“Don’t you know how many calories are in that?”
“Should you really be eating that?”
“But you have such a pretty face…”
“I’m just being honest for your own good. I’m concerned about your health!”
Despite what shows like The Biggest Loser and shrieking harpies like Meme Roth contend, shaming people – no matter how politely or well-intended you do it! – is not an effective weight loss tool. And yet books, talk shows, diet gurus and more magazine articles than I care to count advocate shaming your loved ones, friends, casual acquaintances and even perfect strangers into losing the extra poundage. These days it is even fashionable to shame yourself a la Oprah Winfrey’s I’m-200-pounds magazine cover confessional and Kristie Alley’s “coming out” about her unpardonable sin of backsliding on a diet and regaining the lost weight. It’s gotten so bad that one ethics professor, Daniel Callahan, published an editorial detailing his three-pronged approach to curing obesity – one of which was “increased social pressure on the overweight”, a tactic he likened to the campaign against smoking.
Fat shaming – whether we do it to others or ourselves – has one huge downfall: people are only temporarily motivated by negative consequences. Psychologists have long known that while punishment can bring about quick change, it isn’t often lasting change. And in the world of health and weight loss, lasting change is the only thing that matters. In fact, riding the weight roller coaster is actually worse for you than just staying heavy. If you want people to make a life-long change, positive reinforcement – most powerfully in the form of love – is the only thing that makes sense. How do I know this? Because science.
A new study published in PLoS one showed that people who felt they were being shamed about their weight not only didn’t lose weight but ended up gaining more weight than their similarly sized peers who didn’t feel shamed. The researchers looked at 6,157 Americans over four years and found that people who experienced discrimination due to their weight were 2.5 times more likely to be obese by the end of the study (or 3 times more likely to stay obese) than their non-shamed peers.
This reminded me of one of the worst PR pitches I’ve ever gotten. Now, in the realm of PR pitches which are already notorious for being bad, this one was bottom of the barrel. It read: “Thought this might be interesting for your blog! I was editor of the book.” Included was the link to the book which I am not going to name for reasons that will soon become apparent. Aside from the fact that if her e-mail writing skills are any indication of her editorial skills then there is little hope for the book, her pitch was impersonal and brief to the point of being non-informative. It is not my practice to slam PR people or the companies they represent as I believe negativity breeds only more negativity but just reading the sample chapters of this book made my blood boil like very few things do. It’s all about how to shame, guilt, cajole and otherwise harass yourself and others into losing weight. It’s about making it into a war between “us” and “them.”
The gist of the book is to define a multitude of ways that thin people think differently than fat people. This in and of itself is not a bad concept – other authors like Dr. Judith Beck have used this technique with much success and kindness – the problem is in the way this Book I Shall Not Give Any Publicity To By Naming It separates the thin from the fat. Here is the opening salvo in the “war” they declare on fat:
“Fat people have a difficult time accepting responsibility for their own behavior, so they blame their diet. That’s no different than a college graduate begging for money on the street and then blaming the school for his failure to succeed.”
I believe he just said that fat people are morally flawed, unable to accept responsibility for their own behavior. Does it matter that fat people routinely hold down jobs that require a great deal of responsibility? Or that they responsibly raise children? Or responsibly serve in their community? Somebody better tell Oprah that she’s better off begging in the streets.
Here are some sample tips with which to self-flagellate:
“Fat people believe diets don’t work. Fit people believe people don’t work.” That’s right – it’s not the diet that’s flawed, it’s you! This hones in on one oversimplification that the weight-loss industry loves to make: that if you just try hard enough you will lose weight. And that may true in the short term. It’s hardly ever true in the long term. There are a lot of contributing factors to losing weight and only one of them is raw willpower.
“Fat people believe 99% compliance is good. Fit people believe 99% compliance is failure.” The book goes on further to say, “Get tough and hold your feet to the fire. 99% compliance is failure. If you’re going to get fit, it’s all or nothing.” I ask you: how often has all-or-nothing thinking actually worked for you? Or anyone you know? Brittle people break. And I say that knowing that I am one. Also, if you comply with your diet 99% of the time, I daresay it will work for you. It absolutely is not failure. Any step towards better health should be considered a success.
I could go on but you get the point. It’s cruel, infuriating and trite. Yet the thing that bothers me most is how ubiquitous this approach is. It’s not just this one book. It’s endemic in our culture. And it’s what leads people to say things like, “Because I’m fat I’m gross and disgusting.” or “It doesn’t matter what I succeed at in life – no matter if I’m a good mother or a rock star or a CEO, if I’m fat I’m a failure.” or even “If were skinny, then I would be loved.” This breaks my heart.
Fat People are People First
For some reason, especially when it comes to weight and appearance, we seem to focus on the adjective before the personhood. This is evidenced by the multitudes of letters to various advice columnists asking some incarnation of “I’m not attracted to my significant other anymore because they’ve turned into a fat cow so how do I make them lose weight?” I hate these kinds of letters because they reduce a person – a person that you once loved enough to make some level of commitment to – to one single attribute. I’m not saying that it isn’t okay or even loving to want a loved one to lose weight for their health and happiness and I’m not saying that it isn’t normal to have your attraction wane as physical appearance changes. But that isn’t the end of the story – it’s the beginning.
Like any elderly couple can tell you, everyone loses their youthful beauty through some combination of illness, age and life circumstance (yes, even the Hollywood botox queens) so if that is all your love is based on, then it was never love in the first place. “But what if she dies young from being so overweight?” a concerned friend once asked me about his beloved and overweight spouse. “What if she dies thin, thinking your love is conditional?” was my reply. The love of the person has to come first. People who are truly, deeply, genuinely loved will then be open to making the changes that they need and want to make.
Fat shaming doesn’t work. Loving people is the only thing that does. So if loving people is the only thing that works, then why don’t more people use it? Because it takes more time, understanding and effort than just yelling, belittling and shaming. It’s harder. So now who is lacking in willpower?
I’ll admit I feel a little hypocritical writing about this because I still have significant angst about my own body. But maybe I don’t need to be perfect in my self acceptance? Maybe better is good enough? In the end, it turns out that shaming people about their weight (or shaming yourself about your weight) will get you the exact opposite of what you want. Unless what you want is to be a jerk. And then… I don’t know what to say to you.
Have you ever felt shamed for your weight? Does this new research surprise you or just reinforce what you already know? Do you have a good answer to the “…but I’m just concerned about your health!” line??
UPDATE: Reader Tom Levine added a link in the comments to a post he wrote about additional studies (including rat ones – with a picture of actual rat treadmills!!) that give more perspective and information on this topic. I found it so interesting I had to bump it up here so y’all can check it out! http://weightlessspace.com/2013/07/17/schilders-rat-ending-the-blame-game-on-obesity/