Fat shaming: positive or problematic?
By Lucy Braude, Psychologist
If you are in a bigger body or have been at some stage in your life, you will know what fat shaming is. It is when an individual is criticised or humiliated because of their larger size. Fat shaming can come from parents, partners, colleagues or even medical professionals, strangers or the media. It can even come from ourselves.
Sometimes, fat shaming is well–intentioned. It is seen as means to motivate individuals to get healthy. There has therefore been much debate over whether fat-shaming could be a helpful antidote to obesity, rather than a problem. Our stance? We believe that fat shaming is, and always has been, an ineffective approach to obesity. Let’s check out three reasons for this:
It simply doesn’t work
Evidence from scientific research and our patients’ accounts demonstrate a link between being discriminated against for weight and weight gain, rather than weight loss. This is likely because when people feel humiliated or criticised by others it tends to elicit feelings of shame, embarrassment, and depression. These are challenging and intense experiences, which many people turn to food to cope with. Research also tells us that poorer body image predicts poor self-care (nutrition, exercise, alcohol use) behaviours. So, in essence, the worse we feel about ourselves, the less likely we are to want to take care of our bodies, and the more likely we are to turn to unhelpful behaviours to cope with feeling so awful.
It assumes that obesity is caused by the individual
If we humiliate or criticise someone about their weight, we are making an assumption that their behaviours are entirely responsible for causing and maintaining that weight. However, we know that this is an incorrect assumption.
The causes of obesity are complex and continually researched. We know that people are born with genetic variations in the levels of hormones which are responsible for hunger and fullness. This means people will experience hunger and fullness differently, even when eating the exact same diet. We also know that people are born with genetic variations which affect how they experience cravings, the impact of foods on the brain’s reward system, metabolism and body composition. There is even emerging evidence to suggest that the hormones in the womb during pregnancy can affect a babies weight as an adult.
Many environmental factors also affect weight which are beyond our control, including sleep, life stressors, medications, and hormonal problems. And this is barely scratching the surface!
It causes MORE problems
Not only is fat-shaming ineffective and unfair, research suggests that it actually causes further problems. Fat-shaming is linked with depressive symptoms, low self-esteem, poor motivation and low self-efficacy to change. People who have experienced discrimination because of their size are also more likely to turn to binge eating, alcohol use and substance use to cope. All of these concerns on top of the other physical health consequences of obesity come at a significant public health cost to all of us.
What to do instead?
We all know that obesity is a growing problem with several physical and psychological consequences. However, the answer to this is not to blame individuals, ourselves. The answer is also not to focus only on size, appearance or to make assumptions and criticisms. Instead, we want to focus on having a healthy lifestyle and helping others around us to do the same. We want to focus on factual information from research, and how we can use this to look after ourselves and others the best that we can.
Contact The BMI Clinic if you want to address weight problems focusing on health, using evidence-based strategies rather than criticism or humiliation.