The Science of Fat-Shaming
Attitudes toward obesity and weight can spark body image issues, insecurity, and eating disorders from a young age. Here, how it starts—and how to stop it
Fat-shaming is everywhere: From others, from the media, and perhaps most sadly, from ourselves. As the number of obese and overweight people skyrockets-current stats from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say it's more than two-thirds of adults-the more it seems we hate ourselves for it. And the more we hate fat, the more we shame people who have it. But does fat-shaming actually work? Does it help us lose weight? The answer is pretty definitive: No. (Check out these 6 Inspiring Women Who Are Redefining Body Standards.)
Fat-Shaming Starts Young
Anti-fat attitudes start very young, according to a study published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology. Researchers surveyed mothers of young children about their attitudes toward weight gain. They then showed images of two people, one obese and one not, to babies and toddlers. The babies preferred to look at pictures of the larger people, but by 18 months the trend had reversed. The toddlers looked more at the normal-weight pictures. And the more the mothers reported anti-fat attitudes, the more toddlers preferred to view skinnier adults. Researchers aren't trying to blame the mothers, but rather show that prejudices are internalized at a young age, often because our primary caregivers teach us to feel certain ways.
And make no mistake: The effects of anti-fat attitudes go far beyond picture-book preferences. As children grow into teens, these attitudes can lead them to shame others and themselves for their weight, even though some weight gain is a normal part of puberty. This shame can lead to disordered eating behaviors. A second study, published in the Journal of Early Adolescence, found that almost all obese teen girls had been teased about their weight. Of those, 70 percent said they went on a crash diet or starved themselves, 33 percent reported overeating to try and feel better, and 12 percent said they binged and purged. But perhaps saddest of all, every single one of the girls in the study said they hated their bodies and wished they were thinner.
Adults Feel It Too
It's not just teens who respond to fat-shaming with unhealthy behaviors. Adults who feel ashamed of their weight have worse overall health than people of a similar weight who aren't shamed for it, according to a pair of studies, published earlier this year in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine. Researchers discovered that those women who reported the highest amount of body-shame had more infections, lower self-rated health, and more symptoms of illness, like diarrhea and headaches.
"Shaming may have short term positive results, such as giving someone the motivation to even consider they might be unhealthy. But the continued act of shaming, as shown in these studies, can lead to unhealthy habits such as eating disorders along with low self esteem and depression," says Geneviève Dubois, a certified nutritionist and author of GiGi Eats Celebrities.
In addition to encouraging unhealthy habits, a separate study from last year found that fat-shaming doesn't lead people to lose weight, even if it does inspire them to go on more diets. People in that study said they thought that saying humiliating things to themselves (or others) would spur weight loss, but the researchers found it actually had the opposite effect: weight gain. People who reported feeling shamed for their weight gained about 3.5 more pounds than people who said their weight received no attention.
What We Can Do About It
For those who feel ashamed of their weight, Dubois says love is a powerful antidote. She explains that having a strong support system of family and friends can help you put the pounds into perspective. She also encourages people to find hobbies and ways to exercise that will build their sense of self and enjoyment rather than focusing on weight loss. Finally, she says that you might want to seek help from a therapist to help you get rid of entrenched thoughts.
And as for anti-fat attitudes? It's important that we fight them because it seems the science is clear: From birth to adulthood, fat-shaming people can cause serious and long-lasting mental and physical harm.