Recently a viral You Tube video by an uncreative comedian brought some internet attention onto the concept of fat shaming. I won’t give the person’s name or details of the video, I’m sure most of you have an idea of the video I’m speaking about and I don’t want to encourage any more clicks to her website or contribute to any attention she is getting in the aftermath of this video. There is plenty to say about the myths about tough love and fat shaming without this poorly done video being attached to it.
There is a line of thought in mainstream culture that suggests that being “tough” on people who are overweight will lead to positive changes in their lifestyle (aka weight loss). Somehow society has taken on the responsibility of being truth-bomb-droppers for overweight and obese people, criticizing their body size under the guise of “helping”. This is exasperating to me on many levels and brings up a lot of discussion points (I could go on all day, but I’ll spare everyone the excess ranting and stick to my Top Three);
1) The idea that criticizing another person for their weight is somehow going to inspire them to lose weight is inaccurate and misguided. In the book “Health at Every Size”, Linda Bacon summarizes numerous research studies that show that people who are criticized for their weight tend to gain MORE weight and at a high risk for becoming obese. I’m not sure how the message got out there that people who are overweight are somehow unaware of their size and need this to be pointed out by another person. Who needs a “truth bomb” from a stranger on the internet when you are the one living in your body every day? If it doesn’t result in any positive lifestyle changes, then the point of this criticism is more beneficial to the person criticizing than the person receiving the so-called truth bomb. People who intend for this to be helpful call it “tough love”, but it is just plain old body shaming. The recipient tends to internalize all of the “tough” and none of the “love”.
2) In my professional experience as a therapist who specializes in the treatment of eating disorders, the presence of body shaming is a response to the collective fear we have of body acceptance. The idea that we can accept our bodies (Yes, even if we are not at our lowest, ideal weight. Stay with me.) is a tough pill for most people to swallow. Acceptance is not the same as giving up. Acceptance actually leads to more positive changes and is a powerful motivator. It is the thing that leads us to exercise for the good feeling it gives us, not as a punishment for “bad” eating. It leads to us choosing foods that make our bodies feel healthy and energized. There is a lot of fear that if a person fully accepts themselves, than they will become lazy and out of control. You know what sends people into a state of feeling and acting out of control? Anxiety. Shame. Trauma. All of these triggers are products of internalized criticism, not self-acceptance.
3) How do we know that weight loss is the secret to good health for others? How can we tell, just by looking at a person, that their weight is unhealthy? Only a doctor can make that conclusion about an individual. There is medical research (again, please consult the book, “Health at Every Size”) that states that people whose BMI lands in the “overweight” range actually live longer than people whose weight land in the “normal” range. Our bodies are designed to store fat as a survival mechanism, we don’t need to demonize this basic biological function, we need a more in-depth understanding of it. More medical information has been surfacing that shows that it’s healthy habits, not body size, that determines better health outcomes and longer lifespans. I encourage anyone interested in learning more to check out the the TED talk given by Sandra Aamodt, MD. There is a wealth of solid science out there that challenges this black and white idea that weight is a primary indicator of health. It is one fraction of a much more complex picture. We need to stop treating others like we have all the answers for them, just based on their body size.
I hope the conversation about fat shaming can move beyond the arena of who is offended, who is too sensitive, and who should or shouldn’t have opinions about being overweight. These are all part of the same smokescreen hiding the real issue; fat shaming is real, it is damaging and it isn’t inspiring anyone to make positive changes. Let’s do more to help people feel like they can trust themselves and make their own intuitive judgment calls about their health choices without being criticized. Let’s. Do. More.