- “It worked for smokers, it’ll work for fat people too!”
- “Back in my day we weren’t such sissies!”
- “Fat shaming is a made up phrase because you don’t want to be told about it!”
- “So even though fatties are draining my tax dollars, I have to be politically correct?!”
- “You’re killing yourself, you absolutely need to be shamed until you stop doing that!”
These are just some of the arguments that we hear in support of fat shaming – that is, belittling, humiliating and bullying fat people for their weight until they feel compelled to listen to their bullies and lose weight to save their health.
…. except that it doesn’t work like that at all. Not even slightly.
Contrary to the loud outcries of keyboard warriors, opinionated folks who once lost 10 kilos and are now nutrition gurus and formerly overweight people who’ve lost weight without fixing the psychological issues attached to their body image but now think that they’re experts in the human condition, fat shaming doesn’t work.
One more time, in caps:
FAT SHAMING DOESN’T WORK.
The “But fat shaming is a good idea!” argument is total bullshit for a variety of reasons, including but not limited to:
- Because justifying bullying of any kind is never acceptable and makes you kind of an asshole;
- Because the mental ramifications of bullying on both the victims and the perpetrators can last a lifetime;
- Because bullying someone to change their behaviour can make them actively rebel against changing that behaviour;
- Because when you care about the wellbeing of somebody or something and feel that they need to change their behaviours in order to continue to be alive, you approach that from a perspective of care and concern, rather than berating someone with death threats and taunts;
- Because suggesting “just eat less!” or “put down the damn donuts!” shows a complete ignorance of the factors that can contribute to a person being overweight, and a severe lack of understanding of the physiological differences that the human body can have from person to person that makes a one-size-fits-all approach to weight loss totally redundant; and
- Because SCIENCE. More on that below.
Before I get into the science behind the total lack of effectiveness behind fat shaming, I want to sidetrack and talk about bullying, in general.
Most of us have experienced bullying in our lifetime. Most of us had that one kid at school who hated out guts and made our lives hell (hey Courtney… I remember you!) but things these days have stepped up a notch in terms of where bullying can take place. It’s no longer reserved for the playground or on the school bus home… it’s in our phones, laptops, bedrooms, handbags and back pockets. All the time.
- 7 in 10 young people are victims of cyberbullying.
- 37% of them are experiencing cyberbullying on a highly frequent basis.
- 20% of young people are experiencing extreme cyberbullying on a daily basis.
- Cyberbullying found to have catastrophic effects upon the self-esteem and social lives of up to 70% of young people.
We’re all familiar with the idea that bullying, under any circumstances is never okay and that it’s cruel, damaging, unnecessary and often a projection of the bully’s own insecurities. As adults, we tell children not to engage in it; to ignore it and be the bigger person and walk away; to never pick on someone no matter how much you don’t like them.
And yet despite knowing this, we have countless otherwise perfectly reasonable seeming adults who find it fit to take to their keyboards and leave horrible, threatening and derogatory comments on the photos of overweight people on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, news articles and just about everywhere they can find.
They get swept up in the idea that bullying for perceived “social good” somehow justifies the act of the bullying itself. It’s concern trolling at it’s finest, and it’s completely illogical.
Bombing for peace is like screwing for virginity is like bullying for health.
And as much as bullies like to justify their cruelty with the “but it’s for their own good!” defence, we now know that those claims just don’t hold up under scientific evidence.
Let’s talk science, shall we?
Angelina Sutin and Antonio Terracciano of Florida State University College of Medicine tracked the weight of more than 6,000 Americans for four years (2006 to 2010) and noted whether the participants reported being treated unfairly because of their size. The men and women who were overweight in 2006 and said they’d experienced weight discrimination were more than twice as likely to have become obese by 2010, as compared to the overweight participants who hadn’t felt discriminated against.
“Regardless of whether fat shaming is a good or bad thing for weight management, we also now know that people who feel shamed and discriminated against because of their weight are far more likely to develop mental health conditions, including eating disorders and depression.”
— Dr Eric Robinson, a psychologist specialising in obesity at the University of Liverpool
Another study published in the Journal of Obesity found that those who reported having experienced discrimination, harassment, or threats as a result of their size were more likely to gain weight in the long run.
The results of the study on body image found that the difference between actual and desired body weight was a stronger predictor of mental and physical health BMI, raising the idea that some of the negative health effects of obesity are related to the way we see our bodies.
Note: Both studies above are observational (rather than experiment-based) and thus can’t prove that one thing definitively led to the other – however, they do contribute to a greater rhetoric of anti-bullying. What they do show is a distinct association, at the very least.
“Stigma and discrimination are really stressors, and, unfortunately, for many people, they’re chronic stressors. And we know that eating is a common reaction to stress and anxiety — that people often engage in more food consumption or more binge eating in response to stressors, so there is a logical connection here in terms of some of the maladaptive coping strategies to try to deal with the stress of being stigmatized.”
— Rebecca Puhl, deputy director for the University of Connecticut’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity (who has studied the psychological and physical impacts of weight stigma for the past 1.5 decades).
The link between stress and appetite control is widely documented (see here, here, here and here for a background), so it makes sense that bullying, which is known to trigger an increase of adrenaline and cortisol, can have lasting psychological damage that serves only to exacerbate physical conditions such as obesity.
Stress responses, long-term, weaken the immune system and carry a plethora of other serious side effects on the brain and body (including cardiovascular issues and mental illnesses such as depression – which we know also inhibits a patients will to engage in self-care exercises such as proper nutrition and exercise).
“There is no justification for discriminating against people because of their weight. Results show that weight discrimination does not encourage weight loss, and suggest that it may even exacerbate weight gain. Previous studies have found that people who experience discrimination report comfort eating. Stress responses to discrimination can increase appetite, particularly for unhealthy, energy-dense food. Weight discrimination has also been shown to make people feel less confident about taking part in physical activity, so they tend to avoid it.”
— Dr Sarah Jackson (UCL Epidemiology & Public Health)
At the bottom line of all of these studies is this: despite the human body having many common similarities that we all share, we are all also vastly different – psychologically and physically. This translates to the ideas that:
- Just because Bob next door was bullied about his weight, lost weight and turned out fine with no serious mental health implications doesn’t mean that someone else will be able to withstand the same pressures without adverse mental impacts; and
- Just because your mother eats 3000 calories per day and stays thin doesn’t mean that you will too if you do the same; and
- Just because Kate, who has high blood pressure and diabetes, weighs the same as Lorna doesn’t mean that Lorna too will have high blood pressure and diabetes; and
- Just because an individual loses a significant amount of weight to put them within a healthy weight range doesn’t mean that they’ve solved all of their physical and mental health issues that are hampering their wellbeing and mortality; and
- Just because an individual weighs a certain amount, the inner workings of their mind and body cannot be determined from face value alone – and shouldn’t be treated as such.
To further explain this, take a look at the video below on “Poodle Science” from the Association for Size Diversity and Health (ASDAH).Why fat shaming doesn't work (a.k.a why bullying is never okay) Click To Tweet
At the end of the day, even completely disregarding the science and what we’re continuing to learn about the irrefutable link between low self-esteem related weight gain and bullying… even taking it back to an issue of human compassion…
Whichever way you look at it, bullying is never okay.
Beware of those who claim to care for the health of others in one breath, then belittle them in the next breath.
We all deserve better care than that, and I think it’s time that everyone starts receiving compassion, support and encouragement to live healthy lives.
Approaching your body with compassion – whether you recognise a need to lose weight, gain weight or maintain your weight – is the key to a positive mind body relationship. Inside Out is your 140-page guide based on psychologically proven strategies to help you get there, and it’s just $15.00. Get it here.