Fat shaming is a form of public humiliation aimed at evoking a change in the name of “health”. It occurs every day to people of all ages, races, sizes, educational and socio-economic backgrounds. It happens at home, school, and work. At its most detrimental level, it’s precipitated by those whom we trust the most: our family members and health care providers. Often, these shameful thoughts and generalizations are internalized and eventually we become our own bullies.
The stigma associated with being overweight and obese often manifests into discrimination-which can be just as damaging as other forms of discrimination. The consequences bear devastating mental and physical health outcomes. In the past decade, the prevalence of weight discrimination in the United States has increased by 66% and is still climbing. This issue is something we can no longer avoid as a society.
The Impact of the Media
Fat shaming can be seen just about everywhere you look. Take for example a recent Scooby-Doo movie that “cursed” Daphne with being overweight, emphasizing to children that being overweight is something to be ashamed of…a “curse”.
The “fitspo” aka “fitness inspiration” community has no doubt reinforced this message. With mantras like “if you just run 5 miles a day or do this specific workout…you will look like this” [insert picture of extremely lean and toned, shirtless guy/girl in spandex],
the focus is often skewed toward appearance rather than health. What the fitspo community fails to mention is that the model in the picture doesn’t do that particular workout at all. Everyone’s body is different and will respond to a workout in its own unique way.
The idea that reaching and maintaining a healthy weight is a matter of trying hard enough is apparent in almost any infomercial and/or print media for an exercise routine, diet, or supplement. Advertisements emphasize the idea that weight loss and being healthy is a matter of calories in and out, using the right products, or engaging in the right exercise routine (which you too can partake in for the right price) and that people must be lazy if they are overweight. The diet and fitness industry capitalize off the belief that being overweight is a character flaw, evoking a demand for their product by those in need of gaining back lost virtue.
A 2008 study revealed the tendency of the media to selectively report on scientific article findings and to frame weight and health related news stories in a way that dramatizes the content and fosters individual blame. However, recent research has shown that this is not a good strategy to evoke positive public health change. For example, studies have shown that fat shaming actually has the potential to lead individuals already struggling with weight management to gain more weight in some cases, thus, the original intention of the shaming backfires. As it should- bullying, shaming and discrimination overall, have never been shown to be beneficial to anyone.
So much of what we see in the news and in product advertisements conveys that body weight is a direct indicator of health. Although we agree that weight is an important factor in assessing health, it’s much more complicated than that and additional factors must be considered for a complete picture. Recent research indicates thin people too, can be “fat”. This is a direct message to not judge a book by its cover. Research has more than established at this point that thin does not necessarily equal healthy, and overweight does not necessarily equal unhealthy. What we see on the surface is only a small representation of what going on below the surface.
Missing the Mark
Take for example, the 2012 Strong4Life ad campaign which is part of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Pediatric Hospital’s five-year, $25 million initiative designed to curb childhood obesity in Georgia. The campaign features pictures of seemingly overweight children with a “warning” that states “it’s hard to be a little girl if you’re not” and “fat prevention begins at home…And the buffet line”. Their newest video demonstrates how a fat child, enabled by “bad” parenting, is led to have a heart attack through a series of lifelong bad habits.
It’s hard to understand why people say and do the things they do in relation to overweight people. A concerned parent of an obese child may think they are helping their child by saying something like “a minute of the lips, forever on the hips”. But in reality, these types of comments are embarrassing and will not encourage the child to make healthier choices. Instead, a more likely outcome is they’ll learn to eat alone and in shame during their next meal.
By the same token, health care providers are often uncomfortable approaching the subject and may not realize that simply telling someone to eat less and exercise more will not always help. In a recent interview, Dr. Rebecca Puhl, Deputy Director for the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale, spoke about the issue of weight related bias in the health care system. “Women with obesity report that doctors are one of the most common sources of weight bias in their lives – 69% of women reported these experiences with doctors. Negative weight related attitudes and stereotypes toward patients with obesity have been documented among physicians, nurses, medical students, dietitians, psychologists, and even health professionals who specialize in obesity. Stereotypes include assumptions that patients with obesity are non-compliant with treatment, lazy, and lack willpower and motivation to improve their health.” said Puhl. This brings to light the complexity of the issue. Oftentimes health care providers may think they are helping a patient lose weight by “encouraging” them, but in all actuality, that’s not what happens. Simply put: you can’t shame people into being “healthier”.
People that are exposed to more weight based discrimination are more likely to experience shame, gain weight, stop seeking medical treatment, and avoid exercise. Depression, emotional eating, and low self-esteem also play a role. Research has shown that overweight people who reported discrimination based on weight were more than twice as likely to be obese four years later than people who didn't experience such discrimination. As research has more than established, making someone feel bad about themselves does not encourage healthy behavior change.
The Need for a Shift
It’s time for a shift in the conversation- from body size, numbers, and shaming to a positive focus on individual health behavior change. As a community, we need to encourage and enable everyone to make healthier lifestyle choices. Shame does not have a place in health promotion and is not an effective motivator of change.
Image Sources: Daphne; Glacier; Strong4life;