An online video of a self-described comedian criticising obese people and actively endorsing the use of “fat shaming” to scare people into losing weight has recently gone viral. The video has posed the question: is it acceptable to derogate and belittle people who are obese so that they will be more motivated to lose weight?
The idea that fat shaming is acceptable seems to be in part built on the premise that it will surely encourage a person to lose weight. Somebody needs to do something to scare these people into change, if only for their own good, right? Wrong. The problem with this line of reasoning is that it is completely flawed.
As an academic studying obesity, I care about evidence. At present, the evidence points very clearly in one direction: fat shaming or making people feel bad about their weight does not motivate successful weight loss or promote healthy changes to a person’s lifestyle. In fact, it does quite the opposite.
A series of studies have now shown that exposing overweight individuals to stigmatising information about obesity or “fat shaming” is associated with adverse outcomes; this kind of experience is stressful, upsetting and it actually causes over-eating.
Multiple research studies have also shown that experiencing fat shaming or being treated poorly because of your weight is not conducive to weight loss. Instead, it is in fact associated with greater weight gain; it exacerbates obesity. My research team recently tested the hypothesis that people who are conscious about the fact that they are overweight might be more motivated to lose weight. Again, our results painted a very different picture to what a pro-fat shaming line of reasoning would argue. The people who went on to gain the most weight in our research were actually those who were already conscious that they were “overweight”.
This pattern of results isn’t too surprising to researchers from a social or health psychology background. Stigma and feeling bad about yourself is known to interfere with your ability to lead a healthy lifestyle and can be chronically damaging to health.
Regardless of whether fat shaming is a good or bad thing for weight management, we also now know that people who feel shamed and discriminated against because of their weight are far more likely to develop mental health conditions, including eating disorders and depression. More speculatively, my guess is that a world in which fat shaming and derogation of weight are acceptable is also one in which some adolescents noticing perfectly healthy changes to their developing bodies may begin to develop unhealthy concerns about their weight.
It’s clear that fat shaming and belittling people who have issues with their weight is likely to be causing a lot more harm than good. This is why such blatant fat shaming gets to me.
Although efforts to shame and belittle fellow human beings can be a stark reminder of how horrible people can be to each other, it does offer us the opportunity to highlight and discuss how damaging this kind of behaviour is. Perhaps we can be hopeful too though, as although it is far from an accurate scientific indicator of true public opinion, the last time I looked up the video, there had been more viewers disagreeing with the sentiments shared in the video and clicking “dislike”, than “like”.