Shame doesn’t help people lose weight.
Shame makes it worse!
I almost hit the roof when I read the online news item about a bio-ethicist who has suggested publicly shaming fat people into losing weight. This 82-year old apparently thinks that putting posters up might encourage people who are overweight to lose some of it. Really? Isn’t that already happening on a regular basis on a multimedia scale? I must first take a large breath – slowly inhale, then exhale – before I begin to respond to this overwhelmingly idiotic suggestion, however well-intentioned its author.
His main reasoning stems from the apparent success of publicly shaming smokers into quitting, by banning smoking in many public places (e.g., bars, restaurants, airports, etc.), which effectively socially ostracized smokers into ever smaller outdoor enclaves to do their dirty little deed. (When I smoked, those of us who went outside in all weathers used to call our backdoor hideout the ‘crack den’). This shaming technique, along with the torrents of anti-smoking information (still ongoing), apparently helped the bio-ethicist quit once and for all, and he thought why not apply this method to the growing problem of obesity.
A smoker, shivering outside in the cold, can finish the cigarette and return to the party, but a fat person, even if he/she loses a few pounds, is still fat whether inside at the party or outside in the cold.
To equate smoking – which some (not me) say is merely a habit and not an addiction – with weight loss is wrong on so many counts. As argued briefly in the article, smoking is a behavior, while being fat or overweight for any length of time is a condition, an element of someone’s body which too often becomes part of that person’s identity, and is with that person on a constant basis. A smoker, shivering outside in the cold, can finish the cigarette and return to the party, but a fat person, even if he/she loses a few pounds, is still fat whether inside at the party or outside in the cold.
The idea of shaming people into losing weight has no merit whatever. First of all, there is plenty of stigma and shame heaped on fat men and women already, in every walk of life, and it has not helped. In fact, it contributes to the problem. Someone noticeably overweight cannot go anywhere or do anything without being reminded that they are not a normal size (and hence, not normal). It can happen in restaurants with non-moveable chairs, on public transit and in movie theaters where seats are too small or uncomfortable, in public washrooms (including those in medical office buildings) where stalls are tiny, and in hospitals and doctor’s offices where gowns are too small. It can happen in countless shops, including clothing stores for large or plus-size people, where skinny mannequins model outfits and fashions that won’t look the same on them. And it can happen at news kiosks and bookstores where magazines display photos of people who do not look like them, and post mocking headlines above unflattering shots of any movie star, celebrity, or politician who has had the nerve to gain weight, or to look like they have gained weight. And this is only some of what goes on in the public sphere. The private sphere is another matter entirely.
The shame comes mainly from the false notion that fat or obese people choose to be the way they are, which is blatantly absurd. Why would anyone want to be an object of ridicule (and ridiculed they are) in every walk of life, and by almost every age and culture? They wouldn’t, of course. Fat people are generally perceived to lack will power and to be weak and lazy, because, so the story goes: they eat foods that are fattening, they eat too much, they don’t exercise enough and worst of all possible horrors, they do not seem to care about their appearance! In addition, fat people are thought to take up too much space, and to add to health care costs for the rest of us who are not so fat. I am going to attempt to answer only some of these shaming and mythical non-facts here.
Why would anyone want to be an object of ridicule (and ridiculed they are) in every walk of life, and by almost every age and culture?
But before I do, a brief disclaimer. When I refer to fat people, I do so with respect and the recognition that every person is a unique individual, and that what applies to some does not apply to all.
Response to Myth #1: Fat people do not choose to become fat – it is something that happens for a complex set of reasons. It may be for any one or a combination of the following: (a) they have dieted and regained the lost weight plus more – in some cases over and over again, hundreds of times over the years, until their bodies and psyches have adjusted to the famine-feast pattern, making weight loss ever more difficult; (b) they have gotten used to eating a lot, and haven’t learned how to resist the pressure to eat from their social and/or family circle, whose lives revolve around the fun of eating and food (e.g., company picnics, family barbeques, holiday dinners, nights out with the guys/gals); (c) they have unexplored emotional and psychic pain that eating and/or the cyclical famine-feast pattern keeps at bay; (d) there is a genetic component – many people in their families are overweight; (e) they have stopped caring about permanent weight loss, since it seems so futile, and try to come to terms with their size and shape and accept themselves as they are.
Response to Myth #2: Fat people already carry plenty of shame, about their size, and about who they are as people. Take, for example, the individual who has been on the lose-weight-gain-it-back roller-coaster ride for a long time. Imagine what that repeated failure can do to someone’s self esteem, when even slightly overweight men and women with healthy self-esteem tend to dislike their body image, and can even obsess about it at times.
Response to Myth #3: Fat people in general are no more weak-willed than any other member of the population. In fact, I would suggest that those who have dieted and lost weight numerous times have an astounding amount of will power. But they are judged as weak because they have gained the weight back. That isn’t weakness; it has to do with brain programming, metabolism and body set point, fear, and having to deal with the issues that were masked or buried by overeating. Anyone who has chosen to take the road less traveled of self-healing and self recovery is anything but weak-willed or lazy. Face your own inner demons before you make that judgement, please.
Response to Myth #4: Any attempt to shame someone into doing something is bound to fail, and have additional negative repercussions. Most likely, it will make people want to overeat more, which is one of the reasons why people do tend to be heavier – out of rebellion. This I know, from my therapy practice and from personal experience. I’ve tried to avoid writing about myself, but to no avail. So here it is.
I had a mother who shamed me because I was fat – frequently, and on more than a daily basis. In her own mind, she rationalized that she was doing this for my own good, but there was a strong sense of punishment for being such a ‘fat lump’ and embarrassing her. My mother had difficulty looking at me much of the time, and told me so. She couldn’t stand to see the sight of me! Wasn’t I ashamed of myself? Had I looked in the mirror lately? How could I do this to myself, and to her? Ad infinitum. After decades of working through these shaming statements, they still pour forth from my memory as if I had turned on a water faucet. She once even got the family doctor (who I had great difficulty forgiving) to warn me that no one would want to marry me if I didn’t lose weight (not an incentive at the time).
Any attempt to shame someone into doing something is bound to fail, and have additional negative repercussions.
Now, this was back in the day (about half a century ago), when being fat was unusual, and being obese – which I eventually grew into – was extremely rare. There were perhaps less than a handful of kids at my high school who would fit into this category (actually, one of the few things we could fit into! Ba-da-bing! I’m still making those fat jokes.) As a fat person, you learn to be self-deprecating pretty quickly. Say something self-derogatory about your weight; head the others off at the pass – so you won’t have to hear it from them. It was less painful that way.
The thing about the shame – I was ashamed of myself, and horribly so. I had tried so many times to lose the weight, to refrain from eating so much, but I couldn’t do it. This was incredibly confusing, and disheartening. Little did I know that I had what is now recognized as binge-eating disorder (BED), which is more prevalent now than anorexia or bulimia combined. The thing about my eating pattern, and part of the reason for my severe shame, was that I could not stop binge-eating once I started. And yet I judged myself, because it was only me shoveling the food into my mouth – no one else! It was only me who was stealing the food, and lying about it when confronted by an angry mother. It was only me who looked as big as a house, and who was eventually encouraged not to be seen in public with my parents, to save face for them.
My mother was tormented because she believed with her whole heart that weight loss was something I had control over. I thought so too, so we both hated me based on my failure to control my eating. (Little did any of us realize, back then, that I had what is becoming increasingly recognized as a sugar addiction, which heightened the cravings to binge-eat.)
I took cues about who I was from sources outside myself, rather than from my own internal cues. Anyone who loses weight based on external cues only is highly likely to regain that weight. The motivation has to come from the inside – because the journey from obesity to normal is not easy
I was in such turmoil that I tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to kill myself, because I just couldn’t do it – I couldn’t lose weight. As a teenager still living at home, I blamed my mother mostly. If she would just leave me alone, then maybe I could get a handle on things. But after I moved out on my own, I still couldn’t do it.
For many years I still kept trying and failing. At university, to impress I guy I met over the phone, I went on a stringent diet for over a month – coffee, gum and cafeteria Jello –until I fainted in the bathtub, and then promptly gained back whatever I’d lost. After I moved to Toronto, I got shots in the hip (pregnant mare urine) and ate 500 calories a day for several months; then gained it back when people at the office didn’t recognize me when I walked in one Monday in a tailored outfit and sporting a different hairdo. Hell, if they didn’t know who I was, then I had no point of reference, because my own had been external. Yes. I took cues about who I was from sources outside myself, rather than from my own internal cues. Anyone who loses weight based on external cues only is highly likely to regain that weight. The motivation has to come from the inside – because the journey from obesity to normal is not easy (an understatement).
I did not recognize my own internal cues because I did not know I had them. Fat had absorbed them, had deflected them from my awareness (only one of fat’s many purposes and functions, all unknown to me back then). I had lived from the head up; and was not in my body – I had a body, a very fat one, which I lugged around, and which took the brunt of my daily trials and tribulations. And yes, since I developed this binge-eating disorder as a preteen, I had many complex emotional and psychological problems that I managed by eating – despite the heavy toll (no pun intended) it took on my body and my psyche and my spirit.
I tell you all this because my story is not so unusual. Shame played a huge factor in my developing an eating disorder, as did getting fat and fatter. Hopelessness about forever being ‘fat and ugly’ eventually became pervasive, and I just stopped trying because I knew, from painful years of past experience, that I would fail. I have clients like that today – stuck in the shame and stuck in the failure, and my heart aches for them.
Ultimately, though, I succeeded, and I will tell you that self-acceptance, and acceptance by others who had struggled like me, was the key and the beginning of my long and continuing process of recovery. Acceptance. Not shame!
And now, this bio-ethicist with this bozo idea wants to add more shame to the already heaping pile of body image dung that already permeates modern media. Does he stop to consider the ethics of the billion dollar diet industry’s role? Does he look at the ethics of the high-fructose corn syrup lobby, and its ubiquitous hold not only on the junk food world, but also on the processed food sector? Does he look at the environmental contaminants that studies have shown can interfere with weight loss – contaminants in the air we breathe, in the food we eat, in the clothing we wear, woven into the fabrics and structures of our homes? Does he concern himself with the ethics of photo-shopped images, the use of body doubles in films, or the pressure on young people – men and women both – to look a certain way?
Probably not. Too complicated. Why not just pick an easy target – one that involves incredibly complex issues – and shame people about it, people who rarely fight back. I would like to know and understand this person’s history. He either never let himself get fat, or he is one of those lucky souls who can eat anything in any quantity and not gain weight, or even worse, was fat and now is no longer, and subscribes to the theory that if he could lose weight, well then so can everyone else (I will do another piece about this idea another time). He also comes from a generation when it was not unusual to use shame as a form of social control, as did my mother.
Ultimately I succeeded, and I will tell you that self-acceptance, and acceptance by others who had struggled like me, was the key and the beginning of my long and continuing process of recovery. Acceptance. Not shame!
Speaking of my mother, it wasn’t until after her death, while going through piles of old photographs, that I happened to find one that helped me put the final piece of the puzzle in place. There she stood, posing in her backyard, wearing a one piece bathing suit with those open-toed shoes so stylish in the early 1940’s, and looking rather coy. On the back of the photo, written to her darling husband (stationed overseas in WWII), she asked, “Do I look fat in this?” (Italics mine). It was then I realized that fear and loathing of fatness was her issue too, her own shame. And it became mine.