What is fat shaming and what does it mean for weight loss? Fat shaming is the process of insulting, bullying or stigmatizing a person for their weight. This is nothing new in American culture where rhetoric, the entertainment industry and media have all insisted fat people are inferior.
Even well intentioned instances of fat shaming are considered socially acceptable because they are framed in a way that seems to express concern for someone’s health. Examples include discouraging someone from eating dessert or telling them they need to be more active. But fat shaming has been proven to be counterproductive. The language we use to talk about weight and the assumptions we make based on a person’s size can actually contribute to more weight gain and less self-care, like seeking medical attention.
Think you’re helping that overweight family member or friend with fat shaming commentary? Here’s what actually happens:
Fat shaming can spike stress hormones that can increase weight gain
- Numerous studies show weight stigma and discrimination can lead to elevated levels of cortisol, a stress hormone that’s been linked to overeating, binge eating and weight gain;
- Dieting alone is also considered inherently stressful and can lead to weight gain, not weight loss, because weight anxiety is linked to binge eating.
Fat Shaming stems from the insinuation that overweight people lack control, but losing weight isn’t as simple as having willpower
- Too many in our society hold the belief that weight loss is as simple as summoning willpower; that people who fail to lose weight just aren’t trying hard enough, that they are lazy;
- Weight loss-focused shows like The Biggest Loser, suggest getting thin is about working hard and really wanting it, but they don’t tell the full story. Several former contestants of The Biggest Loser struggled to maintain their weight loss, according to the New York Times. Contestants that lost the most weight had to actually eat less and exercise more to maintain their weight loss than their peers who had lost less weight; clear evidence that losing weight and maintaining it involves much more than just self-discipline;
- These forms of entertainment actually perpetuate the fat shaming myth: research has shown that people who are not trying to lose weight that watch weight loss reality TV are more likely to believe that weight can be controlled solely by self-discipline;
- Weight gain and obesity stem from a whole host of factors including genetics and environment, a report from Harvard Medical School noted. Roughly 400 genes, childhood habits and many features of modern life (e.g. inflated portion sizes, sedentary jobs, lack of sleep) can increase the likelihood someone is overweight or obese.
Even doctors are prejudiced, which can be harmful to their overweight patients
- Many medical professionals hold weight biases which can prevent provision of the best possible care; they too can buy into the fat shaming stereotype about lack of willpower and self control;
- Yoni Freedhoff, assistant professor at the University of Ottawa and founder of Ottawa’s Bariatric Medical Institute, has addressed professional biases toward the overweight population and how they can affect the type of treatment a provider recommends. Freedhoff also suggests patients who sense this bias from a health professional can be less likely to seek care if they have had a negative experience with a medical provider in the past;
- Dr. Michelle May, a medical physician and member of the advocacy group, Health at Every Size, shared, “This is about people receiving inadequate health care, and preventative advice, and counseling and support and treatment – because the focus is on weight instead of managing risk factors.”;
- While already facing health consequences, obese patients risk facing even more dangers if their doctors don’t support them or if they feel so discouraged that they stop seeking professional care;
- Health care providers shouldn’t think of obesity any differently than other medical conditions that carry degrees of risk.
In the end, it would be wise for all to understand that body size is not directly correlated with a person’s work ethic or worth. If there’s any laziness associated with fat shaming, it’s the laziness of failing to correct our own flawed beliefs about weight and health. Love, compassion and encouragement will do far more to help than the counter-productive effects of fat shaming.