Have you ever called someone “Tubs” or made a comment such as “You’re not going to eat that, are you” to an overweight person about an extra scoop or ice cream or slice of cake? Those comments are considered “fat-shaming.” And not only are they not helping that person to lose weight: They actually are making the situation worse, according to a new study reported by NBC News on July 26.
“Weight discrimination, in addition to being hurtful and demeaning, has real consequences for the individual’s physical health,” commented study author Angelina Sutin, a psychologist and assistant professor at the Florida State University College of Medicine in Tallahassee, Fla. Does the fat shaming and bullying continue? Yes. NBC reported on evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller’s fat-shaming tweet: “Dear obese PhD applicants: if you didn’t have the willpower to stop eating carbs, you won’t have the willpower to do a dissertation #truth.”
And although Professor Miller deleted that tweet and apologized, others are not so quick to admit they were wrong. A 2011 public health campaign in Georgia attempted to battle childhood obesity by crafting ads showcasing plump kids. The slogans: “Big bones didn’t make me this way. Big meals did.” And many contend that attitude – which implies that fat people and children lack self-control and willpower as well as the judgement to choose wisely – is harmful. Spend a day walking in the shoes of an overweight adult or child and you’ll probably hear comments such as “Wow, that person’s fat,” or from a child “Tubby, tubby, two-by-four, can’t get through the bathroom door.”
“The Biggest Loser” recently showcased the emotional pain and physical problems of overweight children on its show. Bottom line, says the show’s pediatric expert Dr. Joanna Dolgoff, parents should put their overweight children on diets but do it carefully to avoid shaming them. She’s even authored a book to help in the process: “Red Light, Green Light, Eat Right: The Food Solution That Lets Kids Be Kids.”
Fat shaming and fat prejudice remains “socially acceptable,” admits Madelyn Fernstrom, NBC News health and diet editor. But that bullying results in psychological harm that exacerbates weight gain, such as depression, anxiety and humiliation.
“Stigma and discrimination are really stressors, and, unfortunately, for many people, they’re chronic stressors,” says Rebecca Puhl, deputy director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University. Puhl has studied weight bias and discrimination for 13 years. “And we know that eating is a common reaction to stress and anxiety — that people often engage in more food consumption or more binge eating in response to stressors, so there is a logical connection here in terms of some of the maladaptive coping strategies to try to deal with the stress of being stigmatized.”
A recent sea change occurred when the American Medial Association took the unprecedented step of terming obesity a “disease.” How will that impact the fat-shaming and social acceptance of bullying fat people? Pulhl feels positive. “I think time will tell. I think that there is reason to think it will be helpful — that this could potentially reduce stigma because it may help remove blame that is so often put on people,” Puhl says. “But I think we need to observe this over time to see what happens.”