Fat shaming works just fine

A study published last year in the journal Obesity found that fat shaming is not at all effective in terms of getting people to lose weight. In fact, the researchers found that some study subjects actually gained weight after experiencing perceived weight discrimination, and that the risk of becoming clinically obese increased for those who had been fat shamed. So if the goal is to make people lose weight by targeting their bodies, then no, fat shaming does not work, and in fact has the opposite effect.

That has big implications for things like those obnoxious signs on elevators with pictures of fat people and orders to ‘take the stairs.’ It has huge implications for campaigns that plaster pictures of fat people everywhere and suggest that they’re diseased whales clogging the landscape with their ill health. It requires a fundamental rethinking of the way weight loss and outreach programmes are handled — if the goal is to get fat people to lose weight.

But here’s the thing. The goal of fat shaming is not to get people to lose weight, and people who claim that it is are lying to both themselves and the public. The purpose is, quite simply, to make fat people feel ashamed. It’s right there in the language we use to refer to it — this isn’t just a turn of phrase we use to identify a social phenomenon, but a very clear and explicit definition of what is happening here. People who fat shame don’t do it for the good of fat people, because they think people should lose weight and they believe this kind of language is an incentive, because they’re looking out for the interests of individuals and society as a whole. They are doing it, quite simply, because they wish to take snipes at the self esteem and self-worth of fat people. Because fatness, for them, may as well be a criminal offense.

In that sense, fat shaming is often highly effective. This study shows us that it doesn’t necessarily work as part of weight loss programmes, but that’s not really the point, and it never was. A better question might be how fat shaming affects self esteem, and why that matters, and not just in the context of whether it can be used to compel people to lose weight by making them feel embarrassed by their own bodies. Self esteem is an intrinsic value and no one should feel a sense of worthlessness on the basis of physical appearance, period.

The culture of fat shaming in our society is so pervasive and so stark that fat people encounter it at every turn. It’s not just enough to make fat people feel awful about their bodies. It also colludes to keep fat people out of the public eye. It becomes difficult to find clothes, especially off the rack, for people above a certain size. It’s challenging to find chairs that fit your body — and you are blamed for this, rather than the designer of said chairs or the business that chooses to use them. Narrow aisles conspire against you in stores to make it hard to maneuver — just the other day, I was in a store that I had to leave because I was at such risk of knocking things over and breaking something or making a mess, simply because I was fat and in public.

These physical barriers are accompanied by psychological ones. The hostile stares, the people who shift away from you on ferry benches, the sneering, the close monitoring of whatever’s on your plate, the pointed comments pitched so you can hear them, the insults hurled directly at you by people who are confident in the belief that no one will intervene and tell them that what they are doing is not appropriate. Those psychological barriers are the most pernicious part of fat shaming, reminding fat people that they are not wanted in society on any level unless they can lose weight — the slew of weight loss shows on television, the before and after ads in the paper, the endless diet talk around the water cooler, the self-denigrating comments made by careless friends, all of these things conspire to create an atmosphere of social pressure and self-hatred. If you’re fat, you’re worthless, and you should rectify this situation as quickly as possible.

In that landscape, it’s not surprising that many people feel bad about themselves. But it’s not because they’re fat and there’s something inherently wrong about fat. It’s because the people around them want them to feel bad. And it works. It works with crushing regularity and intensity. Fat people become less willing to go out. Less inclined to engage in physical activity in public for fear of mockery and abuse — the very thing people tell them to do is rendered inaccessible by fat shaming. Fat people start to feel more insular, more trapped, less able to live the lives they want to live and to find peace in their bodies, to discover joyful movement, to represent the range of diversity in body size and shape.

Fat shaming most definitely works, when you consider that it is designed to foster self-hatred and isolationist tendencies. Fat shaming makes fat people ashamed of their bodies and encourages them to stay in where no one can see them, far, far from the public eye. It encourages fat people to self-harm, to push themselves beyond safe limits, to hide away until they have the bodies they’re ‘supposed’ to have. And it’s not just fat people who suffer — it encourages disordered eating and low self esteem among people of smaller sizes who become convinced that society hates their bodies, too, that ‘perfection’ is a vague goal that they will never reach.

Society doesn’t care about the psychological damage that fat shaming causes, nor does it really care about the ‘health’ of fat people, so it’s going to go right on fat shaming, no matter what the findings of studies like this one say.

Image: The Fat Woman (Aubrey Beardsley, Tate London), GR L, Flickr