on obesity leads to the perpetuation of stereotypes that quickly morphs into discrimination. Recently, a tweet was published by Geoffrey Miller, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of New Mexico, that said, “Dear obese PhD applicants: if you didn’t have the willpower to stop eating carbs, you won’t have the willpower to do a dissertation #truth.” Thankfully, there have been repercussions for his lack of judgement but the Council on Size and Weight Discrimination states that these attitudes are all too prevalent in our society.
Attitudes like these are increasingly being called out for their deceptive nature. Evidence is piling up as study after study on obesity demonstrates that the multi-billion dollar weight loss industry that hinges on fat shaming routinely hocks a weight loss plan that does not work. So much of the emphasis is on weight loss and getting fast results so diets or weight loss pills are endorsed to promote the quick loss of a few pounds. This approach is shortsighted, however as many restriction diets cause the body to assume it is starving. A body that is starving slows down its metabolism and stores all food as fat to protect itself from the perceived famine. Then, as the person gains back the weight they have lost, they are shamed for their failure.
It is assumed that the fault must lie in one of the many characteristics inappropriately associated with obesity and those supposed well intentions become an attack on a person’s worth that completely ignores how a human body is built to operate.
This attack is being transitioned to America’s youth as well, and somehow, this is not only socially acceptable but many approach the topic with a sense of entitlement. As adults, we are autonomous beings, capable of making and taking responsibility for our own choices. As children, we are still heavily dependent on our parents and the environment that surrounds us to shape our abilities to cope with the heavy burdens of autonomy.
In 2011, Georgia launched a “Stop Childhood Obsesity” campaign that featured posters of children looking ashamed with accompanying captions that said things like, “Big bones didn’t make me this way. Big meals did,” or, “It’s hard to be a little girl, if you’re not.” A state funded campaign put posters in front of children, using their own image to shame and humiliate them. The good intentions were completely lost to the self-hatred that was inspired.
This new study confirms more than just that fat shaming does not work, it confirms the need to question conventional wisdom, which is often seriously flawed. If commenting on a person’s weight is “for their own good” and that comment actually proves to be harmful, then new approaches need to be taken. It is alright to care about someone, but it is best to do so in a way that actually conveys that affection. Emotional harm has far reaching implications and is often ignored as the crucial factor in overall health that it is.
Written by: Vanessa Blanchard