Being fat—an indication of personal failure?
The stigma against being fat is entrenched in social norms and mass media. The belief that fat people are lazier than thin people is widespread and increasing over time. Overweight people are discriminated against in social settings (I’m talking more than considered less desirable as a date). Fat people—particularly women-- face lower pay and hiring discrimination—and being fat is not a protected class. They face medical bias as well—a survey of primary care doctors found that over 50% viewed obese patients as “awkward, unattractive, ugly, and noncompliant;” they also see them as lazy. Differential treatment due to weight happens to all ranges of overweight, and is not restricted to the morbidly obese.
Here’s a fact you didn’t want to know: an fMRI neuroimaging study found that we feel less empathy and sympathy for obese people in pain.
Shaming fat people and calling them “weak-willed” is not the answer. Here are some of the common misconceptions used to justify fat shaming.
Fair warning. This is a very, very inflammatory topic that seems to stir up strong feelings in virtually everybody.
Misconception 1: “If we don’t condemn and shame unhealthiness, we’re tacitly condoning poor behavior. Therefore, we have to call out the poor behavior of the overweight.”
I often hear the justification that lack of self-control is indeed a matter of integrity. The argument goes like this: overweight people can’t control themselves like the rest of us, they are burdening the healthcare system, and it is our societal right, nay, our duty, to knock them out of their self-delusion and remind them how undisciplined they are.
By that logic, we should be shaming other types of unhealthiness with the same passion. Smoking is an undisputed disaster for your health, but is not associated with laziness. Sitting for eight hours a day reduces life expectancy as much as smoking or obesity, but there’s a marked lack of public outcry at marathons of The Office. Being underweight gives you nearly twice the risk of death that obesity does, but when was the last time you heard a skinny person called “so unhealthy” and “too lazy to eat?”
Never. The answer is never.
Consider how we use the language of ethics to describe eating behavior—another phenomenon unique to this subject. If you went on a crime spree, you could say, “I’ve been really bad lately.” If you ate cookies after lunch every day this week, you could say the same thing.
More on weight and willpower later.
Misconception 2: “Being fat means you’re privileged enough to have plenty of food around.”
“The fat acceptance movement is a social movement seeking to change anti-fat bias in social attitudes by raising awareness among the general public about the obstacles faced by fat people.” (Wikipedia)
In the 300,000-member online community, reddit’s r/fatlogic, the subreddit's second most popular post of all time states: "Fat Acceptance is a first world problem that insults third world suffering." The author, who claims to have grown up surrounded by starving children in Africa, accuses the FA movement of “justifying gluttony” in the face of said starving children.
Here’s the third top post of all time.
Discrimination is not “social inconvenience.” That is poor sociology. Social problems are not invalid just because someone has it worse in some other part of the globe—this fallacious argument has been torn apart at great length by the philosophy of ethics community. The “not-as-bad” fallacy invalidates anyone’s right to complain about a problem that has been worse for someone else, at any point in history, on any part of the globe.
Setting aside the objectionable rhetoric, the core argument—that being fat is a privilege and a luxury—is not true. In the United States, people in the poorest counties are 2.5 times more likely to be fat than those in the wealthiest; it is the thin who have the wealth and privilege. This obesity-poverty paradox holds true in the poorest nations as well--obesity tends to be a problem of poverty.
We think of people in poor, developing nations as rail-thin, but they too are dealing with growing obesity problems that disproportionately affect the less affluent. Even more surprisingly, in some of the poorest places on Earth, the overweight and underweight live side-by-side, even in the same house. Yes, people in poverty are more likely to be fat and more likely to be underweight. Modern understanding is starting to see both conditions as symptoms of malnourishment – that is, poor food options.
Misconception 3: “Fat shaming helps fat people get healthy. We have to give them a reality check for their own sake.”
Evidence: Fat-shaming doesn’t help fat people lose weight or improve markers of health. In fact, it paradoxically does the opposite.
Consider this pertinent research.
An overweight individual feeling weight-related shame is more likely to experience binge eating behavior, loss of control while eating and difficulty losing weight.
Exposure to weight-stigmatizing messages led overweight women to consume more calories and feel less in control of their eating. “Social messages targeted at combating obesity may have paradoxical and undesired effects” if they stigmatize weight, concluded the researchers. (source)
Overweight individuals are more likely to be sedentary if they are exposed to weight-based discrimination. Research suggests that overweight people may want avoid being laughed at while exercising, or they may be internalizing the negative messages and concluding that their case is hopeless.
“Weight stigma is likely to drive weight gain and poor health and thus should be eradicated,” concluded researchers writing in the BioMed Central Medicine Journal.
Additionally, weight stigma takes a toll on the overweight/obese in other ways. A metastudy concluded that weight stigma is associated with not only obesity, but also diabetes, cortisol level, oxidative stress level, C‐reactive protein level, eating disturbances, depression, anxiety, body image dissatisfaction and poorer self-esteem.
"Isn’t fat acceptance keeping people from weight loss efforts?"
Fat acceptance as a term refers to fighting stigma and guiding people away from hating their bodies. However, organizations associated with FA, such as Health At Any Size, are a different story altogether. Although body acceptance is central to their mission statement, they make a variety of other claims not accepted in the scientific community. I’m not going to address those here.
Reframing how we talk about obesity.
Addressing dysfunctional eating behavior requires modification of attitudes, as does any behavioral change. If you’re interested in public health, censure the gleeful cyberbullying of the fatlogic community. Stand up when someone feels the right to call someone lazy just because they’re fat, or comment on the sexual attractiveness of their body. Don’t say that you’ve “been good” on your diet.
1. Keep in mind that the worst stigmatizing occurs in close relationships
Public examples are easiest to cite, but the most damaging weight stigmatization comes the people closest to us. Receiving weight-related criticisms damages personal relationships.
2. Stop repeating the message that weight loss is simply a matter of self-control, or that having excess weight indicates personal failings
You may endorse the idea that weight management is a cut-and-dry matter of willpower--“just eat less and move more.” This reductionist message is, in fact, detrimental to weight loss efforts—there are better models of behavioral change.
The prevailing belief is that obesity a matter of lacking personal responsibility. Individuality, autonomy, and self-responsibility are core American values, and their pervasiveness makes this argument an easy one. Unfortunately, this message plays a key role in perpetuating and justifying weight stigmatization as an acceptable social response, leading to the overweight internalizing the stigma.
Internalized shame of overweight individuals reduces their belief in their ability to change their situation. This has to due with the perceived locus of control. A person with an external locus of control believes that their life is determined by outside factors. In contrast, an internal locus of control is defined as a high sense of self-efficacy--the belief that we have control over our own lives. It is the foundation of resilience to stressful situations and moving beyond setbacks. And it is an important factor in weight loss success.
If you take away one thing from this article, make it this: fat shaming actually undermines most people's internal belief that they have the power to change their weight, giving them a sense of hopelessness. Additionally, shame induces psychological and physiological distress, undermines self-regulation, and motivates people to engage in the same unhealthy coping patterns that got them to where they are now.
If the willpower model worked for you, recognize that you are not the norm
I call this the “I used to be a fat fuck” phenomenon. Overweight people discriminate against themselves as much as non-overweight people do.
3. Acknowledge the complex cognitive, emotional and even spiritual aspects of the process of behavior change
Self-acceptance is associated with success in weight loss programs. Body acceptance is not an insult to anyone, it’s not a justification of unhealthy behavior, and it’s not the enemy of getting healthy. In fact, when fat people challenge their self-stigmatizing beliefs they are more likely to reach a healthy weight.
The power to change
Changing eating patterns, like any behavioral change, requires planning, taking small steps, addressing the beliefs standing in the way of growth and motivation, and learning about the topic. For most people, success comes with small steps, not a dramatic overhaul. It requires problem-solving and motivation that comes from the inside. These are all learnable skills that will develop your sense of self-efficacy and ability to control your health.
Professional guidance can be very helpful in this matter. We at Ripped Rose got into the business because we want to help people regain health. We can complement (but not replace) medical advice from a doctor or registered dietician. We have training from the National Academy of Sports Medicine in effective goal setting, identifying barriers to change, and nutrition counseling.
4. If you have anti-fat bias, watch for it, and reign yourself in.
Don't think you're biased? Still worth taking Harvard's weight Implicit Association test.
If not fat shaming, then what?
As a society, we focus our anti-obesity efforts away from shaming and towards the development of a world that promotes health.
“Obesity prevention efforts need to expand beyond educational campaigns focused on individual behaviors toward larger-scale, coordinated policies that initiate social changes to help reverse the societal and environmental conditions that create obesity in the first place.”
- Puhl, Rebecca M, and Chelsea A Heuer. “Obesity stigma: important considerations for public health.” (link)
We live in obesogenic environment that makes it harder to engage in healthy behavior. Our urban environments discourage walking. We are bombarded with advertisements for the worst foods, and adolescents and children are particularly targeted. This is a huge and fascinating topic beyond the scope of this article, but I highly recommend reading the policy recommendations of the peer-reviewed article quoted above.
Post Script: A note on weight bias, eating disorders, and gender
“Dieting was like praying. It was a plaintive cry to whoever was listening: I know I am fat. I know I am ugly. I know I am undisciplined, but see how hard I try. See how violently I restrict myself, deprive myself, punish myself. Surely there must be a reward for those who know how horrible they are…each time I failed at a diet, I proved to myself that my deepest fear was true: I was pathetic and doomed and I didn’t deserve to live.”
Geneen Roth, Women Food and God: An Unexpected Path to Almost Everything
The fat shaming that women experience at 13 pounds overweight is equivalent to the fat shaming men experience at 68 pounds overweight.
Based on average height of adult American men and women - link
I would be remiss not to briefly touch on the gendered aspect of being fat, fat shaming, and internalized fat shame. In the US, for every three obese men, there are five obese women. The Fat Acceptance movement is primarily female. And men have stronger weight bias.
Eating disorders represent the deepest possible internalization of weight stigma. The consequences are extreme self-blame, self-disgust, self-hatred, guilt, social isolation, depression, anxiety, and increased risk of mortality. Women are nine times more likely to have eating disorders, particularly those of food restriction such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa.
Since I just wrote an article on how blaming others isn’t helpful, I’ll try not to get too heavy-handed. However, I’ll take a moment to specifically address men because of their stronger weight bias.
Weight bias in straight men affects their relationship with their significant other. Married men who show greater weight bias and voice weight-related criticisms of the wives are more likely to have relationships that are sexually and emotionally unsatisfying to both of them. Husbands’ weight bias and criticism reduce their perceived mate value—meaning that their wives perceive them as less desirable overall.
It is important to note that women in Western societies are more likely than men to internalize problems, including weight, probably due to the coping mechanisms that society deems acceptable for girls as compared to boys. In sum, overweight women are more likely to already be internally blaming themselves for their weight and shame isn't going to help.