Fat Shaming: Bullying or Not?

Shame is a terrible feeling, but Daniel Callahan, a bioethicist with the Hastings Center, believes that causing shame is the solution to obesity. Incredibly, he believes that heaping more stigmas on the overweight will force them to lose weight to risk facing alienation. Numerous critics have noted the dangers of unnecessarily criticizing people for their shape, which is huge part of our self-esteem and image.  Shaming will undoubtedly make obese individuals feel bad, but simply picking on people does little to solve our national health problems. We can all identify with feeling dissatisfied or ashamed of our bodies, and reinforcing this low self-esteem without even proposing a positive course of action can do nothing but cause more issues.

Callahan’s argument is that stigmatization will encourage obese people to change their lifestyles, and he is not the only one to believe in more aggressive methods to encourage weight loss. Controversial ad campaigns, like the one started last year by Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, featured overweight children saying things like “Being fat takes the fun out of being a kid” and “It’s hard to be a little girl when you’re not.”  Unfortunately, these ad campaigns didn’t offer a solution; they only emphasized the problem. I’ve personally witnessed plenty of friends being bullied to shame, and I can’t associate a single positive change in anyone’s behavior with their experiences. Researchers know that stigmatization creates self-esteem problems, can lead to depression, and encourages the stigmatized to engage in even more unhealthy behaviors.  Thankfully, backlash against campaigns like the Georgian anti-obesity campaign were loud and strong as arguments against fat shaming were featured everywhere from CNN to our own Exchanges blog, but this mistaken belief in fat shaming continues to be offered as the solution to America’s health woes.

Even if this aggressive approach does drive people to action, does shame as a motivator promote healthy or unhealthy weight loss? By pressuring people to lose weight for the wrong reasons, we may be setting them on a track to develop eating problems down the road. Rapid weight loss driven by an extreme fear of fatness sounds a lot more like a recipe for disordered eating than a sound recommendation for a healthy lifestyle. We can all work toward breaking the thick ties between self-esteem and physical appearance.  Individuals supporting each other can have a greater, more helpful effect than shaming or negative feedback ever could!

(Additional information on this controversy can be found at this TODAY story: http://todayhealth.today.com/_news/2013/01/24/16664866-fat-shaming-may-curb-obesity-bioethicist-says?fb_action_ids=10151380519559452&fb_action_types=og.recommends&fb_ref=AddThis_Blogs&fb_source=aggregation&fb_aggregation_id=288381481237582)

By: Henry Seiler